Wednesday April 25th, 2012 looked like it was going to be the perfect night for Real Madrid supporters. Eventual winners Chelsea had knocked rivals Barcelona out of the Champions League semi-finals the night prior, courtesy of a resilient defensive display; while a 14-minute brace from Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo put Los Merengues 3-2 ahead on aggregate against Bayern Munich with a vital away goal. Arguably the best team in the world, with arguably the best coach and player in Jose Mourinho and Ronaldo, were 76 minutes away from a trip to Munich.
The result was in Madrid’s hands and you couldn’t bet against them returning to the Champions League final as favourites, to play Mourinho’s former team Chelsea. As the Santiago Bernabeu erupted after Ronaldo’s well-taken goal, there was a man connected to Madrid that still looked worried, and that man was Mourinho. He told his men to calm down and slow down the tempo of the match, but for the last 106 minutes of the game, Bayern was the superior side.
Penalty kicks haunted Mourinho for the third time at the semi-final stage as Ronaldo, Kaka and Sergio Ramos failed to convert their shots. Bastian Schweinsteiger stepped to the spot and coolly put his shot past Casillas, and Mourinho immediately walked down the tunnel, knowing he’d been comfortably defeated over two legs. It was an impressive display by Bayern Munich, but one player stood out over the two legs and his name was Toni Kroos. Kroos was the type of player that Madrid didn’t possess, which could explain why Mourinho still looked worried after taking a two-goal lead early in the game.
Despite playing in a more advanced role, Kroos was able to drop into the midfield to create 3v2 situations against Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. It gave Bayern that extra passing option but it also allowed them to retain possession easily. Alonso and Khedira didn’t know whom to press when Bayern did have the ball and the extra man in Kroos, made it difficult for them to play balls out wide or to Ozil, who was playing in an advanced role high up the pitch. Kroos’ tactical discipline stamped Bayern’s control on the game, as Madrid was unable to construct quality build up play, which left Ozil isolated with striker Karim Benzema. Madrid lacked a player of Kroos’ nature that could link up with the wingers and strikers, but who also had the ability to drop into a midfield three, when they didn’t have possession.
Mourinho could only watch his side struggle against Bayern over those two legs, but during the summer the Portuguese manager was keen to find a solution to his problem. On August 27th, 2012, Croatian midfielder Luka Modric signed a 5-year deal with Real Madrid for a fee around £33m. It was a difficult transfer saga, but Mourinho was able to lure away Modric from Tottenham, and add another world-class talent to his squad. Modric is a player who excels in a deep lying role stringing passes across the pitch in an authoritative manner. The Croatian playmaker provides energy in the midfield, and is able to play out wide or in an advanced role due to his versatility.
In his first appearance as a Madrid player, Modric was able to claim the Spanish Super Cup as Madrid defeated Barcelona over two legs. It was a fantastic start for Modric at Madrid, but since then things have gone a bit sour. A poll on Spanish website Marca claimed Modric was the worst signing in La Liga, and the Croatian playmaker had this to say,
“I am not looking to make excuses because I am not that sort of a person, but it is a real challenge to adapt to a great club like Real Madrid.”
“There have been some good performances, not in every game, but in general I feel that I have showed that I can offer something.”
Modric has struggled to crack into the first team, but to be fair not many would dispatch Xabi Alonso or arguably Europe’s most improved player in Sami Khedira. It’s never easy to join a big club in another country and instantly make an impact. It’s fair to say Modric on his day is better than both Khedira and Alonso, but to come into an environment where you’re heavily under the microscope takes adjusting too. With Alonso aging, Modric is the perfect replacement for the Spanish midfielder and this season could allow Modric to settle not only into Spanish football but into an elite club before being in charge of dictating play in the midfield.
Modric also claimed that he’s shown that he could offer something to Madrid, and the Croatian was right.
Is it possible that Mourinho purchased Modric to add an element to his squad that he lacked against Bayern last season?
Real Madrid traveled to the Ethiad to face Manchester City in a game that finished 1-1. Modric was employed as the advanced midfielder that night, and he had one of his best games in a Madrid shirt. While City was in a back three, he did a great job in nullifying Yaya Toure. When Madrid didn’t have the ball he dropped deep to create a three-man midfield, and he did a great job linking play with Ronaldo and Benzema who were in advanced positions. A tactical change from Roberto Mancini, and Alvaro Arbeloa’s sending off allowed City back into the game, but on that night we saw how vital Modric might be to Madrid’s quest for a 10th Champions League crown.
Kroos’ performance at the Bernabeu was flawless and earlier this week we witnessed an equivalent display at the Emirates. Madrid lacked a player with ability and tactical IQ to perform that duty, which is why Modric is another vital piece to Madrid’s Champions League puzzle. Winning the midfield battle in away ties on European nights against elite sides is vital, if you intend on winning this competition, and this is where Modric should be utilized.
An away trip to Old Trafford is what awaits Real Madrid, and failure to progress to the quarterfinals, will cost Mourinho his job and classify this season as unsuccessful by Madrid standards. Domestically, Madrid has been a shadow of what they were last year, but Mourinho has been able to get his troops to rise to the occasion this season in important cup-ties.
Mourinho was brought into Madrid to dethrone Barcelona and conquer Europe.
He dethroned an injury-plagued Barcelona last season in a fantastic manner, and this season European success looks to be the main goal.
The inclusion of Modric into the squad not only offers his side more quality, but also an element they lacked last season.
Mourinho and Ronaldo are instrumental to Madrid’s success, but it’s safe to say that Modric’s performances over the next few months will be integral to how successful Madrid will be this season.
As bizarre as it may sound, the worst La Liga signing this season is Madrid’s most important player on their quest for European glory.