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Are Luka Modric and Paul Scholes Really That Comparable?

We're not saying he's going to United. Stop freaking out. STOP. WE SAID STOP.
We're not saying he's going to United. Stop freaking out. STOP. WE SAID STOP.

With Spurs not having played a game since the already picked-apart display against Everton and with little other news to analyze, I'm turning for this piece to an issue which, while not all that immediately relevant, is still a matter of interest for anyone out there's who's as interested in stats and player roles as me.

Since the retirement of the Ginger Prince at the end of last season all the way through the current season, a groundswell of support has seemingly developed behind Luka Modric from the United faithful and neutral pundits alike to take the mantle from Paul Scholes as the key playmaker at the heart of Manchester United's midfield. Time and time again, Modric has been singled out as the only player in the Premier League who possesses the same blend of intelligence, vision and passing range as Scholes, a point which even Alex Ferguson himself came out and conceded a week and a half ago in his claim that they have the "same qualities in controlling a game", a claim of which the address is the key purpose of this piece.

Clearly, there are many points of comparison that can be drawn instantaneously to suggest that Modric is a natural successor to the now temporarily unretired Scholes. Both can play superb long and through balls, dictate the tempo of a game, and fuel the engine room of their respective sides in a way that few others can match. But perhaps an emphasis on the on-paper similarities between the two players is misleading when you consider that the comparability of a pair of footballers rests in real terms a lot more on the systems that they are slotted into. At Tottenham, the team's midfield is (or should be) built around his strengths; at United, if he is Scholes' successor, the process of slotting him would be perplexing to say the least. Some analysis to this effect, taken from Guardian chalkboards and after the jump.

In an analysis of why Manchester United's league campaign hadn't by the New year stepped up a gear and left them looking like serious title favourites, Guardian author Michael Cox provided a brilliant breakdown of how Alex Ferguson has traditionally liked to line up his midfield. Traditionally, he states, Fergie likes to pair a "passer", a more static figure who's job is limited mainly to holding the ball up, with a "runner", an attacking-minded player whose high work rate and ability to cover a lot of ground makes him the ideal candidate to pick up on the passer's distribution. In recent seasons, Scholes has played the latter role, paired up with a figure such as Fletcher. This setup has worked exceptionally well for United as Scholes has in the past decade lost all of the pace that originally lead him to play behind the striker, and was forced instead to sit more statically in front of the defense and make plays from deep.

The problem with trying to slot Modric into the United setup is that it's not clear whether he'd be more ideal as a "runner" or a "passer". Consistently, for Spurs, Modric has shown himself to be a more ambiguous ‘roving' playmaker, using his energy and stamina to pick up and distribute passes from all over the pitch. Luka just doesn't do static; though he starts in the centre of midfield, his best performances come from when there's no pressure on him to stay in any one place. This status has only been confirmed recently by the arrival of Scott Parker and the emergence of Sandro, both of whom tend to hold fast and anchor play more without bringing much by way of passing.

Indeed, to an extent, it appears more and more than Redknapp has in recent seasons gone out of his way to ensure that a good wrecking ball is always there to pair with Luka, demonstrating how he's been a subtle locus of the gaffer's FRAAB tactics for a number of seasons. It's why pundits during this season in particlar have talked of how Parker "liberates" Modric: by playing the straight anchor man role, he leaves space for Luka in Fergie terms to be both a "passer" and a "runner". The chalkboards below show how Luka has expanded his game season upon season to cover more ground in his role as Spur's creative force.

Whereas Scholes was and is content to put in performances with little flair and sparing attacking movement, Modric's instinct appears to be to take the ball as close to goal as possible to before moving it on, picking up the ball, covering space and moving up the pitch by playing one-twos with his teammates. As the heatmap of Modric's passing below shows (Edit: Sorry, redacted), 25% of his passes are made in the final third, illustrating his favour for this area as a creative zone.

This state of affairs also has a bearing on the defensive considerations of Scholes' and Modric's respective managers. Scholes, in sitting deep, steels the midfield and covers the defense more, whereas Modric, despite the occasional good defensive shifts he's put in this season, is less inclined to tackle his opposite numbers, relying a lot more on interceptions to change the run of play- hence the need for a good destroyer lined up next to him to liberate his game. In fact, even at the ripe old age of 38, Scholes is still throwing himself into tackles more than the Mod, averaging 2.1 tackles a game this season to Luka's 1.7. Both players are pace-setters then, but whereas Scholes orchestrates more conservatively and from a more withdrawn position, Modric covers much more of the pitch in his role for Spurs- if anything, he acts for Spurs as a more mobile Anderson, but with a much more vital creative service emanating from his better distributive range.

Modric, then, cannot be seen as an out-an-out natural successor to Scholes. If bought by Manchester United, he will not slot straight into the role of the "passer" occupied by United's favourite son, enculturated as his is too much now in Harry Redknapp's FRAAB system; equally, however, it's highly unlikely that he'll be filling in for Fletcher when his ability to create is so vastly superior to the Scotsman's (and his tackling workrate is considerably worse). Instead, Ferguson would have to rejig his tactics a little, using a less ambitious out-and-out defensive midfield sat deep sweeping up to allow Modric to play his favourite game. This is not to say he would be a good purchase for United, as with his class he could fit into any side, and it would be completely to Spurs' detriment if we were to let him go now. But the comparisons between the two players should at least cease to form a part of the impetus for Man United to want him.