One of the most difficult tasks managers have faced throughout the past decade is succeeding Jose Mourinho. Normally the introduction of a new manager ignites a spark in the dressing room, as players believe their role in the squad could be threatened or enhanced, but Mourinho’s departures presented a rigorous challenge at Real Madrid.
The bond Mourinho builds with his players are usually inimitable – look no further than Didier Drogba breaking down into tears when Mourinho left Chelsea, or the footage between the Portuguese manager and Marco Materazzi after Inter Milan’s Champions League triumph.
Drogba is one of the most dominant strikers of his generation, whom struck fear into the heart of the opposition backline. Likewise, Materazzi was a stone cold enforcer that didn’t tolerate nonsense – the former and the latter weren’t renowned for being emotional characters, so the tears shed during Mourinho’s departure exemplify his personal impact.
It’s surreal to see grown men of their stature shed tears for Mourinho, but the decline his former teams encountered was alarming. Porto hasn’t come close to contending for the Champions League since their triumph in Gelsenkirchen, only now is Chelsea developing the consistency needed to challenge for the Premier League title – apart from their triumph in 2010 – while Inter Milan is no longer a contender for the Scudetto, nor are they in any European competition.
However, Real Madrid was different. The Portuguese manager fell out of favor with the supporters and his players, thus leading to Mourinho’s first trophy-less season of his career – subsequently, Mourinho was sacked. Carlo Ancelotti was chosen to follow the path of Victor Fernandez, Avram Grant and Rafa Benitez, but unlike Mourinho’s previous sides, Madrid was eager to return to the top of Spain and Europe.
The early stages of Ancelotti’s tenure were challenging, especially with the absence of Gareth Bale and Xabi Alonso, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals kept Madrid afloat. Yet, with the La Liga title race into the final stretch, Ancelotti’s men sit three points behind league leaders Atletico Madrid, and most recently battered their cross-town rivals by three goals in the Copa del Rey.
Madrid remains undefeated in 2014, conceding one goal – a Ibai Gomez screamer – and Ancelotti believes balance has been pivotal towards their success. “The most important thing is the balance we have at the moment; it’s the key. We defend and attack very well,” Ancelotti said following a win against Granada.
A key feat in Madrid’s hot form was the permanent change to a 4-3-3 that has seen Xabi Alonso, Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric form an imperious midfield trio. Ancelotti has always been keen on including playmakers in his midfield, to compliment his possession-based system by controlling central areas.
Alonso is the deep-lying playmaker that connects play with the attack with long-diagonal balls. Di Maria is now playing in a role similar to the one he adopts for Argentina – he drives forward to join the attack, and while he does sit centrally, he ensures the opposition doesn’t overload the left-back. Then there’s Modric – a dynamic, diminutive, controlling playmaker that’s arguably been Madrid’s star performer this season.
Modric’s first season at the Santiago Bernabeu was underwhelming by the Croatian’s standards, as he failed to adapt to Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1. Mourinho was keen on bringing in Modric after Toni Kroos’ terrific performance in the 2012 Champions League semi-final, and he believed the Croatian could fulfill the role.
However, Modric was unable to settle in an advanced position, whereas his role in the double-pivot alongside Xabi Alonso left the Spaniard vulnerable against counter-attacks. Modric was unable to express himself in Mourinho’s two-man midfield, but he still provided moments of brilliance such as his Champions League goal at Old Trafford against Manchester United.
Perhaps, with a mobile defensive holding midfielder Modric may have succeeded, but Mourinho was reluctant on playing two ball-playing midfielders in front of his backline. Yet, in the second leg of last season’s Champions League semi-final against Borussia Dortmund, Modric was the key man as Jurgen Klopp’s men aimed to nullify Alonso’s threat. United did this admirably in the round of 16, pressing Alonso and allowing Sami Khedira – not the greatest passer – to sustain possession.
With Modric as the second pivot, Dortmund was unsure of how to cope with his threat. The Croatian completed 88 percent of his passes, but also freed up space for Alonso to influence the match. As time passed in Mourinho’s tenure, opponents began to realize the importance of Alonso, and even now, as Ancelotti has moved to a 4-3-3, Modric’s significance in the side has increased.
Most recently in matches against Athletic Bilbao and Atletico, Modric was the key man – he provided an additional passing outlet when Alonso was pressed, and was Madrid’s most reliable passer, while providing penetration with his silky runs through midfield.
Ancelotti who’s been an admirer of the Croatian for some time has recently praised Modric’s impact on Madrid’s attack. “His finest quality is getting through with the ball. At the start of the season he seemed to be a little bit lacking in personality but now he is displaying a lot of character, and it is very important to have personality. Modric is changing the rhythm of the way we play in attack,” Ancelotti said.
Although Modric’s frail figure puts him at a disadvantage, nor is he the greatest tackler, the Croatian relentlessly hounds the opposition in search of possession. He’s usually the first man from midfield to close down defenders, as his dynamic presence forces his opponent into mistakes.
In attack, the Croatian nonchalantly glides from box-to-box evading challenges reminiscent to the ones he received as a 17-year-old while playing at Zrinjski Mostar in Bosnia. Modric feels that experienced helped him toughen up, as the hits inflicted and the nature of the game was rough.
Nonetheless, it’s Modric’s passing ability that is often overlooked. The Croatian’s ability to retain possession is extraordinary – he quickly switches the route of attack from flank to flank, and his willingness to play a penetrating pass is invigorating. Only Barcelona’s midfield trio – Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets – better Modric’s 90 percent passing rate in La Liga. In terms of assists, tackling and pass completion rates, this has been the Croatian’s best season of his career, as he’s slowly molding into the player many Madridstas envisioned.
“I’m in great form right now. Playing in pre-season was important for me. It’s key to have the coach’s fully backing and trust. That’s why I’m playing better. I also have a great relationship with the fans. They’ve always had my back and that has made things easier for me,” Modric told Marca.
Ancelotti’s decision to modify his formation has been beneficial – despite a sudden Ronaldo goal-scoring drought. As devastating as Ancelotti’s men can be in attack, their overall shape without the ball has improved with an extra man in midfield. Di Maria diligently moves to the left to prevent overloads, while Gareth Bale, and Jese complete their required defensive duties. Now, Madrid is consistently keeping clean-sheets, and their midfield trio has provided a mixture of proficient passing, guile, grit, and dynamism.
Ancelotti’s Madrid is finally taking shape, and with Barcelona encountering issues both on and off the field, and Atletico’s slim squad, a cup double isn’t far-fetched. Modric, however, has flourished under the side’s new possession-based system, producing genuine world-class performances.
Twelve months ago, the Croatian was voted as the worst signing of La Liga, now, he’s become a key cog in a Madrid shirt – Modric can finally call the Bernabeu home.