It's been 12 months since Luka Modric topped a poll for the "worst signing of 2012" in Madrid sports daily Marca, per The Express. The former Tottenham midfielder was on the receiving end of 32.2 per cent of the votes, as the Bernabeu faithful made their opinions clear on his £33 million move. As it was only four months after his arrival to La Liga, it was certainly a little harsh.
Adapting to a new country, team and club can take time, especially when there was no obvious place in the line-up for the Croatian to occupy. The two-man midfield of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira was displaying the right balance of strength and artistry. Ahead of them, Mesut Ozil was providing record assists, with the inverted wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria offering support and a goal threat to the lone striker.
The use of Modric alongside Alonso was possible against inferior opposition where Madrid dominated possession, but as Jose Mourinho was fashioning a brand familiar with his previous sides it appeared a little too open when the bigger matches came around.
For Modric to excel in this situation he needed someone to sit next to him and break up the play, which at least explains why Michael Essien came to town. Even though the Chelsea midfielder struggled to hit top form, he was the type of player that was needed, if not the right player, if the Croatian was to be trusted in the latter stages of the Champions League and against Barcelona.
Further up the pitch Ozil was the perfect lynchpin to Mourinho's swashbuckling counter-attacks. His speed of thought and quick passing enabled the team to move up the field fast when in transition, whilst his spatial awareness and clever movement was appreciated by his teammates and manager.
When the wingers cut inside, he would drift out to the flanks so that the attacking zones didn't become too congested. The solitary striker (either Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain) would benefit from his ability to drag defenders away from shooting opportunities. His work rate for the team off the ball was just as important as when he was on it.
This inevitably led to Modric having to make do with a place on the bench. He started just three matches in the September after he joined the club, and every time he was substituted after an hour played. The first time he managed to complete 90 minutes in the famous white shirt was 20 October, 2012 in a 2-0 win over Celta Vigo.
The non-inclusion in the first XI for matches with Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund saw reports of a move back to England gather pace. Chelsea, City and Manchester United were all poised to prepare a bid. "It’s very demanding to adjust to a huge club like Real Madrid," admitted Modric to The Metro.
Ironically it was his first return to the British aisles that proved a huge turning point in his career in Spain. The trip to Old Trafford saw Modric once again starting as a substitute; by now Madrid were too far behind Barcelona to realistically win the league, so Mourinho's domestic team sheets were a mix of first-team and fringe players as his priorities fell to the Champions League. This enabled Modric to gain a number of regular appearances, and as a result his confidence grew.
When United's Nani was controversially sent off with the home side leading 1-0, Mourinho brought on the playmaker. With Kaka and Benzema also an option, it was a boost in confidence for Modric, and he didn't disappoint. Seven minutes after arriving for Alvaro Arbeloa, he feigned a shot past the onrushing Michael Carrick before striking a sweet right-footed curler into the bottom corner of David de Gea's goal.
This season Modrić has seen his stock rise further with the sale of Ozil and Alonso missing the early part of the campaign through injury. The talk of leaving Los Blancos will continue to subside. "I have no doubt that the best thing that ever happened to me in football is to play in Madrid," he told Croatian newspaper Sportske Novosti, per Sky Sports.
In Alonso's absence Modric has shown further adaptability by operating as a more mobile deep-lying playmaker when paired with Khedira. When the former Liverpool man came back, Carlo Ancelotti used a midfield trio of Alonso, Khedira and Modric in the 5-1 win over Real Sociedad. This was perhaps a sign of the Italian's vision for the future, but with Khedira ruled out for six months shortly afterwards, sadly we might never get to find out.
The uncertainty around Alonso's contract could mean he departs before the German returns to action. In the last four matches Alonso and Modric have played together it appears the pairing works better at home than on the road. The two will develop a better understanding in time, though the feeling their attributes struggle in combination against the better teams continues to persist.
The expansive and patient build-up play under coach Ancelotti suits Modric to a tee. Individually he will become even more important to the structure that is being put into place. He's also helping record purchase Gareth Bale settle into life in the Spanish capital, as Modric plans to watch Real Madrid’s basketball team with his former White Hart Lane teammate, per The Daily Telegraph.
This season he has broken into the league's top 10 successful passers, per Who Scored, though the shift in philosophies at both "Clasico" sides has made a significant contribution to this factor. Modric will never be prolific in front of goal, with five the highest amount scored for a club side in a single season, but he will find the net in the most important and extreme situations just like that evening in Manchester.