x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Luka Modric: a midfield creator who holds all of the best attributes

Chelsea will get an up close look at what they missed out on in the summer when the Croatian leads a Tottenham midfield against them at White Hart Lane, writes Ian Hawkey.

He is the most desired creature in modern football, and perhaps the hardest to find. He must be strong but quick, solid but adventurous, sure of his role but always eager to redefine it. He needs to be two-footed and quick-witted, to score goals and save points.

He is the midfield all-rounder, and you hear about him most when he is absent. In this winter's transfer window, Manchester United are being urged to find a man who can both galvanise and add decoration to their creative game; the calls for that reinforcement are often accompanied by nostalgia for the retired Paul Scholes.

A misty-eyed longing comes over followers of Arsenal as they remember how the departed Cesc Fabregas could rev up their passing game from deep, oil the wheels of it from behind the forward line and, for all his diminutive height, win duels against heftier men. Arsenal's regrets are doubled when they think how nicely Samir Nasri had been developing in most of those aspects before he left, in August, to join Manchester City.

There are many visions of the ideal modern midfielder. In the eyes of some, he might look like Yaya Toure, a physically imposing man who can win the ball tidily and intercept it with fine anticipation. Toure is not an anchorman in the traditional sense because he looks for opportunity in the opposing penalty area. His admirers would advertise the fact that he spent successful seasons at Barcelona, acquiring the skills of pass-and-move that have made that club an exemplar for midfield play.

Modern coaches would more likely sketch out a nimbler man than Toure as their ideal central schemer.

Ask at Juventus, the pacesetters of the Italy's Serie A, and they beam at how much they have gained this season from having signed the veteran Andrea Pirlo from AC Milan. Enquire at Bayern Munich, leaders of the German Bundesliga, about which player they most value there, and the name Bastian Schweinsteiger will crop up quickly.

These are footballers who have conspicuously mastered the tactical trends and altering demands of modern elite football. Pirlo was once a feathery trequartista - the Italian term for a player situated just behind a centre-forward - who, at Milan, shifted to a role closer to the defence, improved his tackling and exploited his excellent passing range. Schweinsteiger used to be a winger, but changed, bringing his aggression and leadership into a deeper, central role.

Much of the activity in the last transfer window revolved around creative midfielders with something extra: City's bid for Nasri; Real Madrid's pursuit of Nuri Sahin - frustrated by injury since his move from Borussia Dortmund - and Barcelona's determined chase for Fabregas. Another long-running saga will be revisited tonight at White Hart Lane, as Tottenham Hotspur supporters enjoy reminding Chelsea how Luka Modric stayed a Spurs player rather than moving to west London. Chelsea had offered an enticing fee to Spurs - it rose higher than £35 million (Dh202m) - and lavish terms to the Croatian international.

It is easy to see why Chelsea wanted Modric, and why United are confessed admirers. Since joining Tottenham, he has convincingly rebutted the idea that his waifish build might be an impediment in the brutal battle of English football. He has often played in the anchor role for Spurs and thrived. He has mostly celebrated the idea that a player of imagination, one who makes unexpected runs and thinks several moves ahead, can glow in the Premier League.

It is possible that tonight Modric will be running a Spurs midfield that has grown into a well-honed unit against a trio of Chelsea players who have joined the club only in the past 18 months.

Ramires, for all the industry he has given Chelsea since joining from Benfica in 2010, lacks the subtlety of a Modric; Oriol Romeu, for all his excellent credentials as a Barcelona-born-and-bred prospect, is young and hesitant; Raul Meireles has vigour and ambition, but not the poise of Tottenham's most important player.

Harry Redknapp, the Spurs manager, values Modric all the more for what he calls "a professional attitude" throughout a tense summer when Chelsea stalked him.

"He was never disruptive," said Redknapp once he knew the player was to stay at Spurs. "There's nothing cocky or nasty about him. And he's a massive influence for us."

sports@thenational.ae