The Johan Cruyff House of Thinkers has overcome the mourning of its founder’s death and is now celebrating a new arrival. Luka Modric is knocking at the door. Pep will open it with a warm “benvinguts” and, inside, Fernando, Andrea and Xavi are having a toast to the new member arrival.
Football players can be divided into three different groups: the ones who just play it – the majority -, the ones who think it while playing – a much smaller group -, and the ones who think it before they play. There is a very small group of players that reaches this last stage of development, this place of rarefied air. Luka Modric is now one of them.
There was a precise moment in Tuesday’s game between Real Madrid and Manchester City in which it came to me: Luka Modric has now entered the last stage of development a player can aspire to. It was during the first half, when Modric received a pass from Gareth Bale, surrounded by six City players – you can find it at the 1:21 mark of this video. Modric saw the ball come in his direction and for a split of a second he turned his head to see where Casemiro was, before giving him the ball and completely unbalancing the opposing team.
In that moment I realized Modric was the legitimate heir to Guardiola, Redondo, Xavi and Pirlo. In that split of a second I realized he now sees the game at a different speed than the other players on the field. That’s what happens when you combine a great mind with raw technical talent. In this small group of players’ heads the game happens in slow motion. Each opponent’s movement is anticipated. Each line of pass is evaluated before the ball reaches him. Only these players can aspire to the perfect game because every scenario is taken into consideration before making a decision.
Modric, like so many other great players suffered from the “lightweight” syndrome. Upon the arrival in the Premier League, Modric was soon labeled with this damned word which, by now, should be synonymous with “shut up and let him play!”. He was a victim of the nightmarish Juande Ramos tenure at White Hart Lane (the man who shifted Luka to the left so that the likes of Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddlestone could pair up in the centre of the field), and had to wait for the arrival of Harry Redknapp to have someone who knew what he had in Luka Modric.
“We had an outstanding player on the pitch in Luka Modric. He was unbelievable. Magnificent. He’s an amazing footballer, the little man takes the ball in the tightest areas with people around him, wriggling out of situations. He could play in any team in the world. You will play a tight ball in to Luka Modric with someone closing him but you might not play it to some other people for fear of losing the ball.”
These were Redknapp’s words after a goalless draw against Manchester United in 2008, but they might as well have been about the other goalless draw against a Manchester side we saw yesterday. To watch Luka Modric play football is to watch the perfect symbiosis between mind and technical ability. To watch Luka Modric is to watch the newest member of one of the most exclusive group of players. The ones who think before they play.