Modric does everything well. Well, he does everything well outside of winning headers — he’s listed at 5’8, which is probably generous. But other than that, there’s nothing Modric does poorly on a soccer field.
He’s quick, even at age 33. He can run all day. (He had run 40 miles in the tournament before the final.) He’s an underrated tackler. He can play under pressure, using his agility and quickness to get that yard of space he needs to make a pass, and he can do that over and over again, no matter who’s defending him.
But what’s always stuck out to me about Modric is his decision-making on a field. For Real Madrid, for Croatia, Modric has always stuck out to me as someone who always makes the right decision. The smart play.
And then, once or twice a game, he won’t make the smart play. And that’s what makes him so dangerous.
Soccer is a terribly confusing sport. Even for the best in the world, it can be confusing. Twenty two people are running around at once, moving constantly around a big field. Areas of the pitch can seem wide open one second and then collapse into nothing a second later. A clear path to goal can suddenly be filled with defenders. Everyone is moving, making thousands of individual decisions every game, and it’s all happening in real time.
Many coaches try to simplify the game for this very reason. Players are taught where to look for passing angles. Forwards are taught what lanes to run into. Midfielders are instructed to form little triangles around the field relative to their teammates, so as to provide passing angles that are hard to defend.
The goal is to limit the decisions that need to be made in real time, to make the next pass easy. It’s to take those 22 moving bodies in space and try to make it as easy as possible for a player who maybe has a half second to make a call. Sometimes this can get really simple, especially if you’re playing in, say, Scotland or the United States. If no one is open, kick it up to a striker who makes a run to the corner. Striker, lay it back to a midfielder. If you get in trouble, huff it up the field. Simplify. Simplify.
Again, this is true even at the very top levels of the game. Players learn where defenders usually are conceding space, and then they make the smart play to get the ball into that space. Find the open man, move it along. If there’s no open man, find the open space, and play it safe.
That can only get you so far, though. To truly be a brilliant team, you need someone who doesn’t make the smart play. Rather, you need someone who takes the flow of the game and unravels it. Who sees through the mass of bodies and doesn’t just make the correct decision but, sometimes, makes a decision that no one even thought of before.
That’s Modric. He’s the man who makes the right play nine times in a row, then on the tenth, makes the pass that unlocked the entire thing. He plays simply, he plays simply, he plays simply, right up until the moment he doesn’t.
Croatia were a wonderful World Cup team. They had tenacity. They had toughness. They had Mandzukic up top, always fighting for every inch, winning the 50-50 balls, making the right runs to free up space for teammates. They had Ante Rebic and Marcelo Brozovic, running around like madmen in the midfield, pestering defenders and getting into dangerous positions. They had the crushing tackles of Dejan Lovren and the free safety-esque covering runs from Demagoj Vida. They had the individual flair and tireless running off the ball from Ivan Perisic. They had the brilliant passing and positional awareness and work rate of Ivan Rakitic.
But they needed an artist. They needed someone who wasn’t just there to work hard and do the selfless thing. They needed someone who could take a moment of nothing and make magic. That was Modric. He was the Golden Ball winner not only because he ran a lot, or made the right passes every time, but because a few times a game he saw something none of us could see, and the ability to bring that vision to reality.
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