Monday morning's announcement that Real Madrid were to sign Luka Modric from Tottenham took nobody by surprise, but even as the transfer saga has rumbled on all summer, many observers - both in Spain and in the UK - have been wondering just why Madrid boss Jose Mourinho was so keen on signing the Croatian playmaker.
Modric has proven his worth for Tottenham in the Premier League over four seasons, and was outstanding for Croatia against Spain in their Euro 2012 group clash, but there was still a question about how exactly he would fit into Mourinho's team. €37 million seemed a lot of money for someone who might not improve the first XI, while some conspiracy theorists began to wonder whether the speculation was a ploy by the 'Only One' to sabotage his former protégé Andre Villas-Boas' start to the new season at White Hart Lane and if the move might not happen at all.
Now we know the stories were correct, and the deal is going through, less than 24 hours after Madrid's shock 2-1 La Liga defeat at city neighbours Getafe. Coincidence or not, Sunday night's game at the Coliseo Alfonso Perez offered plenty of evidence why Mourinho would want Modric at his club. Probably the key moment of the match came in the 46th minute, when Real's midfield organiser Xabi Alonso went over on his ankle and was helped from the pitch for treatment.
Mourinho immediately sent substitute Sami Khedira to warm up, but it was clear that the hope was for Alonso to continue, despite the ex-Liverpool player immediately removing his boot and appearing to be in a lot of discomfort. After receiving treatment on the sideline, he was soon back on the pitch, although his movement and influence were curtailed (and he was possibly to blame for allowing Getafe right-back Juan Valera to rise unopposed and head in Getafe's equaliser just five minutes later).
Set piece duties aside it is not difficult to see why Mourinho was keen to leave Alonso on the pitch. Last season Madrid were very, very reliant on their deep playmaker. He started 35 of their 38 La Liga games, missing two through suspension and being sent on with Madrid in trouble at half-time in the other. His clever positioning and accurate long-passing were so vital for his side's counter-attacking style that he also featured in most of Madrid's less vital Copa del Rey ties, even after Mourinho had explicitly said in January that the ex-Liverpool man would need a rest at some point.
When Real were flying in the autumn, beating Malaga 4-0 away and Villarreal 3-0 at home, Alonso was imperious, making 102 passes at 92 % accuracy in both matches. By March, when Madrid were stumbling with consecutive draws in the reverse games against the same opponents, his stats were down to 67 passes at 82% accuracy in the 1-1 v Malaga at the Bernabeu and 62 passes at 85% in the 1-1 at Villarreal. Madrid's overall possession numbers suffered too, falling from 61% possession away at Malaga in October, down to 53% when Manuel Pellegrini's men got a point in Madrid.
But still Alonso had to play as there was nobody else who could do his job. Nuri Sahin was last summer's back-up signing, but the Turkish international arrived injured, never gained Mourinho's trust, and was last week sent out on loan to Liverpool. Khedira is all energy and determination, but lacks the passing range to control a game. Ditto Lass Diarra. Home-grown Esteban Granero is the closest to a like-for-like deep playmaker, but he remains down Mourinho's pecking order.
It has been noticeable in both of Madrid's opening games that opposition coaches have been very careful not to leave gaps at the back for Real to counter into. They also often detail a player just to sit on Alonso in midfield and not let him dictate the play. When teams did this against Madrid towards the end of last season, Cristiano Ronaldo often got them out of jail (Atletico away the most obvious) by stepping up and banging a few goals in from long range. That worked then, but is not really a long-term strategy.
A look at Madrid's bench on Sunday night, when Mourinho needed to change things at 1-1 and then 2-1 down, shows how limited his options can be at times. With Kaka apparently being urged to take whatever offer might be available so his €9 million annual salary can be removed from the club's wage bill, there was very little creativity available to bring in.
Khedira was left sitting down and instead Mourinho kept throwing on more and more attackers in the hope they could make something happen. Madrid finished the game with Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema and 19-year-old Alvaro Morata all playing up front, Alonso, Jose Callejon and Mesut Ozil in midfield and just three defenders behind. Not surprisingly, Madrid's forwards kept getting in each other's way, and it seemed more likely that Getafe would add a third than Real pull off a comeback.
All this is not to say that Modric has been signed just as a replacement to give Alonso, who turns 31 in October, a break from time to time. It could be that Mourinho is also considering relying on the counter-attack less this season. This approach did help Madrid rack up record-breaking goals and points tallies in La Liga last season, but was not so well suited to the Champions League. Bayern Munich had the better of their semi-final even if penalties were eventually required to progress. Modric has shown for Spurs that despite his small stature he can play deep in midfield, and that would give opposition coaches two playmakers to worry about. Either way it should ensure that next time Alonso picks up a knock, there's a plan B in place.