In August 2008, Tottenham Hotspur paid 16.5 million pounds for a 23-year-old Croatian playmaker. His name was Luka Modrić. You may have heard of him. Modrić spent 4 years stunning the White Hart Lane faithful, becoming the heartbeat of the side after an average first two seasons largely spent on the left wing or the injury table. During his stint in North London, the diminutive Croatian scored 17 goals and assisted 26 more. Whilst numerically not a brilliant output, it has often been said that Modrić's impact could not be measured statistically and, indeed, it became somewhat rare to see a Tottenham goal that did not flow through the playmaker. When Modrić departed Tottenham and travelled to Real Madrid for approximately 32 million pounds, the Croatian was not on the best of terms with chairman Daniel Levy and many fans were becoming tired of the long transfer saga that had begun with Chelsea's interest the previous summer. It came as no surprise that Levy and new manager Andre Villas-Boas decided it was time to cash in on the little wonder.
However, what immediately surfaced as an issue for Tottenham was how to replace him. Not many players in the world have the sort of passing range that Modrić does and of those that do, even fewer would be willing to play for Tottenham. Names like Joao Moutinho were tossed around, but it was no surprise that Villas-Boas was unable to bring the star from his days at Porto to North London. Eventually, the club decided on Mousa Dembélé of Fulham, and Levy paid the Belgian's 15 million pound release clause. Dembélé has been a revelation in the short time he has spent at Tottenham, scoring on his debut and partnering Sandro in the best double-pivot in the Premier League. However, several issues with the Belgian have also come to light in recent weeks. Dembélé's play style, whilst similar, is not the same as Modrić's. Dembélé uses his strength and ball control to dribble through and around defenders, whereas Modrić was a brilliant passer and preferred to let the ball do the work for him. Whilst Dembélé's differing abilities are not a hugely serious issue, Tottenham's playmaker depth is. An injury to Dembélé on international duty has kept him out for several weeks and Tottenham have suffered for it. Home losses to Chelsea and Wigan in the league and a 2-1 away loss to Norwich City in the Capitol One Cup have proven that for all of their abilities, Tom Huddlestone and Tom Carroll do not currently have the ability to electrify Tottenham's attack and midfield like Dembélé and Modrić. In fact, both before and after the Wigan loss, there was some talk on the site about Spurs needing a deep-lying playmaker. I could not agree more.
Andre Villas-Boas has a system. That system uses a midfield that contains a destroyer, a passer and a runner. Even when Tottenham's midfield is fully fit, having a midfield composing of Mousa Dembélé, Sandro and one of Gylfi Sigurðsson or Clint Dempsey, who have both been poor since signing for Tottenham. Right now, Tottenham is staying clear of AVB's system because it lacks the personnel to correctly operate it. Neither Clint Dempsey nor Gylfi Sigurðsson are deep-lying playmakers. At this point, Mousa Dembélé is essentially playing in AVB's passing role, yet one cannot help but feel he is better suited to being Spurs' runner due to his stunning dribbling ability and his tendency to get up and down the pitch. What Spurs need now is a true deep-lying playmaker in Modrić's mold. They need a guy who they can develop, a guy who won't break the bank. In essence, Tottenham need a Xavi to Dembélé's Iniesta. This article will document my search for that elusive pass-master as I look from Russia to Mexico and everywhere in between.
It was only natural for me to start my search at Modrić's former club, Dinamo Zagreb. It should come as no surprise to fans of Croatian football that the capital's big club has brought up 3 of the players that caught my eye. Dinamo's youth system has been tireless in recent years, pumping out wonderkids by the truckload. Some of the more impressive non-playmakers to come out of Dinamo's academy include Ivan Kelava, Simé Vrsaljko and Mario Situm, but that's a discussion for another day. The first playmaker to pique my interest is an 18-year-old central midfielder by the name of Mateo Kovačić. Kovačić made his first team debut in the 2010-11 season, and he has scored 7 goals in all competitions since then since then. One criticism that is common among members of the commentariat when bringing up potential Modrić replacements is that the player mentioned is indeed not a deep-lying playmaker, but a traditional number 10. However, those that make these arguments fail to mention that Modrić himself was a number 10 for most of his early career. In fact, when he came to Tottenham, Modrić was a man without a position. He was able to play behind the striker or on either wing, and the Croatian's versatility caused him to suffer throughout his first season in North London, as he fought for a position that truly did not suit him. It was not until the 2009-10 season that Modrić started to stake a claim for a more central and deeper role in the squad, and his defensive abilities increased to the point that he was crucial in not only attack, but defence as well, in the 2011-12 season. Mateo Kovačić, however, is not a man suffering from a positional identity crisis like the 23-year-old Modrić was, but it is very important to remember that number 10's can evolve into deep lying playmakers. Despite the slight positional difference, the 18-year-old has drawn comparisons to Modrić, and with good reason. He is always looking to get on the ball and make smart passes to start off attacking plays, whilst physically he is almost identical to Modrić; his small stature making it easy for opposing defenders and midfielders to underestimate his ability to dictate play. Unfortunately, Kovačić is not known for his defensive abilities, which is not particularly uncommon for several players on this list or, indeed, Modrić himself before the 2010-11 season. Also fighting against Kovačić is Dinamo's board, with their asking price in excess of 10 million pounds likely to scare off financially prudent vampire Daniel Levy, who would likely not want to spend such money on a player only proven in the Croatian league.
Moving on to another Dinamo graduate, Milan Badelj now plies his trade at Hamburger SV, where he currently teams up with a departed member of Tottenham's "Redknapp era", Rafael van der Vaart. Badelj has impressed over the past few years and, in earning a move to Hamburger, has already begun to prove his ability on a bigger stage than the low-key Croatian league. Numerically, Badelj is vastly superior to Modrić; with his league tally of 11 goals in the 2009-10 season only 2 goals short of Modrić's league total over his entire Tottenham career. However, as previously mentioned, Modrić's impact transcends statistics, and it has yet to be seen whether Badelj can ever match Modrić's "X-factor". Badelj is more capable defensively than several members of this list, and has featured often in Hamburger's double pivot this season. With the combination of his defensive abilities, his solid if unspectacular passing and his undoubtable attacking talent, Badelj seems like the perfect replacement for Luka Modrić and could definitely start in a 3 man midfield with Sandro and Dembélé, especially as his presence would free the Belgian midfielder to push further up the pitch into a free role. Signing Badelj would be a smart move by Levy and AVB, especially considering the issues that Tottenham have had when neither Scott Parker or Sandro are on the pitch, most notably in the last 70 minutes of the Wigan game. However, it is hard to see Badelj transfer away from Hamburger so soon after arriving in Germany. In fact, it is safe to assume that when Badelj finally does leave the German side, it will be for quite a large sum and to a club like Manchester United or Chelsea, both of whom still lack solid defensive midfielders and have far more bargaining power than Spurs. The chances of Tottenham landing the 23-year-old seem to be quite low, unless Hamburger suffer a major financial blow in the near future or Manchester United sign someone along the lines of Hector Herrera, who I will briefly discuss later in the piece.
With Badelj's chances of a transfer seemingly close-to-none for the near future, my mind turned to someone in the opposite predicament. Seemingly unhappy at Roma after only a season there, Miralem Pjanić is likely looking to make a move elsewhere. Tottenham have been linked to the 22-year-old by every rag under the Sun, and it is not hard to see why. Pjanić is a very versatile central midfielder, similar to Modrić, and his passing abilities are undisputed. Pjanić has received criticism for his poor defensive work rate and while he is not as defensively proficient as Badelj or even Modrić, but he is no Rafael van der Vaart either. None of the options that I am presenting are identical to Modrić, but each of them offers something that Modrić would have were he still present. In Badelj, it was a solid passer who is surprisingly good defensively. With Pjanić, it is the ability to control possession and play smart balls to Dembélé, Lennon, Bale and whoever the striker is at the time. The thought of a midfield trio containing Sandro, Dembélé and Pjanić is scary, as all 3 players are solid passers and are very good at getting forward when necessary. Pjanić, if he were played as a number 10 at Tottenham, would certainly bring more to the table than Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurðsson currently do, and it is not hard to see that the Bosnian fits Villas-Boas' system far better than either the American or the Icelandic fisherman. Roma's reported asking price of 14 million pounds seems steep at first, until one considers that Mousa Dembélé's purchase put Tottenham 15 million pounds out of pocket and Dembélé is in fact 3 years older than Pjanić. Dembélé may seemingly be the more complete player at present, Pjanić simply has bags of skill, and the sky really is the limit for the Bosnian midfielder.
At this point, it became obvious to me that the Balkans are crammed with current or potential deep-lying playmakers with massive skill, however I finally got sick of diacritical marks and looked for someone from a more "exotic" area of the world. What I found stunned me. Hector Herrera debuted for Mexican side Pachuca in July 2011, and was linked to Manchester United and Liverpool after impressing at the Olympics in London. Since then, Liverpool have loaned Nuri Şahin from Real Madrid and Sir Alex Ferguson has yet again refused to buy a defensively solid central midfielder, leaving Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur as the two most notable side vying for the Mexican's signature. Herrera is a very strong box-to-box player and is proficient at playing as part of a double pivot or a 3-man midfield, as well as being more than capable of filling in as a number 10 should the formation require. Whilst not the brilliant creative force that Kovačić or Pjanić are and not as defensively proficient as Badelj, Herrera is very capable as both a creator and a protector of the defence. It is also not uncommon to see Herrera shuttling back-and-forth and side-to-side on the pitch to facilitate play, and he would become a crucial part of starting counter-attacks at Tottenham. However, Herrera is not exactly the passing player that is ideal to partner Mousa Dembélé and, as such, he far better suits the runner role in AVB's midfield, similar to Ramires at Chelsea, simply due to his energy and box-to-box ability.
Heading back across the Atlantic, I found it hard to think of options that had both the right play style and price. I eventually decided to look at the players Tottenham currently has. Tom Huddlestone is nowhere near his best right now, Tom Carroll is not ready and is seemingly out of favour with AVB and Jake Livermore is, well, Jake Livermore. And so, despite my efforts to get away from Cyrillic languages and diacritical marks, I was forced to return to Eastern Europe. I decided to look at Russia, where there is a talented generation of attacking midfielders coming up, but none of them seemed to be the right fit. Alan Dzagoev is a name that has been linked with Spurs almost excessively since the Euros. Dzagoev began his career at CSKA Moscow as a central attacking midfielder, but at times deputized in a deeper role in the centre of midfield. Unfortunately, the Russian has been converted primarily into a winger to facilitate Keisuke Honda and Rasmus Elm as CSKA's primary playmakers. Were Dzagoev to transfer to Tottenham, he would seemingly be a replacement or back-up for the reborn Aaron Lennon, rather than a replacement for Luka Modrić. Zhano Ananidze, a Georgian international, has a similar play style to Modrić when he first arrived at Spurs, primarily playing behind the striker or cutting in from the left. Ananidze has a very high potential, however there have been concerns about his fitness and strength for long stretches of the 20-year-old's career. Ananidze's numbers are similar to those of Modrić, and he often seems unable to have the goalscoring impact on a game that other players might. However, this side of his game is improving quickly and the Georgian has scored 2 goals in 9 games in all competitions this season, including Spartak's 4th in a 5 goal demolition of Krylia Sovetov Samara. Ananidze is still raw however, and is finding it hard to break into the Spartak Moscow first team every single week, having to battle players like Aiden McGeady, Dmitri Kombarov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov for a starting spot. However, given time, Ananidze looks capable of developing into a quality central or attacking midfielder in the future, and a deal for between 7 and 10 million pounds would be a bargain in the long term.
Continuing my search in Spartak, I came across another Croatian that could fit the "Modrić mold". Filip Ozobić is currently playing for Hajduk Split on loan from Spartak and is yet another player that brings back memories of 2008-09 Luka Modrić. In a similar position to Ananidze, Ozobić is a bright talent and has represented Croatia at every youth level. The 21-year-old, having only played 12 league games so far in his career, has yet to score, although he has shown promising ability when getting forward. Unfortunately, he has the defensive work rate of Roman Pavlyuchenko and, as such, is almost useless in a midfield that would give him a responsibility to cover the pitch and press players, as AVB's almost certainly would.
Speaking of Comrade Vroom, a young Lokomotiv player by the name of Magomed Ozdoev drew my interest and I was impressed with his defensive abilities, although his passing left a lot to be desired. Feeling that the well had run dry in Russia, I decided to continue my search by looking further to the East. Germany impressed and I was left amazed at the number of talented central midfielders there. Borussia Dortmund was particularly mesmerizing, with both Ïlkay Gündogan and Moritz Leitner standing out there. Neither player came up through Dortmund's academy, instead following the German tradition of transferring from a smaller Bundesliga club for a criminal price. Both players are impressive in their passing and solid in defence, yet Leitner is younger, slightly more versatile (being able to play on either wing and in central or attacking midfield) and would likely come cheaper than Gündogan. Both Gündogan and Leitner are talented and versatile playmakers who would slot into Tottenham's passer role perfectly, however Dortmund would probably be reluctant to part with two of their young and talented prospects after selling Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United. Before finishing my German search, I stopped by the other Borussia, Mönchengladbach that is, and noticed young Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka. Xhaka impressed last season at FC Basel and earned himself a 7 million pound transfer to Germany.
Finishing in Germany, I decided to look over some of the more popular names linked with Tottenham. A transfer for Joao Moutinho went right down to the deadline, yet ultimately the deal was not completed. Seemingly the perfect replacement for Modrić, it seems unlikely that Daniel Levy will re-enter the market for Moutinho in January due to his 25-30 million pound asking price that will only increase in January. Another touted option is Yann M'Vila, who is simply a glorified defensive midfielder, only has a passing range slightly better than that of Tom Huddlestone, meaning that the transfer would be essentially pointless. Looking further north, one comes across the Eredivisie, which contains two players important to my search. Kevin Strootman is a solid box-to-box midfielder who was recently told that he would be allowed to leave PSV in January if a team can meet his club's 20 million pound valuation. Jordy Clasie is also an important figure in the Eredivisie, being labelled as the "Dutch Xavi". Clasie impressed for Feyenoord last season, proving a crucial member of the side that finished second only to Jan Vertonghen's Ajax side. Concerns have been raised with regards to Clasie's size, but with a midfield that also contains Mousa Dembélé and Sandro, the young Dutchman would not be asked to do a huge amount of heavy lifting.
Looking towards the playmakers that Tottenham could have used in a swap deal for Modrić, the list is truly upsetting. Nuri Şahin ended up going on loan to Liverpool, who are almost certainly offering the Turk less in wages than Daniel Levy would have. Esteban Granero transferred to Queen's Park Rangers. God knows why. A playmaking duo of Fernando Gago and Sergio Canales transferred to Valencia for incredibly small fees given their skill levels. Looking at another side that is packed with creative talent, Shakhtar Donetsk has an unbelievable wealth of attacking ability. Players like Willian and Douglas Costa fit into other holes in Tottenham's first team, but are not the deep-lying playmakers that Andre Villas-Boas could use to perfect a 3-man central midfield. Henrik Mkhitaryan has been the revelation of the 2012-13 season so far, yet he would not be at his best for Tottenham unless he was at the centre of an attacking midfield trio, which would build further into the 4-2-3-1 system that AVB is using as a stepping stone. An interesting player to look towards is Fernandinho, who has, at times, beaten Sandro for a place in Brazil's double pivot. The problem, however, is with Shakhtar. Shakhtar would likely push the price tag of any of its key players through the roof, which is a sure-fire way to not negotiate with Daniel Levy.
Thinking back to the early stages of my search, I realised that the most likely playmakers to come to Tottenham for a reasonable price originate in Croatia, just like Modrić himself. My thoughts drifted back to Dinamo and I felt that I had skimmed over something in my haste to find the ultimate deep-lying playmaker. Taking one last look at Dinamo's squad list, I couldn't believe what I had missed. The biggest story in football over the past month. Alen Halilović. For those who are not aware, Halilović became the youngest ever player for Dinamo, having debuted at the age of 16 years and 120 days. A week later, in only his second professional game, he came off the bench and scored. This made him the youngest ever goalscorer in the Croatian league, beating none other than Mateo Kovačić. Known as "the next Modrić", Halilović has been linked with sides such as Manchester United and Real Madrid and looks unlikely to be sold for less than 10 million pounds. Notably, Halilović looks far more like the present Modrić than the former Spurs man himself did when he made his debut for Dinamo (Modrić was actually 19 when he made his professional debut), and his development appears to be progressing much faster than Modrić's ever did. Halilović is seemingly the perfect Luka Modrić replacement, with his impressive dribbling and eye for a pass making waves throughout Europe. 10 million pounds is a bargain for the 16-year-old, especially if he is sold for a figure similar to that which Real Madrid parted with to attract Modrić.
My search reached from the Balkan Peninsula to the Gulf of Mexico and it was finally clear that Croatia, in fact Dinamo in particular, has some sort of specialty when it comes to producing world-class creative players. Whilst La Masia and the Ajax Academy are often lauded for the wealth of talent they produce, Dinamo's academy is criminally underrated outside of Croatia. With a list of graduates that include Luka Modrić, Niko Kranjčar and Vedran Ćorluka, it is clear that Tottenham has a tradition of purchasing the best of Dinamo's youth products so, when looking for a Luka Modrić's replacement, why not poach just one more?
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