Just two years ago, Rakitić was having the time of his life: great football for FC Barcelona and marvelous results for the Croatian national team, with whom he reached a World Cup final. Then last summer something clicked and rumors about the club wanting his exit began to spread. But how did Ivan Rakitić really perform in this 19/20 season?
This is the first episode of a series in which we review the performances of the different Barça first-team players, as well as discuss their futures for the next campaign. You can check the series here.
Fairy tales have an ending. This time, there will not be any happy one for Ivan Rakitić. Because as much as he has done a lot for the Blaugrana cause, in culés‘ minds he has been out of the picture since that cruel night in Anfield more than a year ago. After that, he was virtually already out of Barcelona. The fans wanted him out. And probably he wanted a change of scenery too, after the successes he had with the club and the undeserved criticism he was being given after all that he has brought upon the cause since his arrival, back in 2014.
While the environment at Barcelona was already fuming after the team’s second consecutive debacle in the knockout stages of the Champions League, Rakitić was not just having the feeling of not being welcomed anymore by the fans, but also by the club. As Neymar’s rumours quickly increased their intensity towards the second half of August, 2019, Barça’s ship, with Josep Maria Bartomeu as captain, reportedly offered the Croatian player to Paris Saint-Germain multiple times, amongst trying to sell him directly many others more.
The Neymar comeback was imminent. The Brazilian player was ready to go back to the Camp Nou, while Rakitić was even more ready to go in the opposite direction, with his bags already packed. Tickets bought and families ready for the next chapter. Ready, set and…Alt. Latest, “nothing done. Neymar is staying in Paris”. Bartomeu tried to use the Croatian midfielder as his favourite trading piece, but he could not do it either way. The transfer market closed, and Iván found himself trapped in a Barça club where did not feel welcomed. He did not feel at home, as he did ever since he joined the team.
“Last year [18/19] was the best of the six I have had here and I was annoyed with how I was treated. I was very surprised and I didn’t understand it. The results have not been the best and I haven’t played much, that is why I felt hurt. I had a very strange first half of the season, it was very uncomfortable and surprising for me. But I hope I can finish this last year of my contract.”Ivan Rakitić in April
With all the drama happened during the 2019 summer period, the veteran midfielder never hid the fact that other clubs wanted to sign him. As Juventus, for example, whom he claimed to have had a chat with Cristiano Ronaldo about a potential transfer in Turin. But nothing to be done, Rakitić was bound to stay where he was, for at least another year.
As the season began, the former Sevilla man got to witness what he thought would happen: no football. Rakitić was there, training, working hard, believing that he would have been able to play football regularly again this season, despite everything. But for the first few months, very little spaces were given for the Croatian to spark from Ernesto Valverde. While his involvement with the team was quickly deteriorating, the iconic #ForçaBarça hashtag on his posts was also having the same direction. Rakitić and Barcelona have never been so distant one from the other.
Even in the worst season of his career, even after playing only 231 minutes the first 14 La Liga games, with 4 games on the bench for the full ninety minutes and another, against Villarreal, where he was not even called up, and 58 in the Champions League, he did not lose grip on the reality. And the chance came. Arthur Melo injured, Carlos Alena bound to get loaned out, and continues changes in the tactical system made sure that Rakitić could begin to enjoy his football again.
In the game against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, the Croatian midfielder played 78 crucial minutes for his season. A season which was not certainly destined to be his best, but a season which was still approaching to start for Rakitić. After that marvelous performance against the German side, which gave Barça the mathematical first place in its group stage, the Croatian prince got back some lost faith that Valverde first, the fans after, have lost in him.
Ivan Rakitić unusually enjoyed little minutes in the initial stage of the 19/20 season | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
And the things did not change either when Quique Setién got in charge of the team. He kept playing his fair number of minutes, considering the presence of a high volume midfield as Barça’s one: Busquets, Arthur, De Jong, Vidal, and Alena before and Puig after. Rakitić’s role in the Blaugrana midfield was very controversial too. As he began to initially perform this season in his natural position, as a center midfielder, he varied his role during the year quite a lot. When Busquets was missing, he played as a central defensive midfielder, as both Valverde and Setién never really believed in playing Frenkie De Jong there, despite the Dutchman’s natural ability and the Croatian forced adaptability. When the Spanish international was present, Rakitić was floating between a left and right central midfielder position continuously instead.
As much as the Croatian got to play football, at least some of it and in difficult conditions, his season had never been at the peak of his true worth, but he was still found to be useful for both managers, even as a substitute role: a role which has never characterised him. A clear representation of his season has in fact been a statistical fact: he scored only one goal, against Athletic Bilbao. And for a midfielder that has always been used to score as much as Ivan did, it is a clear sign of his mental and technical decadence as a Barça player.
What next for Ivan Rakitić?
Ivan Rakitić has been part of the post-golden generation that has impacted world football with Barcelona protagonist, after the Guardiola era. Trophies or no trophies, the Croatian has been directly involved in the Luis Enrique management as a key piece of the puzzle for the Spanish manager, as well as for the first two years of the Valverde’s as well. He has been fundamental to Barça’s tactical plans since his arrival in 2014.
The Croatian midfielder has also been the one that, in the final year of his career, made Xavi sit on the bench, for the most part, a fact that is often underestimated by many. But even this is a clear sign of how good his added value was to the team. An exceptional professional first, one of Croatia’s finest later. He achieved the top of the world with both Barcelona and (almost) Croatia and he has always been regarded as the main representative of the Croatians’ exceptional qualities, after his everlasting friend Luka Modrić.
“Some of the players know that it will be their last season at Barcelona.”Josep Maria Bartomeu
As the clock does not wait for anyone inevitably, Rakitić knows too that his own has stopped working in the Catalan city. A successful career with the Blaugrana shirt will never be forgotten and will forever be impressed in his own legacy. But the time to move on has come, for both parties. However, the doubts still remain strong, as president Bartomeu keeps sitting on his chair without taking his responsibilities: despite this summer’s same exit rumors, will Rakitić really leave or will it be another false alarm?
A 19/20 season review of the new faces: Pedri
In September 2019, Barcelona paid 5 million euros to secure the services of Pedri, who would have a standout debut 19/20 season with Las Palmas at 17. In this article, we analyse the attributes and main statistics of the young and extremely promising attacking midfielder.
This is the first episode of a series of articles that dive deep into a season review of the incoming new faces at Barcelona. You can check the 19/20 season reviews here.
As Ronald Koeman‘s new Barcelona is already taking shape, the youngest member to be joining the first team is Pedro González López, affectionately known as Pedri.
The 17-year-old from the Canary Islands has been a member of UD Las Palmas through and through, right from the youth team set-up to his professional debut in 2019 with the first team. Playing primarily as an attacking mid or left winger, Pedri showcased his attacking repertoire early enough to become an important member of the Las Palmas senior team and went on to play 2982 minutes for them.
His skillset didn’t go unnoticed at the bigger clubs, and soon enough, he was snatched up by Barcelona. So, what does the young midfielder bring to the table?
Pedri was, admittedly, not the biggest goal threat in his first senior season, but given his age, that’s not an issue at all. He scored 4 goals and gave 5 assists.
Watching his shot videos and looking at his shot-map, one can conclude that he does need to work a bit on the judicious choice of positions from where to take shots. For example, there were a bunch of shots from the right with his right foot – shooting from such acute angles is quite unnatural for someone who is not a natural goalscorer. There are also far too many shots from outside the box, most of which, as the videos suggest, are hopeful punts than accurate attempts.
Given below are a variety of his attacking stats – both the raw value and the percentile (mentioned inside parentheses) when compared to other wingers or attacking midfielders who played at least 1000 minutes in the Segunda División of Spain last season.
Data by Wyscout
While most numbers appear to be modest, do keep in mind that this was a 16-year-old playing his first professional season. And his assists, expected assists (xA) and dribbling percentiles are particularly encouraging. It shows he is not afraid to take risks, and we are going to get more glimpses of that further into the article.
But before we proceed, let’s take a look at an animation of the only goal he scored from outside the box:
It was a well-struck fist-time half-volley into the left bottom corner, giving Las Palmas a 1–0 home win against Sporting de Gijón in September 2019. It also marked Pedri’s fist goal as a professional.
A big issue that plagued Barcelona all season was an uncoordinated and lackadaisical defensive effort put in by the team in general. Very little defensive activity by Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi led to Barcelona effectively defending with nine men. A lot of old men in the midfield in the form of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Arturo Vidal also meant that the necessary speed to catch up with fast breaks was lacking as well.
All these afore-mentioned midfielders are very fine players – some of the top midfielders in their prime – but have grown old and lost a bit of their zip, which is much needed in the midfield right now. Meanwhile, Frenkie de Jong is very athletic, and Riqui Puig is deceptively fast, and both of them put in decent defensive numbers. And Pedri should complement them well were these three to take the field in a game together.
Pedri put in a good amount of defensive work for Las Palmas. Browsing through his videos, one can immediately conclude that Pedri is deceptively fast as well and good at reading runs, and he times and angles his own runs to cut the opponents off in their tracks and win back the ball.
Shown below are a variety of his defensive stats. Except for aerial duels – understandable as he is only 177 cms tall –, he ranks very high at every other metric:
Next, let’s take a look at Pedri’s passing characteristics, as shown below.
Pedri was highly involved in the attacking build-ups while maintaining a pretty decent passing accuracy for an attacking midfielder/winger hybrid. He played a lot of forward passes at decent accuracy – something that should bring smiles to the faces of the fans. The teenager is definitely someone who is not shy at taking risks and will mix it up with a decent range of long balls as well. Pedri played around 9 forward passes per 90 minutes, around 8 back passes per 90 minutes and the rest were lateral.
Once again, his video clips make it clear that he attempts to progress the ball and be vertical whenever possible, and the data corroborates that. But here comes the highlight of the article: his keypassing numbers.
What should be clarified right away here is that “dangerous passes” is a nickname I am using for all sorts of progressive and productive passes. This includes passes that lead to shots, assists and pre-assists, progressive passes etc. Let’s have a look at his numbers:
Here we see his greatest asset: his passing abilities to do something productive. And Pedri is outstanding at almost every single category. He ranks very highly in productive passes (which are passes leading to shots + 2nd assists + 3rd assists), passes to the final third and the penalty area, through balls, deep progressions and progressive passes, while also maintaining a reasonably good accuracy at each kind of pass.
This is arguably what attracted Barcelona, and the club will be well served by a passer who is already at this stage of calibre at such an early age. Let’s take a deeper look at his passes that led to shots and goals:
14 of his 19 key passes were into the penalty area – arguably the most dangerous area to take shots from. Only one of the key passes is a corner kick – everything else comes from open play, which is encouraging.
Watching the videos, three of the key passes that end outside the box came from fast breaks – counter-attacks – where Pedri carried the ball upfield from deep and laid it onto the path of his teammate, or found his teammate with accurate long balls from deep. So, even though they were far from the box, they led to extremely dangerous plays by Las Palmas.
Focusing on just the assists, it is easy to see how Pedri combines his speed at ball-carrying with his silky dribbling skills to get past opposition and create crucial amounts of space before finding a teammate with a laser-accurate pass:
And as a special gift to the readers, here is an animation of the assist that happens at the top right corner of the pitch in the viz above. Pedri makes a well-timed run to latch on to his teammate’s pass outside the box, before pulling off an outrageous piece of skill to dribble past his marker with a ‘Berbatov-flick-and-turn’, runs into the box and lays the ball off through two opposition players for his teammate to smash a goal in.
Pedri is an absolute gem, and along with Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig, Francisco Trincão and Frenkie de Jong, may well end up forming the core of a youth-based team. As such, Barcelona will do well to hold on to him and nurture him well. After an already promising – unofficial – debut against Nàstic de Tarragona on Saturday, culés can only hope for him to have a great season and future ahead.
Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Samuel Gustafson, writer at Barça Universal, in collating the data and the videos used in the above article