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Marvellous Modrić: Tottenham’s Central Figure in their 2010-11 Season…

January 18, 2011

There are no two ways about it: Harry Redknapp has put together a Tottenham Hotspur side capable of challenging for the Premier League title. Sure, they might not ultimately win it, but they are certainly one of the key protagonists in the 2010-11 campaign. Spurs have graduated from Champions League gatecrashers of last season to title contenders of this, and although Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart have been the headline-grabbers, it has been the performance of Luka Modrić in central midfield that has perhaps had the most telling impact on Tottenham’s latest step-up in standards.

With Bale’s prominence on the left-flank forcing Modrić infield and van der Vaart’s arrival to play just off the front man pushing the Croat into a deeper central midfield role, one might have assumed the diminutively statured winger would struggle in such a position. It is testament to Modrić’s commensurate talents however that he has been a revelation for the Spurs side in this new role, making the position his own in a way Redknapp and Spurs fans could only have dreamed of.

Playing in central midfield, Modrić finds himself being offered the ball with a far greater frequency, with passes coming from both flanks as well as from defenders and strikers alike. It is a tough role to play, demanding awareness and composure, as well as the obvious natural football skills that such a role requires. There is more pressure on players in this position as his performance can dictate the team’s level of performance. A good day for Modrić is usually a good day for Spurs; an off day for the man in the middle and, well, you get the gist.

Consequently it becomes a matter worthy of significant attention that Modrić has performed this role with such aplomb. Spurs Assistant Manager Joe Jordan proudly praises the Croat, stating ‘he has grasped the responsibility of playing in that role and he has been first class.’ Modrić has achieved this by controlling a frequently congested area of the pitch with a calm and graceful air of assurance. It is a fiercely contested and competitive environment, yet – in the words of the beeb’s Phil McNulty – Modrić repeatedly stands out as ‘he finds time and space to pick out colleagues, switch the direction of play and display a rare vision.’ In short, Modrić truly is ‘a marvel to watch.’

He is undoubtedly aided in this challenging central role by a skill-set learnt whilst plying his trade as a winger, and is further aided by his diminutive stature and low centre of gravity which enables him to manoeuvre body and ball away from opponents and into space. ‘No matter who’s trying to close him down, he’ll take the ball, very rarely lose it and, more often than not, create something,’ continues Jordan.

Those two words, ‘create something,’ are integral to his earning of praise too. Many players might see a lot of the ball in a game, but quantity does not guarantee quality. However, Modrić’s composure on the ball and ability to distribute successfully frequently allow Tottenham’s most potent weapons – widely regarded as Bale and van der Vaart – to come to the fore. Although those two might garner the statistical plaudits of numerous goals and assists, it is undoubtedly telling that many observers of the game will testify to Modrić’s ability to play the pass that leads to the assist for a goal. Bale and van der Vaart – and by virtue of this, Tottenham too – are benefitting quite considerably from the Croat’s conversion to a play-making central midfielder.

He has adjusted to this crucial role with all the ease of one of his opponent-eliminating turns. It is a role that Manchester United have traditionally relied on Paul Scholes for and the role that Arsenal’s Cesc Fàbregas now sets the standard for, so it is perhaps revealing that Modrić was the stand-out player in Tottenham’s recent encounter with a Scholes-less United at the weekend and that the Croat was Spurs’ string-puller in their 3-2 triumph at the Emirates earlier this season. It is equally significant that he was absent for two of Tottenham’s more disappointing league results this campaign – the draw against West Brom and the shock home defeat to then-bottom of the table Wigan. Furthermore, a quick watch of the highlights video below from Tottenham’s White Hart Lane encounter with Inter Milan reveals the extent to which Modrić is able to influence games from his new central position, repeatedly ghosting past opponents whilst finding space and time for him and his teammates.

Modrić’s influential role in Tottenham’s attempt to join the league’s elite came to head last weekend in the goalless draw against Manchester United. Sunday’s game was important for two reasons. Firstly, on a team level, Spurs took on the marginal title favourites (United are joint top with two games in hand), went toe-to-toe and came out equal, thereby confirming their rightful place amongst the title contenders this season. As Redknapp remarked afterwards, ‘we are not a million miles behind all these other teams […] we believe we are not inferior to any of them.’

Secondly, on a personnel level, Modrić gave the sort of performance that highlighted just how integral he has become to Spurs (and just what United might well be missing), earning widespread acclaim in a match which, although it finished goalless, he stood out as the game’s dominant creative influence. Modrić earned praise from his manager, with Redknapp noting: ‘there was talk about a lack of space and time out there but he kept finding it. His touch and awareness [were] fantastic.’

Indeed, as the Telegraph’s respected football columnist Henry Winter asserted afterwards, despite all the pre-match focus being on Bale and van der Vaart, ‘it was Luka Modric who commanded the attention with his relentless hunger for the ball, even in the tightest of corners.’ Such has been the case for the majority of this season.

His performance against such heady opponents was such that one would be excused for thinking it came from a seasoned professional, let alone someone so new to the role. Modrić has adjusted to this position so comfortably that the Guardian’s David Hytner is able to surmise that the role ‘feels tailor-made for his vision, the clever weight of his pass and his ability to set the tempo.’ Praise unsurprising follows from the Spurs manager too, with Redknapp calling him ‘an amazing player, an amazing footballer and a great boy,’ before suggesting that Modrić ‘could play in any team in the world.’ A fine accolade if ever there was one.

Whether it has been achieved by Lady Luck’s doing (let us not forget that Bale was signed as a left-back with potential before blossoming into one of the most feared and valued left-wingers in world football, thereby forcing Modrić infield) or by virtue of Redknapp’s commensurate managerial talent, Modrić’s conversion and adjustment to the central midfield role has benefited Tottenham in a manner that most Spurs fans – and probably ole Harry too – could only have dreamed of.

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