As the Ballon d’Or announcement comes closer and closer, many have debated between Cristiano Ronaldo and Manuel Neuer for the prestigious award. Looking further back, however, and the 23-man shortlist for the award seems to have its own flaws. A player many felt was unfairly left off the shortlist was Luis Suarez, after his scintillating season with Liverpool, in which he almost single-handedly guided them to the Premier League title. He also guided Uruguay to the round of 16 in the World Cup. His lack of discipline, as he bit Giorgio Chiellini was thought to be the main factor for his omission.
Looking away from Suarez, a notable omission is Luka Modric. The Crotian midfielder may not have achieved World Cup success, yet was one of the most important players in leading Real Madrid to Champions League and Copa del Rey titles last season, as well as winning the UEFA Super Cup this season. While he has spent the last few months injured, his impact was surely greater than Andres Iniesta. Last season, Barcelona failed to win a single trophy, while Spain suffered a group stage exit at the World Cup. Apart from the Clasico in March at the Bernabeu, Iniesta failed to replicate his form of the past. As the FIFA Team of the Year has shown in the past few years, players often seem to be chosen based on reputation, rather than actual performances. For example, in the latest team, Dani Alves has been selected, despite showing a drastic decline in his performances from three seasons ago.
While Modric cannot be called underrated due to the amount of praise he has received over the past year, he has faced similar circumstances. Failing to make both the 23-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or and the FifPro Team of the Year is unfair, as he was beaten to the position by Xavi, who truly decline last season. It took a long time before he was actually recognized in England and suffered a rather disappointing first half season in Spain. At Tottenham Hotspur, Harry Redknapp often played Modric out on the left in a 4-4-2 during 2010-2011 season in the absence of Gareth Bale. Many questioned the impact of Modric on the left, and while they were not wrong, he allowed Spurs to have tighter control defensively in midfield and still provided a metronome to link play cutting inside from the left, as Spurs were able to play two defensive midfielders in the center, such as Tom Huddlestone and Jermaine Jenas. On the right side, Aaron Lennon provided pace to support two players further forward.
When Modric initially joined the club, he played as an attacking midfielder. Similarly to many quality deep-lying playmakers, Modric made the step further deeper after playing forward. Another player who made this transition was Andrea Pirlo. While Modric had a lack of physicality in midfield, his pairing with Tom Huddlestone allowed Spurs to attack quickly after winning the ball. His role was to move forward at pace with the ball, finding the likes of Bale, Lennon, and Rafael van der Vaart in a rather simple system. Despite his important role, many questioned his importance, saying how his sideways passes and long diagonals did not truly add to the game, while he did not score many and did not provide enough assists to be thought of as a fantastic midfielder. In truth, this problem may lie within the English system. Players in the mold of a Frank Lampard or a Steven Gerrard are more appreciated, as they score more and play as the “main men”. Modric influenced the team in a unique way, without having to score goals for his side.
At Madrid, Modric was rather unfairly awarded the worst signing of 2012 in La Liga by the Marca. Although Marca is hardly a credible source, Modric had failed to establish himself as a regular in the Madrid side. In truth, he had no identity in the team at that time. He could not replace Xabi Alonso as the deep-lying playmaker and could not replace Mesut Ozil as the No. 10 playmaker. As the season progressed, Modric started to play a more vital role. A key example of the impact Modric made was in the second leg of the round of 16 tie at Old Trafford against Manchester United. With Madrid 1-0 down and Nani sent-off, Modric came on and scored a superb strike from outside the box. He also played a role in the second goal. In this game, Modric played at the same time as Ozil, suggesting a deeper role truly suited him.
Fast forward one season, and Modric had his greatest season yet. In a team struggling for balance in the early part of the season, manager Carlo Ancelotti switched to a 4-3-3 formation. Xabi Alonso played deepest, winning tackles and keeping possession. Di Maria provided the link between defense and attack, picking the ball up and launching forward at pace with his directness, suggesting his impact was greater through the center than out wide, where he played under Jose Mourinho. Modric played in between the two, as a sort of mediator. His energy in helping win the ball back and providing stability in midfield was key to Madrid. A key importance of Modric was in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich at the Bernabeu, which Madrid won 1-0. With Madrid playing on the counter, they played a fast, free-flowing game. Up against a midfield containing the likes of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, Modric managed to complete 97% of his passes, despite his side only having 38% of the possession and attacking in quick transitions. In the second half, Modric failed to displace a single one of his 24 passes. Modric’s ability to read a game has always been a key asset, and three vital interceptions in this game showed that. Also, Modric made four clearances, showing his key impact defensively and in supporting the attack.
With the increased awareness to the importance of players like Xavi and Pirlo over the past few seasons, few would have envisioned a player of the calibre of Luka Modric to miss out on nominations for the Ballon d’Or. Unfortunately, the selection process showed its flaws with his lack of selection, as it has done in the past. In truth, the Ballon d’Or has failed to truly recognize the world’s top players since its inception, with national team captains and coaches votes, meaning the whole process has become a popularity contest and in many ways, a mini political campaign.
While Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have both been worthy of the award as a reward for their tremendous seasons, injustices have also resulted. The biggest case occurred in 2010. Diego Milito, who scored 30 goals to lead Inter Milan to an unprecedented treble, scoring the goals that won Inter the Coppa Italia, the Serie A title and in the Champions League final, failed to even make the final 23-man shortlist. Wesley Sneijder, another key player in the Inter side, as well as leading the Netherlands to the World Cup final, scoring five goals on route to the final, failed to ever make the top three. And even though the nomination may not be the end of the world, the whole idea of the award surely needs a revamp. Even though players like Paolo Maldini did not need a World Player of the Year award to celebrate their greateness, an injustice is not justified. Modric deserves credit for the way he played across 2014, and despite the snub of the Ballon d’Or, football followers will appreciate his impact on the game as a quality playmaker with a unique combination of traits.
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