Modric to Real Madrid: The Luka-Xabi Alonso conundrum

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Let’s start with a conclusion: Luka Modric is a better soccer player than Xabi Alonso.

This needs to be said because many would claim otherwise. So be it. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but when we’re talking about Real Madrid’s purchase of the former Tottenham centerpiece, it’s very important to establish what the Spanish champions are getting. Have they acquired an upgrade to Xabi Alonso, a stalwart at the base of midfield since being bought from Liverpool three years ago? Or, have the Spanish champions bought a mere insurance policy? Because at $52.2 million, Modric would be an absurd Plan B.

Discerning who’s better: Alonso, or Modric

Imagine we had a list of possible attributes for a soccer player, picked out all the good ones, and asked where Alonso had advantages over Modric, and vice versa. The goal is to break the question down into enough parts that we can make a series of small, objective, non-controversial decisions. Once we have enough decisions, we’ll be able to piece them together to answer the bigger question.

In attack, there is one attribute where Alonso has Modric trumped: The ability to play a beautiful long ball. This skill alone, envied by anybody who’s ever kicked a ball, makes Alonso a world class player in many minds, and for Real Madrid, it’s a perfect fit. The potential to quickly transcend midfield and find Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria wide allows Real to play to José Mourinho’s conservative defensive preferences while still being one of the most potent attacks in the world.

But that’s the only attacking area where Alonso has an advantage over Modric. Modric is faster, can play more positions (and at different levels). He doesn’t have Alonso’s range of passing, but he has a wider variety. He’s a better and quicker decision maker on the ball and has better goal-scoring instincts.

All of that sounds like a real hatchet job on Alonso, but he’s being compared to one of the best players in the world. Take the unavailable Barcelona players out of the picture, and how many central midfielders have better attacking talents than Modric? “None” is an acceptable answer here (though if you disagree, the comments are at your disposal).

Defensively, the players are similar in their positioning acumen (when Modric is deployed in a deep role), though Alonso is more physically imposing. But with his lack of lateral quickness, Alonso’s physicality (and his use of it) isn’t always an advantage. Although he recorded twice as many tackles per league game last season (3 to Modric’s 1.6), Alonso committed more than three times as many fouls (1.7 per game to Modric’s 0.5) and was dribbled past at a greater rate (1.6 times per game to Modric’s 0.9). Given how Spurs used Modric last season, it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, though it’s pretty close. And it does confirm what you’d expect from the players’ skill sets: Modric is the quicker, less imposing player who’s both less likely to go in for (and win) a challenge and less likely to give up a bad foul.

It may be nuanced and take a few more words than you’d like, but it’s not difficult to make the case that Modric is a distinct upgrade to Alonso. Still, there’s a more interesting proposition at play with Real Madrid’s purchase: Is Modric a better fit for the Merengues?

Who’s the better fit: Alonso, or Modric

As it pertains to Real Madrid’s attack, that long ball ability shouldn’t be undersold, and while Modric may offer other qualities Alonso can’t, those qualities aren’t distinct from one of Modric’s new teammates: Mesut Özil. Özil tends to operate in more advanced areas than Modric. He’s best as the beneficiary of a team’s transition, not orchestrating it (one of Modric’s best skills). As complementing pieces, the prospect of watching Modric and Özil play together may be the best thing to come from this move (something that could happen with Alonso staying in the team, with Angel Di Maris sacrificed).

But was this the best use of $52.2 million? And even if he is more than an insurance policy, is Modric really worth that price to Real Madrid?

It’s not really a fair question. Under most circumstances, a $52.2 million signing would have a dramatic, squad-shaping impact, and we tend to judge purchases by that standard. But with the talent in Real Madrid’s fold, these aren’t normal circumstances. Aside from Lionel Messi (and perhaps Andres Iniesta and Zlatan Ibrahimovic), any potential Real acquisition would only marginally improve the team. That’s what happens when your team sits at the far right of the talent spectrum. Marginal improvements are all you’ve got, and with only the world’s best players dwelling in those margins, upgrades are going to be ridiculously costly.

Under such absurd circumstances, we need a different standard. If Modric can make any improvements to a team that posted 100 points and a +89 in last year’s Liga, he should be considered a spectacular success.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday