In the storied history of Real Madrid, all the different types of players that have played at the club, the superstars with their glitz and glamour, the cult heroes who the socios won’t ever forget, the workhorses whose contributions are often overlooked, all of them follow the footsteps of one man who played in the1950’s. A player who, if you delve into just a little bit, will become clear as the vanguard of Real Madrid’s success’, the man who lead the team to the European accomplishments that came to define the very club. That man was Alfredo di Stefano. And what was this player like? If you are to trust the words of those who saw him play and played alongside him, he can be described as the “total footballer”, a player who contributed to every phase of the game, helping out the defense, creating chances from midfield and finishing them off as well. As hyperbolic as it may sound, this was what Di Stefano was like.
Now one may argue that it was possible for Di Stefano to play the way he did because football was a different game back then, that it wasn’t as fast and demanding as it is today, and that in the modern game, no one player can be the blend of genius and workhorse that Di Stefano was. And those arguments may very well be true, all of them beside the last one. Some forty seven years after the el saeta rubia, or the blonde arrow, retired, his reincarnation was brought to Real Madrid by Jose Mourinho.
A player deemed as the worst signing of the season in his first year at the club, he would go on to define another European dynasty, just as Di Stefano did in the 1950’s. A player whose legacy at the club has far surpassed any of the original galacticos, a player who will be looked at later as maybe the best midfielder to ever wear the royal white. Arguably the most important player of the “4 in 5” era, that player was Luka Modric.
So what has Modric done to warrant the title of the reincarnation of the great Alfredo Di Stefano? He isn’t even as one tenth as prolific as Di Stefano was, nor does he have the superstar image that Di Stefano has in the hearts and minds of Real Madrid fans. Rather, he has a much more prosaic image, a diminutive man who very rarely, if ever, does any of the things that one would associate with one of the very best players in the world. His numbers hardly flatter, with under 10 goals and 10 assists per season being the norm throughout his career. However, anyone who has watched Real Madrid from the 13/14 season on wards will know what Modric is; an absolute genius with the work rate of a political prisoner in a Stalin era gulag. And by watched Real Madrid, I do not mean just the finals or the glamour ties against the European big boys, I mean really watch Real Madrid, the games against the minnows in the league, all rounds of the Champions league, heck, even the Copa del Rey ties against teams you couldn’t name with a gun to your head.
From a strictly technical and artistic point of view, Modric is brilliant. Combining the deftness of touch and unflappability under pressure that one would associate with Spanish midfielders alongside the passing range and vision of the registas of old, Modric put simply, is a genius. His ability to evade pressure by dribbling past opposition players or combining with his teammates is easily the very best in the world. Alongside this, he can spray passes all over the pitch, and when he does it with his trademark trivelas, it is a sight to behold. In all but one of his seasons at Real Madrid, Modric has averaged over 2 key passes a game, and completed between 2 and 2.5 dribbles per game. Moreover, his passes per game have always been over 55 and his success rate has never dipped below 85%. In addition to this, Modric is the second best ball progressor at the club through passing, behind only Kroos, and if progressions through dribbling are also added, then he ranks first.
His passes have also been quite spectacular. His assist for Gareth Bale against Basel in 2014/15 season is a thing of absolute beauty. His assists to Di Maria, Ronaldo and Benzema in the 12/13 season and Ronaldo in 17/18 are other examples of his passing brilliance. Alongside this, it was him who took the corner that eventually became 92:48 (which, for you non-madridistas is the Ramos goal against atleti in the 2014 final). Other than his playmaking genius, he has scored a fair few golazos as well.
However, to narrow down Modric, to confine all he is, to only a playmaker, albeit a brilliant one, would be a gross injustice. Modric is not solely an artist. In every single game, not only the blockbuster ties in Europe or Madrid derbies or el clasico’s, no, in every single game, Modric is running with fervor and energy of someone hopped up on enough coke to make scarface blush. Whatever the team needs him to do, whether or not it was a part of the original game plan, Modric will do, and has done. In the ties against Bayern, in which Zidane was forced to play Vazquez as a RB, Modric acted as an auxiliary RB. Without his defensive efforts, Vazquez would’ve been decimated, torn down to his last atom, and Real would’ve lost. But thankfully, Real had a player like Modric. Before this, whenever Danilo played, with is complete ineptitude towards defending, Modric was there to make up for him. Whenever Casemiro went on his forays into attack, to play as a 10, who was there to protect the space he left? Modric. Whenever Zidane put out a lineup that had no wingers and the fullbacks were incredibly isolated when defending, who was there to help them out? Modric.
In all but one of his seasons, his tackles and interceptions have always been over 3 per 90, a number that is common for defensive midfielders of top teams, not central midfielders. The dribbled past per 90 statistic has always hovered around the 0.9 mark. Of all the Madrid midfielders, only Casemiro has had better defensive numbers than Modric since the 14/15 season, and in the whole team, only Casemiro and the fullbacks have had better tackle and interception numbers.
Moreover, while doing all this, Modric was still able to carry out his normal duties as a CM; to help set the tempo, progress the ball, and create. Even while plugging the gaps in the system and compensating for some his teammates’ deficiencies, he was still one of the best players in the world on the ball. At the same time, he was an artistic midfielder while also being a tireless workhorse.
Contributing in every phase of play, Modric, in the glorious European dominance of the 2010’s, was Madrid’s all-rounder, just as Di Stefano was in the 50’s. This is the reason why Modric should not be considered anything other than as one of the top 5 best midfielders to ever play the game. He had the artistic genius that all the other midfield greats had, but with a work ethic and defensive output that none of the other greats had. An engine and an artist.