A Modric Masterclass: How the Midfield Magician Pulled Apart PSG

A Modric Masterclass: How the Midfield Magician Pulled Apart PSG

Luka Modric is 36 years old. Yet to anyone watching him buzz around the Santiago Bernabéu last night, he looked like a player in the prime of his career. The truth is that he still is.

To put his timelessness into perspective, here’s a list of outfielders aged older than Modric who have played more minutes than him in all competitions this year:

José Fonte, Raúl Albiol, Thiago Silva, Anthony Losilla, Dante and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Of the list there, perhaps only the age-defying Thiago Silva is still having a comparable influence on matches on the biggest stage. And, with respect, he’s not playing the more physically demanding role of a central midfielder.

While Karim Benzema’s match-winning hat-trick against PSG on Wednesday night will rightly claim the plaudits, Modric put in one of the most imperious midfielder performances you’ll see. In truth, he’s been doing it all season. He has been pivotal for Real Madrid in Europe this term, as highlighted by the 48 contributions to his side’s shots in the Champions League this campaign, second to only Joshua Kimmich among central midfielders. The majority of those contributions are in the build-up play to shots, but there are still a healthy number of shots he takes himself or chances he creates for team-mates.

Sequence involvements - midfielder UCL 2021-22

And last night’s incredible game at the Bernabeu was the best example to date of his all-action, mercurial talent. Here, then, are the numbers behind his exceptional performance in the Spanish capital last night.

Modric’s Perception of Time and Space

We’ll come onto the defensive side of Modric’s performance last night shortly, but it was his ability in possession that defined the game.   

Modric made the most touches for Real Madrid, completed the most passes for his side, and made the most passes in the final third of any player on the pitch. Simply put, he was central to everything Madrid did in possession.

Modric all passes against PSG

Modric has the ability to influence a game by controlling its tempo like few other footballers. A major factor to that is his spatial awareness. His anticipation of where opposition players will and will not be is spooky at times. Modric achieves that through constant scanning of his surroundings to ensure he receives the ball in space. It’s what appears to give him so much time on the ball. Combine that with impeccable close control and fantastic passing ability and you get a player who can dictate.

A perfect example of this is below. Real Madrid have just won back possession in their right channel. The ball’s not even near to Modric yet, but he scans over his shoulder to identify the space in behind the PSG press.

Modric Scan 1 Example

Eder Militao knocks it sideways to Toni Kroos who immediately looks inside for Modric. Before the pass is even made, Modric again scans over his shoulder. ‘Space still there? Yep, cool’. He’s not even looking at the ball for large moments in this passage of play.

Modric Scan 2 Example

Modric receives the pass in space and Real Madrid are on their way.

Modric Scan 3 Example

Now combine that scanning with incredible close skill and body control. After a PSG attack breaks down, the ball spins out to Kroos in the right-back position. Modric is in the middle of the park and knows he’s likely to be an out ball. A quick scan tells him Neymar is over his right shoulder.

Modric Scan Example 2 - first step

Kroos puts his foot on it and looks inside. Modric comes short to offer a passing option. Again, he scans his shoulder, reminding himself where his marker is.

Modric Scan Example 2 - second step

Modric’s spatial awareness lets him take an immediate first touch forward, using Neymar’s momentum against him to take him out of the game.

Modric Scan Example 2 - third step

Messi attempts to close him down. One shimmy and deft touch later and whoops, see you later.

Modric Scan Example 2 - fourth step

Finding Vinicius Junior

Vinicius Junior was a constant source of pain for PSG. His lighting quick movement meant he was able to make runs in behind Achraf Hakimi all night long, and he provided a superb carrying outlet for his team.

Once he latched on to these through balls, his one-on-one dribbling ability enabled him to ghost past defenders to cut inside and create havoc. Because of his success in his matchups, Real unsurprisingly attacked most frequently down the left-hand side.

Modric constantly looked to find him, particularly in the first half.  

This plan was clear from the fifth minute. Modric drops deep the receive the ball from his centre back. He scans, as usual, to establish his surroundings.

Finding Vini example 1

With time and space, he looks straight away for Vinicius over the top…

Finding Vini example 2

… and finds him with laser precision. The winger draws a foul and Madrid win a free-kick in a threatening area.

Finding Vini example 3

Another example on the 20th minute. Modric receives centrally and scans his shoulder before the ball arrives.

Finding Vini 2 example 1

Hakimi gets himself caught too high up the pitch and on the wrong side of Vinicius, who spins in behind. Modric punishes him with a slicing through ball and Vinicius is in behind again.

Finding Vini 2 example 2

It was a pattern Real Madrid looked to exploit throughout the game. Vinicius received eight passes during the match from the Croatian, with only Kroos (13) receiving more.

Work Off the Ball

Such is his grace and poise in possession, Modric’s work off the ball can often go unnoticed. But as well as a silky passing display, Modric put in an effervescent shift in midfield. He completed all four of his tackles, more than any other player on the pitch, shuttling from his typical left-sided central midfield position to the touchline on multiple occasions to win the ball back for his side.

His touch map shows his work rate across the pitch.

Modric touch map vs PSG

Modric showed his intent in the ninth minute. The ball is passed out to PSG’s right back, Hakimi, who sees space in between Madrid’s lines to burst into.

Modric defensive work example 1

But Modric follows his man all the way inside his own half to win possession back for his side:

Modric defensive work example 2

His defensive performance only got stronger as the game went on.

Just after Benzema’s goal, with the crowd now sensing something special, the ball is played through to Vinicius on the left-hand side but is slightly overhit. Marquinhos covers and plays the ball to Hakimi.

Modric is the furthest advanced of Madrid’s midfield trio and instigates the press.

Modric defensive work example 3

His arched run blocks off Hakimi’s ball inside to Danilo Pereira, while Benzema also forces the PSG player to go down the line.

Modric defensive work example 4

Modric anticipates that and steps across to win the ball.

Modric defensive work example 5

And then the one that really got the crowd whipped up into a frenzy: the crunching tackle on Lionel Messi.

David Alaba’s shot from distance is blocked and the ball breaks to the Argentine. Madrid have got five players ahead of the ball and PSG can spring forward in transition.

Modric defensive work example 6

Messi sets off into the space behind Real Madrid’s midfield, with Modric tracking him the whole way. Such is Messi’s burst of pace that he’s effectively taken Madrid’s other two central midfielders – Valverde and Camavinga – out of the game too. Modric matches him stride for stride.

Just before the camera changes to a lovely close-up angle of Modric putting in a crunching slide tackle to dispossess Messi, the frame before that shows that if Modric gets beaten here, PSG have a two on two, potentially a three on two.

Modric defensive work example 7

Modric nails him fairly and the ball goes out for a throw. The crowd are in raptures.

Modric defensive work example 8
Have some of that!

The Defining Moment

And then came the defining moment of the match. The single passage of play that encapsulated this Modric performance. He started it and provided the killer touch.

Modric funnels back into defence and intercepts a Neymar pass headed towards Messi.

Defining moment pt 1

He carries the ball strongly out of defence, feints a ball into Benzema’s feet and charges through the heart of PSG’s midfield.

Defining moment pt 2

He escapes the challenge of Neymar, before Presnel Kimpembe steps up rashly to make a play on the ball. His head on a swivel, he spots Vinicius making a run in behind just as he has done all game and slides the ball through. The combined carry and pass effectively takes six PSG defenders out of the game.

Defining moment pt 3

Modric follows the play, showing great energy and desire to provide a receiving option. Vinicius obliges.

And then the moment of genius. After that lung-busting run, Modric has the composure and skill to slide a reverse ball through to Benzema to level the tie.

Defining moment pt 4

And from that moment, PSG’s capitulation was irreversible.  Benzema grabbed his third moments later, becoming the oldest hat-trick scorer in Champions League history. PSG duly add another collapse to their ever-growing list of knockout pain.

And in the midst of the chaos, Luka Modric was the calmest of all.