Real Madrid missed Luka Modrić again against Athletic Club

Luka Modrić is set to return from injury on Tuesday, and for Real Madrid, it cannot come soon enough. The Merengues’ struggles without the Croatian international were again on display at San Mamés, where a 1-0 loss to Athletic Club could see Carlo Ancelotti’s team in second place come the end of the round.

The midfielder has been out since November, when he went down with a thigh injury while on international duty. At the time, Real Madrid had won 13 consecutive matches, a streak it eventually ran to 22, though things have not gone nearly as well since. The team’s won just eight of its last 13, was eliminated from the Copa del Rey and will concede La Liga’s lead for the first time since October if Barcelona wins on Sunday.

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It’s the plight of a team that has some obvious flaws. Real Madrid was flawed a year ago, too, and it still won the UEFA Champions League. But when you don’t have a consistent, good defensive midfielder, you’re going to need something truly spectacular to cover.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez are pretty spectacular, but Modrić is the true key to making the team’s defensive midfielder-less setup work. The Croatian’s skill in the middle of the field is what allows Real Madrid to dictate tempo and space, an effective counter measure when you don’t have a midfielder who specializes in winning the ball.

But when Modrić is out? At times, it’s been ugly. El Real’s been exposed, failing to maintain control of matches while allowing teams to run unimpeded at its defense. The team also doesn’t have the ability to play the ball from deep to spring the counterattack, allowing opponents to get forward and exploit the midfield with impunity. This summer’s sale of Xabi Alonso plays into that as well, but were Modric healthy, that absence wouldn’t be so acutely felt.

Without either midfielder, Athletic was allowed to punished El Real. Its midfielders got forward without much fear of being, while Real Madrid’s counter, still better than most (thanks to Ronaldo and Bale), wasn’t the deadly force it’d been en route to last year’s European championship.

Athletic Club v Real Madrid CF - La Liga

Photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images.

Athletic knew it. The Basques took control in stretches, then gave it away, allowing the match to turn into an up-and-down race. Real Madrid wasn’t going to stop them through the middle, so Athletic had no reason to fear an open game – something teams would normally avoid against Madrid’s talent.

It wasn’t as if Real Madrid was terrible. The team had looks at goal — is it possible not to with its array of talent? — and could have very well nabbed a goal or two, if it wasn’t for the post and Gorka Iraizoz in goal. But Athletic had its opportunities, too. This wasn’t a dominant Real Madrid against a scared Athletic Bilbao. This was a confident Athletic, spurred on by its home crowd, knowing that it could open a match up and take its chances, knowing it was as likely to gain as lose.

Real Madrid shouldn’t be playing these types of 50-50 matches. You don’t spend the money it spends, buy in the players it buys and win the trophies it wins be relying on coin flips. But with a giant hole in the midfield and no Modric to paper over it, that’s what the club did against Athletic. And it’s hardly the first match in the last few months that has played out that way.

Thankfully for the Merengues, Modrić is back on Tuesday. The team will have its glue once more.