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.

Reina faces hearing over links with trio connected to mafia

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ROME (AP) Outgoing Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina has been summoned to a hearing at the Italian football federation over his association with people with links to the mafia.

Reina, along with Paolo Cannavaro and Salvatore Aronica, is to face the FIGC’s disciplinary committee after an investigation by Naples’ anti-mafia department.

It is reportedly one of the reasons why Napoli decided not to renew Reina’s contract, with the former Liverpool goalkeeper set to move to AC Milan on a free transfer.

The FIGC says Reina “has had and continues to have inopportune association and friendship with Gabriele Esposito, Francesco Esposito and Giuseppe Esposito.” It adds that that includes holidays and “an exchange of favors.”

Cannavaro, who had two spells with Napoli, retired at Sassuolo last year. Aronica also spent several years at the southern club before joining Palermo in 2013.

Iran names initial squad for World Cup

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) Jalal Hosseini and Vouria Ghaffouri have both been left off Iran’s provisional 24-man squad for the World Cup.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz did not say why Hosseini, a Persepolis defender, and Ghaffouri were not included.

There was space for midfielders Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, however. Both played with Greek club Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv in August 2017. Iran does not recognize Israel and its supreme leader has threatened the country in the past. Both Shojaei and Hajsafi missed matches with the national team after the game.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh, a 24-year-old forward who plays in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar, is also in the squad, which was announced Sunday.

In the midfield, Queiroz chose Saeid Ezatolahi, although the Amkar Perm player will miss the team’s first World Cup match because he was given a red card in a game against South Korea in qualifying.

Nottingham Forest midfielder Ashkan Dejagah was also chosen.

Goalkeeper Amir Abedzadeh of Portuguese club Maritimo made the squad. His father, Ahmadreza Abedzadeh, was Iran captain and goalkeeper at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Iran will play in Group B at the World Cup with Portugal, Spain and Morocco. The team will play warm-up matches in Turkey and Greece before heading to Russia.

Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo)

Defenders: Ramin Rezaeian (KV Oostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Al Saad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Seyed Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal)

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiakos), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds FK), Ali Gholizadeh (Saipa)

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiakos), Mahdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa Sports Club), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (SC Heerenveen)

Six Premier Leaguers named to Argentina, but no Icardi

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Argentina’s World Cup roster features a number of the usual suspects, particularly up front, but Serie A’s top goalscorer has been surprisingly left off the list of 23.

[ MORE: Belgium goes to World Cup without Nainggolan ]

Manager Jorge Sampaoli’s squad was made official on Monday, which includes the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain.

The Albiceleste won’t be taking Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi though, which has raised some questions about the decision.

Icardi led all scorers in Italy’s top flight this season, scoring 29 goals in 34 Serie A matches, while Paulo Dybala edged out the final striker spot in the Argentina squad.

Dybala is teammates with Higuain at Italian giants Juventus.

Meanwhile, six Premier League players were named into the South American nation’s squad, including goalkeepers Sergio Romero (Man United) and Willy Caballero (Chelsea), as well as Nicolas Otamendi (Man City), Marcos Rojo (Man United) and Manuel Lanzini (West Ham).

Men in Blazers POD: FA Cup recap, UCL final preview and more

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Rog and Davo recap a spite-fueled, snear-filled, peak Phil Jones FA Cup Final, preview this weekend’s Champions League tilt between Liverpool and Real Madrid and eulogize Big Sam… gone the opposite of too soon. Plus, World Cup rosters and MLS.

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