The Premier League is a division where a defensive, deep-lying, midfielder’s performance is often measured by how many stud marks they have left on opposition players. The stereotypical defensive midfielder will be a muscular, imposing figure that is famed for his tackling ability – Nigel De Jong, Cheick Tioté, Karl Henry are just a few examples that fit into this mould. In England a crunching tackle is appreciated like nowhere else. Yet, away from the Premier League defensive midfielders generally are expected to perform in a different manner. They are expected to be the passer of the team, a creative outlet that creates space and finds a simple pass, or at least a pass that they have the ability to make look simple. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets are perfect examples in La Liga, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger perfected it for Germany. In England these players are rarely publicised, tactical experts regularly argue the case of Michael Carrick for Manchester United, a player who supposedly offers very little.
Whilst Gareth Bale has regularly received plaudits for his role in Tottenham’s recent success, and justifiably so, and Rafael Van Der Vaart makes the £8 million Harry Redknapp paid for him look like a steal, further adding to the case of Redknapp’s “wheeler dealer” ability, Luka Modrić, at the heart of Tottenham’s midfield, has gone relatively un-noticed. Converted from an attacking midfielder to play as a deep-lying one by Redknapp, Modrić’s talents have been showcased in his new position.
Modrić cuts a rather unremarkable figure; scrawny and with scruffy hair he breaks the mould of a conventional defensive midfielder. Yet, there can be no doubting his tenacity. Against Chelsea he made 9 tackles, the second highest amount on the pitch – only Bale made more – and three more than his midfield partner Wilson Palacios, who’s tackling ability is held in high regard. When Modrić joined Tottenham this particular skill wasn’t widely known; a good technical player and supremely creative, not many would have predicted that the slender Croatian, who is only 5ft 8inches, would have adapted to the deep-lying midfield role with consummate ease.
The former Dinamo Zagreb midfielder’s best asset is, arguably, his passing range and this ability has come to the forefront in his new position too. Modrić completed 51 passes against Newcastle, in one of Spurs’ most recent games, and made an assist although the goal relied much on the brilliance of Gareth Bale. This was a considerably higher total than any other player on the pitch. A stat further backed up by his performance against Manchester United, in Tottenham’s latest game, where Modrić attempted 77 passes, completing 64 of them – over 20 more than anybody else on the pitch. He also played an integral part in Tottenham’s first goal against Aston Villa, where Spurs went on to win 2-0, spreading a 50 yard pass magnificently into the feet of Lennon and taking numerous Villa players out of the game in the process.
Tottenham are a side that have always been credited for playing an attractive passing game but rarely has it been this effective, this is certainly Spurs’ best period in recent times. Van Der Vaart has gone on record to credit the football that Tottenham play – “I think everyone likes Tottenham and the way we play. It is like the Dutch style” – and it is certainly entertaining. At the helm of this is Luka Modrić, he is the heartbeat of the team, and it is no surprise to see him getting acclaim from many inside the game. Slavan Bilic, his former national team manager, has stated that “he is the best player in Europe” and Redknapp is also generous in his praise saying that Modrić “could play for any team in the world”.
Spurs’ season, and year for that matter, has been a brilliant one so far. They have a good chance of maintaining Champions League football again next season and it is likely that Gareth Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart will be largely credited with any success Tottenham have. Both have been in scintillating form this season and deserve the praise. Yet, Modrić’s role deserves to be heralded equally. Breaking the mould he goes about his business quietly but with ruthless efficiency. But the un-sung protagonist, it seems, would want it no other way.