Back in December 2012, as Real Madrid fell further and further off the blistering pace established by archrivals Barcelona, the knives came out for Luka Modric.
Readers of the pro-Madrid tabloid Marca, who were looking for someone to blame as much as anything else, voted the €35 million acquisition from Tottenham as the Spanish giants’ “Worst Signing of the Season.”
Yet to justify his price tag, never mind win the affection of prickly manager Jose Mourinho, the Croatia international was forced to defend himself in his country’s curious media, which wondered why their golden boy had so far failed to establish himself at the Bernabeu.
“I’m not looking for an alibi,” he said at the time. “But it’s very demanding to adjust to a huge club like Real Madrid.”
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As it happened it took a full season for the midfielder to make the adjustment—that, and the installation of Zinedine Zidane as new manager Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at the club.
The two seemed to hit it off from day one.
In Zidane, Modric found an advocate who not only believed in him but also recognized his ability to control the ball, advance it directly, and accomplish both with the speed and smarts the Frenchman understood on a very personal level.
In Modric, Zidane discovered the linchpin around whom he would co-design the 4-3-3 formation that would go on to win the Champions League the following spring.
Those were formative times for Modric—staying late after training to work with Zidane, who was, himself, learning more and more about the field marshal who would one day organize the entire on-field set-up, a day when the World Cup winner would perhaps orchestrate Madrid’s play as first-team manager.
That day arrived on January 9 against Deportivo La Coruna, shortly after the removal of Rafael Benitez and elevation of Zidane from Real Madrid Castilla.
And, to look at him pulling the strings from the centre of the park, it was one Modric had long been awaiting.
Only Toni Kroos touched the ball more often against Deportivo, although the 90 touches of Modric were more than he had enjoyed in most matches under Benitez. He also sat considerably deeper in midfield, completed 91 per cent of his passes and executed three interceptions.
At the final whistle he was jubilant.
“I am sorry for Rafa and I would like to thank him for his work, but being honest and seeing today’s game I think that the change has been positive,” he told reporters. “We played a lot more rapidly and we functioned as a team in the way it should always function.”
He added: “Today we were a team from the start, up front, at the back and in the middle.”
And he, as the connector, was most responsible for it.
This past weekend, at home to Sporting Gijon, he increased his touch count to 137—even more than Kroos—and completed a mind-boggling 95 percent of his passes, many of them incisive and attack-minded after receiving the ball from the German.
He should similarly feast in upcoming matches against Real Betis, Espanyol and Granada, after which February appointments with Athletic Bilbao, AS Roma in the Champions League and local rivals Atletico Madrid will pose rather stiffer tests.
And with Madrid banned from the upcoming summer and winter transfer markets (barring an overturn of the FIFA punishment) his importance will only be underlined over the next 12 months—just as it was last season when he missed 23 Primera Division matches with a hamstring injury.
“Injuries have burdened us, especially Modric,” remarked Ancelotti last May, as Madrid finished two points back of champions Barcelona. “Modric has missed most of the year, and this has hurt us.”
How appropriate, then, that the club’s renaissance should occur through the twin persuasions of Modric and Zidane.
One is healthy, confident and essential; the other is a manager who knows what he’s got.
They’re already creating a spectacle together, and they’re only getting started.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter