Fede Valverde is showing for Uruguay that he is Madrid’s Modric replacement

In Depth
Fede Valverde playing for Uruguay against Hungary.

If you type ‘Real Madrid Luka Modric replacement’ into the Google and jab the ‘Enter’ key on your keyboard, you will be faced with a daunting list of, well, lists.

Dozens of site will be waiting for you click, ready to give you a rundown of the finest options available on the international transfer market, the few men who could be succeed the small-but-mighty Croat in Los Blancos’ side.

The speculation makes sense. For someone, the moment to step into those boots will soon come. Modric is 35, and time will catch up even with him and his unparalleled midfield majesty.

It will be a daunting task for whoever takes it. Modric quickly moved into the world-class bracket after the move from Spurs to the Spanish capital, but he’s since gone beyond that and slipped stealthily and gracefully into the realm of all-time greats.

Collectively, he’s helped Madrid to two La Liga crowns, a Copa del Rey, four Champions League titles and a slew of supercups and Club World Cups; individually, he won the World Cup Golden Ball and FIFA Best prize in 2018.

So who could replace him? Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozovic features heavily on the aforementioned lists, as does Brozovic’s club-mate Nicolo Barella. Leicester’s Youri Tielemans is mentioned, so is Marco Verratti, and Ajax youngster Ryan Gravenberch is in almost all the articles. Then there is the Galactico option: Paul Pogba.

All of those would require Real Madrid to go out and spend big, either on a transfer fee or astronomical wages. But is there a cheaper choice?

Many of the older lists feature Martin Odegaard, but Odegaard has now moved on, and, let’s face it, he was never an entirely natural positional fit for the Modric role.

Finally, then, we come to the (almost) forgotten man: Fede Valverde. Granted, he is on some of the roll calls of potential replacements, but far from all of them. And, when he does feature, Valverde is usually shunted down to the bottom, the fifth of five potential candidates, an afterthought.

Why? Well, this is Real Madrid we’re talking about. Solutions to their problems are always found in the market, aren’t they? Or if not in the market, then the solution should at least come in a blue-eyed former wunderkind like Odegaard, shouldn’t it?

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READ: Remembering the night Luka Modric entered the pantheon of ‘world class’

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For those on the outside, Valverde seems a bit, well, obvious? Plain? Workmanlike, perhaps?

But while there has been endless speculation about all sorts of others coming from all directions, Madrid have been carefully and guardedly developing a player who they signed from Penarol as a promising teenager in 2016 and is now starting to look the part.

Valverde is just 23, but, since his return from a loan at Real Sociedad in the 2017-18 season, he has played over 100 games for the club – some of them big ones.

He’s already scored in El Clasico. But most notorious was the Spanish Super Cup final against Atletico in 2020, in which, after putting in a man-of-the-match display for 115 minutes, he chopped down Alvaro Morata as the Spain striker ran through one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois. Los Blancos went on to win on penalties.

Cynical? Yes. Very… professional? Committed to victory? That too. In the aftermath, the Madrid official account tweeted picture of him with the caption: “Not all heroes wear capes.”

As Gustavo Poyet said recently an interview for World Soccer, every team can benefit from a Uruguayan player because “we don’t accept defeat as part of our life.” The same could easily be said for Madrid’s demanding followers.

And though Valverde will never be Modric – none of the other replacements would either, we hasten to add – being different is not necessarily bad and that very Uruguayan competitive edge stands Valverde in good stead in his quest to become a Madrid stalwart.

Valverde contributes slightly more defensively than his Croatian team-mate – making more pressures, more tackles, more blocks. Valverde’s extra mobility in the transition could help protect Casemiro and the new-look back four in the long-term, especially as the Brazilian approaches his thirties.

The major area where the Uruguayan does lag behind, unsurprisingly, is in the quantity and quality of his passing. Modric completed 66 passes per 90 to Valverde’s 46.8 per 90 in La Liga in 2020-21. And the passes Modric made progressed Madrid’s play up the pitch far more, according to FBref.

That is where Modric’s greatness lies, that ability to send his team forwards again and again with incisive, probing balls, long and short, even while under pressure. Valverde is not at that level. Not yet.

But in this international break, Valverde has been very busy, showing that he can be a creative, thrusting presence. In Oscar Washington Tabarez’s Celeste side, Valverde has taken on the mantle as the main controller and passer in central areas, playing alongside Rodrigo Bentancur and in front of Matias Vecino.

As Tabarez expects of his midfielders, Valverde covers every blade. But as he has displayed over the last week against Peru and especially Bolivia, the quality is there too.

In the latter game, he dominated proceedings, scoring Uruguay’s second with a free-kick that was wickedly curled from the left side of the box towards the far corner of the goal.

He also made the decisive act for Uruguay’s third, sliding through a delicious pass to Joaquin Piquerez, whose cross young striker Agustin Alvarez converted from close range.

Clearly, Bolivia are not the best team in the world. Yet Valverde’s eye for a pass is there and can be developed. When he turned 23, Luka Modric was going into his second of four seasons at Tottenham and was not the player he eventually became.

And even in La Liga, against better sides, the stats suggest Valverde’s creative output compares favourably. Again according to FBref, Modric created 3.13 shooting opportunities per 90 minutes last season, Valverde 3.31 per 90.

“[Valverde] has the conditions to be able to keep growing,” Uruguay legend Diego Forlan told Radio Marca in 2020. “He’s a good lad, a good professional. I’m not surprised by what we are seeing from him because we could already see it.

“He is growing in confidence, maturity, experience and Madrid’s fans will enjoy him for many, many years. I would even go as far as to say that he can be in midfield what Sergio Ramos is becoming in defence.”

Whether Valverde can be that talismanic, we will see. But with the Uruguayan’s steady progress and his new seven-year contract signed in August, the post-Modric future of the Real Madrid midfield could look healthier than some have forecast – even if they don’t go to the transfer market.

By Joshua Law


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