Selling Luka Modric to Real Madrid in 2012 felt like a natural move. For all the ambition that Tottenham, as a club, were showing, no team is a cut above the 12-time European champions, even if they were yet to win their 10th at that point.
Spurs, too, are a different side to the one the Croatian left over five years ago. Indeed, of the players who made a Premier League appearance for Tottenham in Modric’s final season at the club – 2011/12 – only Danny Rose remains. Harry Kane played six times in the Europa League that season, but not in any other competition.
Looking at the current squad, though, it’s clear that of all the players who played for the club back then, there’s probably only one who they really and truly miss, and that’s Modric.
On first utterance, that sounds odd: what about Gareth Bale? But is a very different kind of player.
Bale is a truly world class talent, of course, and any team would be better off with him in the starting XI. Spurs would be no different. But when they sold him, they were castigated for wasting the money they received from Madrid, buying flops like Roberto Soldado, Paulinho and Nacer Chadli.
Yet there was one thing they did right all those years ago: they didn’t attempt to replace him. Talents like that are irreplaceable, and there are just a handful of players in the world who could do for Spurs what he could do. Unless you’re going to find a similar player – and none were available – then you have to build your squad in a different way. To their credit, that’s what Spurs tried to do. Just not very well.
In the end, they managed to get it right under Mauricio Pochettino.
This is a team certainly not built around individuals, no matter the plaudits that Harry Kane gets, or indeed his importance to the team, as Saturday’s defeat at Old Trafford may have shown. This is a team built around good squad organisation and the fact that everyone knows their role. And if Bale’s strengths are his individual qualities, then it’s the more team-focused qualities of Luka Modric that Spurs arguably miss the most from that Harry Redknapp team.
Currently, in the Tottenham midfield, it’s only really Christian Eriksen who provides the considered passing motions. With Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele, Spurs have power and solidity. In Dele Alli, they have directness and a spark of flair. But when it comes to the silk that Modric brings, only Christian Eriksen can provide that, and he’s not really that kind of player either.
Perhaps the best comparison to Modric in the Premier League is what Pep Guardiola has made David Silva into. Under Manuel Pellegrini, the Spaniard was a number 10, the creator-in-chief. Under Guardiola, Silva is often the pass before the pass, the assist for the assist. Compare, for example, Silva’s pass completion rate with that of Kevin de Bruyne – Silva averages 91%, De Bruyne 86%. It’s not a massive difference, but it does seem to show that the Belgian is playing the riskier passes.
It might be slightly unfair to compare two players from different teams, given that different coaches play in different ways, and each league presents different challenges. But when you look at the pass accuracy of Luka Modric so far this season (90%) and compare it to Christian Eriksen (83%), you see a similar gap between the two as you see between De Bruyne and Silva. It’s probably true that Eriksen is attempting riskier passes than Modric is.
That shows that they play in different roles for their current teams, but it probably also hints at the fact that they’re rather different midfielders. If Eriksen’s is the pass that sets his teammates in behind, then Modric’s is the ball that sets the whole thing in motion, and that’s just as important.
A player like the Croatian is the kind of midfielder that Spurs should be looking to add to their team to take themselves to the next level. They already have creative sparks ahead and solidity behind, but someone who pulls the strings like Silva does at City, or Modric at Madrid would be a welcome addition to a Spurs side who have often looked turgid when faced with the challenge of breaking down a well-drilled defence this season.
That’s not to say that the 32-year-old former Spurs player should be on Mauricio Pochettino’s summer wish-list, but when you look back at the team that Redknapp left and, after a few managers and departures, Pochettino took over, if Modric were still at the club, he’d fit right into what the manager wants from the team.