3rd December 2018. On this date, the world knew the name of the Ballon d’Or 2018 winner.
Unlike the past 10 years, this year’s Ballon d’Or ceremony held a special curiosity among the football fans and non-football fans alike.
For the past 10 years, this particular award had been won by the two of the most dominant, special, greatest footballers of this generation at least.
Since Cristiano Ronaldo won it first in the year 2008, it started a fierce rivalry between the two greats of the modern game. By the end of the year 2017, both the players are on the level with 5 Ballon d’Ors apiece.
They had been so dominant with their on-field performances that hardly there were any doubts on whether anyone else apart from these two should win the award that particular year. There had been 2 particular years when there was a slight doubt about either of them being named the world’s best.
It was in 2010 when Messi was named Ballon d’Or winner despite Spain winning the World Cup with large contributions from Messi’s Barcelona midfield teammates Xavi and Iniesta. Also, Wesley Sneijder was another real competitor for the individual trophy that year with him winning the Treble with his club Inter Milan and reaching the final of the World Cup losing to eventual winners Spain.
The other such instance was in 2013 when Cristiano Ronaldo was named Ballon d’Or (having scored 34 league goals and 55 goals overall) despite not winning single silverware with Real Madrid that year while Frank Ribery won the much coveted Treble of silverware with Bayern Munich that season.
This brings us to a question as to “Why traditional midfielders like Xavi, Iniesta, and Wesley Sneider or out and out midfielders like Ribery were ignored for the most desirable individual trophy for a footballer?”
The last time a proper midfielder won the Ballon d’Or was in 2003 when Pavel Nedved, the great Czech football legend, won it playing for Juventus. He was bought as a replacement to anotherJuventus and France great, Zinedine Zidane. Co-incidentally Zidane also was the last “proper midfielder” to win the Ballon d’Or back in 1998 before Nedved won in 2003.
So maybe you are not too farfetched in asking whether Modric really should win the Ballon d’Or 2018.
Let’s first try to analyze the individual contribution of a midfielder in a football match without bringing in the statistics. And then we will look into both the aspects of why Luka Modric should or shouldn’t win the Ballon d’Or.
Basically, a midfielder is the player who assists both the defensive players and attacking players in their specific duties. While it is easier for us to judge an attacking player’s match performance by looking at his goals or assist contribution to the final scoreline and a defensive player’s contribution by helping the team keep a clean sheet or conceded minimal amount of goals, things become more complicated when it comes to assess the real performances of a midfielder. Most of the time they won’t be directly involved with the creation or scoring of a goal nor you can see them every time standing as the last man defending an opposition forward.
So how can you measure their performance accurately?
The easy answer is, “You can’t”.
The statistics can’t show the number of times the midfielder started a move and made a particular play happen. The statistics also can’t show the amount of pressing and positioning of the midfielder which prevented an opposition attack and helped his own team in retaining the ball. The numbers can’t show how the movement of the midfielder created space for his attackers utilize and score or assist. It also doesn’t show the work rate a midfielder puts in throughout the match by covering the whole pitch and always running to make the team ticking and keep pushing up. These are the things which you can’t judge from the scoreline alone, you have to watch the whole match to actually see their contribution.
Probably this is why “traditional midfielders” are mostly ignored for individual awards as the voting population does not or cannot see each and every match of the nominated players and they go for the easier options such as goals scored, assisted or saved. These metrics are easier to calculate and base a theory out of it.
Now let’s talk about Modric and his nomination for the Ballon d’Or.
First, let’s see why he is the deserved winner for the coveted prize.
Luka Modric was an integral part of the Champions League winning team of Real Madrid. He has now won the trophy with Real Madrid three times in a row. An amazing and near impossible feat considering the tough competition each team has to face in the competition. Also with him playing in the midfield, Real Madrid went on to win three more trophies last season: FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup, and Spanish Supercup.
Luka Modric was also an integral part of the Croatia team which reached the World Cup final for the first time in their history. Nobody thought Croatia could achieve such a feat. But the sheer tenacity and brilliance of Modric and his teammates made it possible. At one stage Croatia had to play 3 continuous knockout matches until the extra time of 120 minutes within such a short span of time. But the determination of this group of players overcame all the fatigue and problems on their road to the final.
Luka Modric was awarded the WorldCup Golden Ball for being the best player of the tournament. Also, he won the FIFA Best Player 2018 recently to lay stake his claim for the Ballon d’Or 2018.
If you analyze his performances in each of these competitions, you will see how crucial his contributions were in the key moments, be it making a crucial interception to stop an opposition attack or playing a key pass which leads to the goal. His performances and professionalism were of the highest level. He isn’t a flashy kind of players like some big name strikers or wingers; he also doesn’t have a big built to take advantage of his opponents. What he has is a very intelligent footballing brain which helps him utilize his individual prowess to his maximum. His individual capacity was crucial to every manager’s gameplan he played under. Beit Jose Mourinho’s counter-attacking style of play or Zinedine Zidane’s controlling football; Luka Modric was a key member of the team for each of these managers.
Now let us analyze why he should not have won the Ballon d’Or and it should had gone to someone else.
One of the main reasons why a midfielder is not considered for individual awards is because they don’t make the difference on their own. Most of the time they will have midfield partners playing in tandem and complementing each other’s play. From recent times if we look into Spain’s World Cup and two Euro Cup winning teams, we will see the midfield partnership of Xavi and Iniesta creating magic in the middle of the park, the 2014 World Cup winning team of Germany has Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger making things happen in German midfield. The midfield combination of William Carvalho and Renato Sanchez resembling steel and speed for Portugal were crucial for Portugal’s Euro success in 2016.
So it can be safe to assume that midfield players need a partner to perform to their optimal level. Very rarely you come across a midfielder’s display which will leave you speechless and so awestruck that you will not be able to anything else. Zinedine Zidane’sperformance against Brazil in 2006 World Cup Quarterfinal comes to mind when you think about it. He deservedly won the Golden Ball for his performances from the knockout stage until his moment of madness in the final.
Luka Modric is a top performer, no doubt, but he also needed help from his teammates to achieve such success. His midfield partnership with Kroos and hard work of Casemiro in the defensive midfielder role were the key to Real Madrid’s success. (Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo is important, without scoring goals a team can’t win every match).
Also, the fact that Real Madrid had a below-par La Liga campaign doesn’t help his claim.
Modric had a similar partnership in the World Cup along with his Club counterpart Ivan Rakitic. These midfield players liberate each other to play in tandem and control the midfield. So in a way you can also say that along with Modric, these players also were also deserving candidates for the Ballon d’Or.
Same cannot be applied to strikers or the defenders all the time. A striker can play alone up front and score truckloads of goals to claim the award or a defender can dominate the matches with his leadership in defense and crucial tackles, interception and clearances and minimizing opposition chances and thus helping the team keeping clean sheets and win matches.
The absence of a midfielder can be managed to an extent by the manager with a change in the formation or playing style, but replacing an in-form striker or your most reliable defender is very tough.
That being said, the nomination of Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann for the award is justifiable as they not only performed well for their respective clubs and France, they won important trophies also such as Europa Cup, Champions League, and World Cup to name a few. This is only based on the contribution of the individual to the team’s success. But if you look purely at only the “individual performances” alone, Lionel Messi again stands heads and shoulders above all his immediate competitors with his highest goals tally in Europe, most assists, most chance creation, most Man of the Match performances. A Champions League trophy or the World Cup itself would have been the icing on the cake for him and nobody would have any doubt over him winning this award again, but it was not to be and here we are debating whether Modric or anyone else really deserves it.
There has not been a clear standout performer in all the competitions last season. Then again, many previous winners had won the award for less. So it still remains up to debate on what criteria this “individual award” is given to the winner.