On August 27, 2012, Luka Modric was unveiled to the Real Madrid fans after making the transfer that was always his destiny.
It was clear from his performances for Tottenham and Croatia that Modric had the ability to turn out for an elite club, one capable of competing for Europe’s biggest honours.
He starred for his country as they pipped England to qualification for Euro 2008 before playing a key role in elevating Spurs to Champions League contenders for the first time in the Premier League era.
Twenty-six years old and at the peak of his powers, the time was right. Daniel Levy had fought tooth and nail to keep him, brushing off Chelsea’s interest to eventually allow the midfielder to move abroad for a £30million fee.
The Tottenham chairman spoke of hoping the move would spark “a long and productive partnership” with the La Liga giants. Whether or not that feeling was mutual in the Spanish capital, Florentino Perez and Jose Mourinho had their man.
“I pushed hard for Real Madrid to sign Modric because he had everything that we needed for the team – technique, vision and good reading of the game, quality when making decisions, quickness of thought, he can play the ball long or short, score from outside the area, he knew how to press, he is intelligent with his positioning and had intensity. We needed all of that at Real Madrid,” Mourinho later recalled in an interview with Croatian outlet Sportske Novosti.
12 years ago today, Luka Modric agreed to join Tottenham.
Would a time it would prove to be 👏pic.twitter.com/iGdlEteOnU
— GOAL (@goal) April 26, 2020
Everything looked set for Madrid to dominate for years to come.
Mourinho had knocked Barcelona off their perch, and in some style. Madrid won the 2011-12 league title with a record 100 points and 121 goals scored. They were arguably the most brutally efficient counter-attacking side in the history of the game.
An exhausted Pep Guardiola fled to New York to take a sabbatical. Barcelona had lost the coach that had defined an era.
Spain won Euro 2012, an unprecedented third major tournament in a row, with a squad that featured Los Blancos’ quintet Iker Casillas, Raul Albiol, Sergio Ramos, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso.
Madrid were a team full of winners and the elusive Decima – a 10th Champions League and first since 2002 – was now the primary target. Mourinho had already won it with two different clubs.
No player of great importance had been sold, while Modric arrived alongside Michael Essien and Diego Lopez to bolster the squad. Promising starlets Alvaro Morata and Nacho Fernandez were promoted from La Fabrica into the first-team set-up.
A Mourinho season
Everything started out to plan. Modric had been signed between the two legs of the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona. He made his debut off the bench at the Bernabeu to help see Madrid see out an away goals victory (2-1 on the night; 4-4 on aggregate) over their great rivals.
The 2012-13 campaign began with silverware, but the Super Cup would be the only trophy they’d lift that season. It was a campaign that Antonio Conte later called “a Mourinho season” – one we’ve seen repeated at Chelsea and Manchester United.
Fractious, frustrating, full of in-fighting and paranoia and inevitably resulting in little success on the pitch. In other words, a nightmare environment for any new signing to step into.
Mourinho’s men had taken just four points from their opening four games. Barcelona took advantage and built an unassailable lead.
Seemingly invigorated by the appointment of Guardiola’s right-hand man Tito Vilanova, the Catalan club dropped just two points after 19 games, having beaten every side in the division except Madrid, with whom they’d drawn 2-2 at home.
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Modric barely featured in that disastrously costly start. He signed after a draw with Valencia and defeat away to Getafe, made his first start in their first league win of the season – 3-0 at home to Granada – and was introduced at half-time while Madrid were behind in an eventual 1-0 defeat to Sevilla.
The Croatian was starting to integrate into the side as Madrid got their season back on track, taking 22 points from the next 24 available. The only match they failed to win in that run was at the Camp Nou, where they battled for a respectable draw, though Modric was left as an unused substitute.
At that time, he was most often played as the No.10 in Mourinho’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, but he failed to make the regular goal contributions expected in such a role.
In the season prior, Mesut Ozil registered a ridiculous tally of 28 assists and seven goals. That kind of flashy impact is demanded at a club famed for its Galacticos.
La Liga’s worst signing
By Christmas, Modric had mustered just one goal and one assist and found himself on the fringes of Mourinho’s preferred XI. Madrid went a shocking 18 points behind league leaders Barca and blame had to be found somewhere.
It was at that point that Madrid-based sports daily Marca ran their infamous ‘worst signing of the season’ poll. Modric topped the list – ahead of Barcelona’s Alex Song, no less – after gaining 32% of the vote.
“This is Real Madrid. I understand there is great pressure for new signings to succeed here,” Modric responded in the Croatian press.
“I’m not making excuses, I am not that kind of person, but it is very challenging to adapt to life at a big club like Madrid. I have had a few good performances, if not in every game, but I believe that I can prove I have something to offer.”
Evidently, Modric has done that. Was he underperforming or just criminally misunderstood? It would be an understatement to say that time has vindicated the diminutive playmaker at the Bernabeu.
He’s won four Champions Leagues and the Ballon d’Or and been their outstanding player on many a European night, well into his thirties.
Modric has never been a No.10. He’s not Ozil. He averages five assists and two goals a season across his glittering decade in La Liga – numbers, for what it’s worth, that are more comparable to Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.
Yet it took time for that to become clear in the Spanish capital.
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The stark difference between what Modric is and isn’t was demonstrated in the Champions League semi-finals in that debut season to forget.
Used in the No.10 role in the first leg away in Dortmund, Madrid were eviscerated 4-1. Their midfield couldn’t cope with the intensity of the pressing from Jurgen Klopp’s side, and Robert Lewandowski scored all four. Borussia Dortmund might have scored even more.
Madrid had totally lacked control in that first leg, but it returned when Mourinho made a tactical tweak at the Bernabeu. Modric moved deeper to partner Xabi Alonso at the base of midfield and bossed the game.
He completed 70 passes, more than twice as many as he had in the first leg and the most of any player on the pitch by a distance. Madrid won 2-0, one goal away from an away-goals victory and a famous remontada.
That was the midfielder that we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the past decade. He’s never looked back.
Then came Carlo Ancelotti, out went Ozil and Kaka. Another year later Toni Kroos arrived and Casemiro began to break through.
Madrid adapted away from the 4-2-3-1 and more towards a 4-3-3, a system that’s allowed him to dominate games in a role somewhere between a deep-lying playmaker and a trequartista. Just like Xavi and Iniesta.
“I said at the start of the season that he wouldn’t be at his best until the end of February,” Croatia boss Igor Stimac told Marca in February 2013.
“It was to be expected when you consider that he had to get into top physical shape which, without a pre-season, he didn’t have.”
His manager at club level was much less concerned about how he was getting on.
“He adapted very calmly to life at Real Madrid,” Mourinho told Sportske in 2021.
“In spite of all of the day-to-day demands, the pressure from the public. Luka is a very balanced person and he is sure of himself. He learned what Real Madrid is about very quickly, understanding the sheer size of the club and what their objectives are.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I can only speak well of Mourinho,” Modric told Marca after their year together. “He’s a fantastic coach, it was a pleasure to work with him.
“He taught me how to play more aggressively. He always tries to get more than the best out of every player. If you give 100% he asks for 110%. If you don’t play to the best of your ability, someone will come and take your place.”
This was a season in which the Portuguese coach was picking battles left, right and centre. He’d dropped club captain Iker Casillas and reportedly fell out with key dressing room figures Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo and left at the end of that trophyless campaign, returning to Chelsea after burning his bridges at the Bernabeu.
Yet Mourinho has nothing but fond words for Modric, a player who endured the worst year of his Madrid career under his wing and had been made the scapegoat in the Madrid press. He tried and failed to bring him to Chelsea in 2014.
“When someone can make history in what they do they become immortal. Luka Modric has won the Ballon d’Or, he is beyond compare,” Mourinho gushed.
“Luka, in Spain, he plays for Real Madrid and is a player everyone respects,” he told talkSPORT during Euro 2020.
“I am so, so happy I was the one to take him to Madrid.”
By Nestor Watach