Nine years ago on Wednesday, Juande Ramos’ Tottenham beat away the competition of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle and Franck Rijkaard’s Barcelona to secure the signing of the highly touted Luka Modric from Dinamo Zagreb. At 22, he was a regular feature for Slaven Bilic’s Croatia who had played such an antagonist’s role in eliminating England from the Euro 2008 qualifiers and was building a reputation for stylish midfield nuance. Nine years on, the Croat would still be the best player to have graced Lilywhite in the past decade.
You might argue that Ledley King, Gareth Bale or the current crop of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Toby Alderweireld would have something to say about that, but rarely comes along a footballer so capable in all elements of basic midfield play. Defence, attack, passing… As Bilic says, ‘it looks like he was born with the ball at his feet’. In the early stages of his Premier League career, there were voices suggesting that perhaps he was too lightweight to truly compete with the quintessentially ‘English’ sides in Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers, but his quality began to far outweigh such petty arguments.
Though Juande Ramos was the man to sign Modric, the same man would opt to play his most gifted asset out of position. Utilized as a 10 or left winger, Modric was wasted. Upon the arrival of Harry Redknapp, Modric would finally find his purpose. People are quick to focus Spurs’ revival on the appointment of Redknapp himself, but the form of Modric remarkably coincides with Tottenham’s rise to the Champions League and competitiveness.
The landmark Spurs side so fondly looked upon by their fans constituted astonishing attacking power; Gareth Bale was the powerhouse, the goal out of nowhere, while Rafa Van der Vaart played the icon, the been-there-before, almost veteran who knew how to do it on the big stage. Modric was the silent architect of it all; what some call the hockey assister, the assist for the assist. If Spurs had scored, the wriggly Croatian had somewhere down the line played his part. His statistics are often used against him, after all he has only scored 21 goals for both Tottenham and Madrid over almost a decade, but it is his calm, intuitive approach to creativity is what made him the class act, not statistics.
Anyone with a footballing education knows how good he was. Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to offer his opinions, Chelsea had substantial bids rejected and it would be Real Madrid who would come in and snatch him. Seldom do you get players so hard to replace and that has been a painstakingly obvious since his departure. While Spurs have managed to excel in other areas, Christian Eriksen is the closest they have come to securing a player even close to Modric. Even then, the comparisons are hard to make. Eriksen plays his game in the attacking third with the assist count to match, Modric plays his in the very centre where arguably, the skills required to excel are that much more sophisticated if less rewarding.
His departure from White Hart Lane was regrettable, not just because his head had been turned by both Manchester United and Chelsea. By the end of his tenure, he had gone ‘full Berbatov’ and gone public with his need to leave the club and seek pastures new. That, though tough to take for the Spurs fans who had reveled in his subtleties for four glorious years, was understandable. His choice of Madrid over say, Chelsea, was one lasting thank you to Tottenham, even if he had not meant it. A player of his likes should not play out a career with little to show for it. Real Madrid was and has been a worthwhile decision.
Another regret? His timing. Much is said about Pochettino’s Tottenham and how they lack that one, world class individual that can turn the game on its head. If Modric was around now for Spurs, I have no doubts that they would have won a title already. When we talk about the world class bracket, Modric sits comfortably. If you put Modric into Pochettino’s plans, there is potential for a goal in every situation of a game.
On the break, Modric has the ability to pick out the piercing pass and, in a situation similar to that of versus Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final this weekend, his patience and general playmaking skills would have permitted the side more chances to carve out genuine opportunities. I can’t help but dream over a Pochettino Modric rather than a Redknapp Modric; all I know is that the former would have produced an accomplished, more rounded footballer comparable to the one we see winning Champions Leagues with Real Madrid.
Gareth Bale was the one deemed irreplaceable, but it is the next Luka Modric who is yet to be unearthed for Tottenham. Maybe we won’t see a player like that in Spurs colours for a number of years, but at least we are fortunate enough to have enjoyed his brilliance at White Hart Lane.