Ancelotti’s management of Modric’s minutes could be a masterstroke

If you only listen to the doom-mongers or place blind faith in the tone of most Real Madrid news conferences this season, then you probably fear that Luka Modric and Carlo Ancelotti are at a breaking point. You might worry too that the Croatia international has been stomping around Los Blancos’ training ground with a face like thunder, as their relationship lurches towards a bitter end.

Nevertheless, Madrid’s brilliant playmaker might well end up needing to send his shrewd boss a vintage bottle of Svrdlovina red wine (the best from Modric’s Zadar region of Croatia), plus a nice selection of Ancelotti’s preferred Italian ham (of which he admits to being inordinately fond), if Ancelotti’s unpopular tactic works out. The thinking: reducing Modric’s game time ends with him being in supreme shape to drive Madrid and Croatia to trophies next summer.

Three facts feed into the river of speculation that Modric might get sufficiently fed up and leave for greener pastures in January despite having renewed his contract as recently as June.

First: it’s certainly unusual that this midfield genius has only played 392 minutes so far this season, and that he’s started a meagre four times in Madrid’s 11 matches across all competitions. Second: some of the Spanish media’s insistence on prodding Ancelotti every three days about whether Modric and he have a tense relationship stems from very well-sourced “leaks” that the Croat has been annoyed at his sudden drop in appearances.

Finally: Last month, Modric himself spoke on the subject to a Croatian newspaper, Sportske Novosti: “Nobody’s happy when they aren’t playing. After a career like mine, that feeling is especially unusual. Madrid wanted me to stay and I had the same aim, so when I signed, the only condition I placed was that they treated me as a competitive player and didn’t consider me only based on past triumphs.

“They told me nothing would change in my status, and that’s why I re-signed. But hey, the coach has his own reasons, and I won’t sink down or diminish my intensity because of this — quite the opposite.”

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Modric is, after all, known to his teammates as “Mr. Vinegar” — it’s a nickname he hates, but it’s earned because when he loses in training, or more particularly in a big match, he’s prone to being sour-faced and grumpy-natured until the painful experiences are processed. Born winners are like that.

I guess what whipped things into a real frenzy was that one of Modric’s rare starts — think of it as a precious opportunity to prove his coach wrong — was against Atletico Madrid just over a fortnight ago. Madrid were demolished 3-1 and our guy was unceremoniously replaced by Joselu at half-time, which is an extreme rarity right across the Croat’s near-1,000-match career unless injured.

Then, along comes Saturday’s performance against Osasuna. Not only do Madrid produce by far their most elegant, fluent, dangerous and productive football of the entire season, but they scored four times while also keeping a clean sheet.

Modric wasn’t the only hero of that victory, but he was absolutely stellar, his “this won’t sink me, quite the contrary” attitude evident across 79 brilliant minutes.

The basic facts are that he was on the ball 102 times — far more than anyone else on the pitch, even those who completed the full 94 minutes. Indeed only two players, Barcelona‘s Frenkie de Jong and Modric’s teammate, Toni Kroos, have been on the ball more times in a single match all season.

More than that, Modric orchestrated Madrid’s brilliance with 94 passes, more than any of Los Blancos‘ players has attempted in any match this season. He departed with the match long since tucked away, the result filed under “terrific win and performance,” to a thunderous standing ovation, about which Ancelotti said: “That was the usual Modric, quality, commitment and he deserved the fans acclaim when he left the pitch.”

The Italian went further, at least indirectly, by stating that the key to Madrid playing with such confident, aggressive fluidity was going 1-0 up so early in what promised to be a tough test. (Los Blancos have gone 1-0 down in five of their 11 matches so far.) No coincidence that it was Modric whose superb pass into the penalty area found Dani Carvajal‘s feet so that the full-back could set up Bellingham to fire home and, according to Ancelotti, put Madrid in top gear.

Back to the point I made at the top of this column.

Modric has had two principal reasons to exhibit his vinegar nature. First, he thought that when he agreed his contract extension things would be identical to last season — only they haven’t been. He’s not, and has never been, a guy to believe or even wish that the training ground environment is a hierarchy instead of a meritocracy. “Nobody’s ever gifted me anything” is one of his favourite phrases; Modric knows that irrespective of past glories, you earn your status every single damn day.

He’s been miffed because he felt that the tone of his agreement with Ancelotti was that he’d be starting most games even if the intense competition — Eduardo Camavinga, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Kroos, Fede Valverde, Dani Ceballos and now Jude Bellingham — might mean he completed 90 minutes less regularly. Instead he’s having to fight and scrap to get into the starting XI, and so far it’s been a losing battle.

The other point is that all true “greats” earn their success because they have a potent mix of talent, ego and street-fighting toughness. Modric is brimming with all these so, to be blunt, his dignity has been ruffled. If he wasn’t outright ticked off at his situation, he wouldn’t be the Luka Modric who started his Madrid career being ridiculed by the Spanish media (literally … Marca ran a poll in which he was voted the worst signing of the season) yet has become, by far, one of their best, most influential and admirable players of the past 30 years.

But here’s the point. Did you catch that stat earlier? Modric is 45 matches away from 1,000 senior games in his career — a vast and tiring number. At 38, the stats show, with clarity, that he’s towards the bottom of the Madrid charts for most sprints, most sprints with intensity and for average number of kilometres covered in a match.

Since June 2022, Modric has played 75 times for club and country, and he’s still not retired from the international level — he’s still his nation’s captain — with crucial matches to come, including at home to Euro 2024 qualifying Group D co-leaders Turkey on Thursday and away to Wales next week. All of which is to make clear why this warrior-wizard might need to start thinking about which gifts he should present to his coach by the end of a long, grueling season.



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Modric’s agent was having sweet nothings whispered in his ear by David Beckham in Dubrovnik last month and boy: how sexy would it be if the Croat wound down his playing days at Inter Miami CF with Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba? Whatever: the way things are going this term, you’d not be foolish to speculate that this might be Modric’s swansong season at Madrid. In which case he’ll crave lifting LaLiga, the Champions League, the Copa del Rey, or all three. In short, another signature season.

Best of all would be crowning his extraordinary career by leading Croatia to their first senior trophy after a 2018 World Cup final defeat in Moscow, finishing third in Qatar last year and losing the UEFA Nations League final to Spain on penalties in June.

Can you envisage Modric reaching the crucial, decisive months of April to July brimming with energy and a burning sense of “I’ll show everyone” thanks to Ancelotti’s careful management of his playing time? And then being central to his team, or teams, lifting a trophy?

I can and, if so, then Mr. Vinegar might end up owing more than just a couple of gifts to Mr. Ancelotti.


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