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Luka Modrić was the most important player in Real Madrid’s run to back-to-back Champions League titles

As the diminutive midfield maestro has improved, Real Madrid has improved at the same rate.

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Luka Modrić was voted as the worst signing of the season ahead of Alex Song in 2013. 32.2 percent of voters in a Marca poll chose to anoint the former Tottenham man as trash. A waste of money.

It was not out of ignorance either. That season Modrić had struggled to get into a Real Madrid side with Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil. He had impressed in his debut but otherwise seemed like a bad decision.

Four years later, Modrić has helped Real Madrid to back to back Champions League titles and is arguably the best midfielder in the world.

Modrić looks like an ugly duckling, but he plays like a black swan. After the first half of the final — when Juventus were firmly in the front foot, and were just coming out of the high of an incredible Mario Mandžukić goal — Madrid needed to take control of the game. The Spanish team looked more Juventus than Juventus did, being out-shot and out-played by their opponents who were more known for their defense. Modrić, Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Isco had looked completely overpowered.

But it couldn’t possibly stay like that. That midfield was too good to be on the back-foot and Modrić, especially, couldn’t go through the rest of the game as a passenger. Not after what he’s done this season and the seasons before. Not when he’s head and shoulders above anyone in that Juve midfield.

Sure enough, he came out the second half with the intent to run circles and pass around his opponents. He, along with his fellow midfielders, took control of the engine room and Madrid subsequently put Juventus under their heel. Casemiro’s deflected goal in the 60th minute put Madrid up 2-1 before Ronaldo scored his second and 600th career goal to put the game away a few minutes after.

It was Modrić who was responsible for the premise of the Ronaldo goal. He won the ball back high up the field on the right wing. He made the subsequent run through the channel, behind Dani Alves, to receive the pass from Carvajal and then he sent a perfect ball, while falling away, to the face of goal for Ronaldo to tap past Gigi Buffon.

Elegant is an overused descriptor, but it’s perfect for Modrić. He’s as graceful as they come. He’s technically perfect; there’s not a pass that he can’t make with either foot, and he can do the same with his shooting. His first touch should come with a kiss of the fingers. He’s incredibly smart, both tactically and physically, in using his body to shield the ball and having an almost spiritual sense of where defenders are coming from.

His elegance isn’t just pure art though, it’s very practical. He doesn’t exist as a luxury. He is the heart of the team. He doesn’t take more touches than necessary. He continuously breaks defensive lines either by passing or when the space provides itself, by driving at defenders, bamboozling them with his close control and then sending a through ball to one of the fullbacks or running forwards. With Casemiro winning the ball and Kroos helping to dictate the tempo, Modrić gets to do whatever he wants and no one can stop him.

For defenders, playing against him must feel like being in quicksand. You can’t depend on physicality to defeat him, because he’s so kinesthetically intelligent that you’d end up compromising your position by stepping in on him. There are no traps that he can’t escape. And there’s no defender that he can’t turn. The harder you try, the more he succeeds. Yet, you can’t wait for him to come at you, because he will bury you in a series of quick passes and intelligent movement. So, when he’s in form, as he was in that second half, Modrić occupies that rare space in football of being unplayable.

The ironic thing is that Madrid has won these back to back titles by trusting in their midfield more than the BBC. The goals still come for Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale when he’s not bandaged up, but the true hotbed of action is beneath them. In that midfield, Modrić has become what Iniesta was for Barcelona when they were in the same winning positions. Modrić is a better shooter, but their style is so similar and their roles, so identical.

When Barca won their titles under Pep Guardiola, the constant was always that Iniesta was undeniable. Juve, like United did in 2011, managed to stifle the midfield in the first half that ended 1-1. Then in the second half, Real Madrid and Barca back then, were so good that all their opponents could do was wait for the end of the whistle to put them out of their misery. Not to say that Iniesta was better than Messi, Xavi and Busquets or that Modrić this time outplayed Ronaldo, Xavi and Busquets, but they were at the forefront of wrestling back control. They were so wonderful that the other team seemed mesmerized.

Without the comparison, Modrić is a wonder of his own. He has done things his way, and he’s won the respect and adoration of the Madrid fans by constantly being excellent. When he was voted the worst signing of the season, it could have easily torpedoed his career and Madrid could have sold him some time after. But he wanted to prove that he could be better than the midfielder that he was at Tottenham.

Year by year, he improved. The better he’s performed, the more successful the team has become. Now Madrid is first team in the Champions League era to win the European title back to back, and it was possible because they put faith in a tiny man who is perpetually in flow. He might not look too much like a star, but through the Croatian midfielder, all things were possible for Madrid.