After six very successful years at Barça, Ivan Rakitić now returns to Sevilla, but on a cheap transfer. Did Barcelona time his exit poorly?
How did a player who reportedly attracted an offer of €90 million end up being sold for €1.8 million, plus 9 in variables, roughly 24 months later? How come a club that had a World Cup finalist in their ranks then desperately struggle to move him on for any price two years on?
With a big smile on his face as he came from leading Croatia to a historic 2018 World Cup final, Ivan Rakitić was a man in demand as he returned from the international tournament in Russia. While it was his partner in midfield Luka Modrić who received all accolades as he was rewarded with the Ballon d’Or later that year, Rakitić was not free of praise or offers. In fact, Paris Saint-Germain were desperate to sign him, for they bid €90 million for him. But only one man was more desperate to keep him than PSG to buy him. That man was Ernesto Valverde.
According to Sport, the now-former Barcelona manager considered Rakitić irreplaceable. As a consequence, coach and footballer made an agreement, the ‘PSG pact’ as the same newspaper calls it, to prevent him from leaving. Valverde promised Rakitić that he would continue to be as indispensable as he had been up until that moment, showing him his full confidence by playing him whenever he could. The Croatian was already 30 years old by that time but seemed to be at the peak of his powers. “It was the best of the six I have had here”, Rakitić expressed in April 2020 looking back at his 2018/19 season. “But I was annoyed with how I was treated. I was very surprised and I didn’t understand it”, he added on what came later.
In 2018, Rakitić’s value was at its peak | Photo by Odd Andersen / AFP via Getty Images
Valverde was delighted with Rakitić’s performances in the 18/19 campaign. But such consistent, sometimes unchallenged, playtime already started to anger the fans who never considered him the prototype Barcelona midfielder. The reasons were not just aesthetic: it was not simply that Rakitić did not have the passing finesse of Xavi Hernández, the smoothness of Andrés Iniesta, or the lightness of Riqui Puig. Instead, some holes in his game hinted at a more conservative style that prevented Barcelona from perfectly applying the positional play that is so appreciated in Catalonia.
The lack of awareness, the poor body orientation before receiving a pass, or the limited vision were all justifiable arguments against his regular selections. And such weaknesses were all exposed in the fatal night at Anfield in May 2019. Two actions tragically made the headlines for Barcelona on Twitter that night: Georginio Wijnaldum’s goal that gave Liverpool a two-goal lead, and Divock Origi’s final and Liverpool’s fourth goal after a very smart corner kick from Trent Alexander-Arnold and childish defending from the Catalans. In Wijnaldum’s goal, though, two individuals were critically exposed. The first was Jordi Alba, after a poor control that allowed Alexander-Arnold’s recovery. The second was Ivan Rakitić.
Rakitić did not scan his surroundings and, rather than breaking Liverpool’s first pressing line with a feint and a forward pass or drive, he invited the locals’ press as he compromised Jordi Alba with a sideways pass. That appeared to be the final demonstration for fans that Rakitić did not possess the technical and tactical qualities required for Barcelona’s possessional and positional football.
Ernesto Valverde seemed to realise that too, as the player went from non-transferable to being up for sale. In a rush, Barcelona started negotiating with Juventus and Inter Milan for a transfer in the summer of 2019, but such sale was never completed. Also, Rakitić considered that he was promised a contract renewal by the board, but such extension was first postponed and then ruled out. On the pitch, as the season started and it was confirmed that an exit could not be found, Valverde planned on taking a bolder and more innovative approach for his third season in charge.
After his arrival from Sevilla in 2014, success came early for Ivan Rakitić at the Camp Nou | Photo by Denis Doyle via Getty Images
His more pragmatic tactics had worked out domestically, but it had been demonstrated that the team needed to take a step forward to win the Champions League. Therefore, Valverde intended to apply the more orthodox positional play, with meticulous care for the positions and roles while also allowing fluid and dynamic attacks. Natural wingers like Carles Pérez or Ansu Fati were made starters, Antoine Griezmann was chosen as a more mobile striker, and Frenkie de Jong acted as a lone pivot in the opening La Liga game against Athletic Club. In the preseason friendly versus Napoli and the following league clash with Athletic, the midfield trio was the same: De Jong, Carles Aleñá and Sergi Roberto. Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić, on the bench.
But Barcelona were shocked at San Mamés. The 1–0 loss was followed by several other disappointing results on the road. While at home Barça obtained convincing wins, Valverde shook things up again. Busquets returned to the starting line-up, De Jong moved to an interior role, Aleñá was relegated to the bench and stands almost until his loan to Real Betis in January, while Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez returned from injury, forcing Griezmann to move to the wing. One thing did not change, though: Rakitić waited on the sidelines.
By 27 November 2019, Rakitić had only made one start in the 19/20 season. It was in a 2–0 loss away at Granada. Moreover, he had played roughly 289 minutes in La Liga and Champions League combined. Nonetheless, with injuries and absences, Ernesto Valverde surprisingly chose to start his once trustworthy man in the all-important home duel against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League group stage. Barcelona won by 3–1, and that was a turning point for the veteran midfielder. He started all following games against Atlético de Madrid, Mallorca, Inter Milan, Real Sociedad and Real Madrid.
On 12 November, before that Dortmund match, Rakitić had been very clear. “How can I enjoy myself? Playing football. How does my youngest daughter feel if I take her toy from her? She’s sad. I feel the same: they have taken the ball from me and I am sad”, he said. “I understand and respect the decisions made by the coach and the club, but I think I have given a lot in the last five and a bit years here and the only thing I want is to be able to keep enjoying myself. That’s the most important thing for me”. Expressing his dissatisfaction, his departure in January seemed clear. But that run of games changed his fate, at least for the next months.
Rakitić ended the 2019/20 season as the 13th Barcelona player with most minutes in all competitions. He played both Champions League last 16 legs against Napoli, and he experienced a renaissance after the coronavirus break. But with everyone fit and available, the Swiss-born player was still not among the eleven starters regularly. With the rejuvenation the squad desperately needed, Rakitić was always going to be one of the first names in the list. His exit has now been certified.
For a star that could have been sold for 90 or 80 million euros only two years ago, being transferred for 1.5 and 9 in add-ons seems a too sharp decline. Barcelona even considered releasing him on a free in order to avoid paying his high salaries. And even when Sevilla will now pay a fee for their former captain, Goal has revealed which are the conditions to fulfil the variables: 3 million are related to the number of appearances and Sevilla’s qualification for European competitions, 1 million in case the Hispalenses win the Europa League, 2 million if they win La Liga, and 3 million if they win the Champions League. Thus, it is most likely that Sevilla will end up paying only 4.5 or 5.5 million euros.
Ivan Rakitić, Barcelona’s blonde number 4 | Photo by Josep Lago / AFP via Getty Images
However, it would be foolish to say that Barcelona have done bad business with Ivan Rakitić overall. The player now finds himself at the same club where he was over six years ago, but the period in between cannot be overlooked. Rakitić already arrived from Sevilla as a captain, club great and European winner, but in his move to the Camp Nou he established himself as one of his generation’s best and most successful midfielders.
Indispensable for both Luis Enrique and Valverde, and important for Quique Setién, his versatility, commitment, hard work and all-round profile have been highly appreciated by all his managers.
After 310 games, 36 goals, 40 assists and 13 trophies, including the 2015 Champions League in whose final he scored, Rakitić now makes the way back to Seville as the fourth foreigner with most appearances in Barcelona’s history. Only Lionel Messi, Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano are ahead of him.
Therefore, Wednesday’s farewell ceremony and press conference is the least his now-former club could do for a magnificent servant for the Camp Nou giants. While he has not often been directed the applauses, Ivan Rakitić has earned all culés‘ respect.
The causes and effects of Barcelona’s inability to cope with pressure
On the back of a 1-4 trouncing at home to Paris Saint Germain, Barcelona had the opportunity to extend their 7 game-winning run in the league to a phenomenal eight, and against probably the easiest of competition to do so.
After all, Cádiz were on the back of a four-game losing streak in La Liga, having won a meagre 5 points from a possible 33, and up against a team that had won 31 from their last 33. This was as perfect a game as they came, but, as has been a motif at the Catalan club in recent years, they crumbled under pressure.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The defence gave away two big chances, one of which came from a ludicrous and much too easily avoidable penalty two minutes from time. As for the forward line, despite having had eleven and a half chances more than their visitors to hit the back of the net, amassing a whopping 3.56xG, they could settle for only one goal, and this too from a penalty. Ronald Koeman had a mostly tolerable afternoon, but at this point, the complaints about the team make the ever-demanding fans sound like a broken record.
In this article, Barca Universal explores some events that have become all too common when the team faces minimal adversity, stretching from the managers in the dugouts, the pressure the collective falls over for in crucial moments and finally, individual mistakes which, like a bad rash, spread to all corners of the team continue to plague the club.
Managerial incompetence in crucial moments
Barcelona’s last three managers, Ronald Koeman included, have each shown, and on plenty of occasions, certain character traits that, rather than improve the team, contribute to its inevitable downfall. What is most shocking is, despite being akin to water and oil in terms of their tactics, they each have an uncanny ability not only to fail to learn from each other but, more surprisingly, themselves.
Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién, and Koeman have each shown a palpable level of a lack of tactical ingenuity whenever called upon. In one way or another, each one of them has taken the club farther and farther away from its roots, all while failing to replace them with anything sustainable enough to win points, or at the very least, make games enjoyable.
It comes as a shock that even in-game, whenever their set systems start to show fissures, neither one of them has consistently shown the most basic of requirements in a manager, this coming in their ability to rectify their errors.
In 2019, leading 3-0 against Liverpool, Barcelona needed just but a goal to gain a spot in the UEFA Champions League’s final. Rather than set his side up for an offensive tussle with the Merseyside club — who mind you were bereft of any real attacking talent —, the then manager deployed a controversial and rather defensive 4-4-2 formation, providing little to no width and with a clear disconnect between the midfield and the two up front.
Down by a just goal at half time, Valverde had the chance to add Malcom to attack the right flank given Andy Robertson had been taken off at halftime, but he opted not to. He had a chance to add Arthur Melo to improve ball circulation after conceding two in two minutes to Georginio Wijnaldum but instead decided to go for Nelson Semedo.
The sheer lack of order in the team, and his inability to react to reach the goals they scored, meant Barça would inevitably give up the aggregate lead and the tie as a whole. Impervious to criticism, he would continue to show this very same level of incompetence for the nine months that led up to his sacking.
Quique Setién did much of the same here too. Once admired for his Cruyffist tendencies, he fell apart under the unspoken power dynamics set in place by the heavyweights in the club, leading him to never make changes to his starting elevens regardless of how poorly an individual had played. Even when the game was crying for an intervention via a substitution, he, like Valverde, before him would cower in fear and take refuge in the dugouts, which for much of his tenure remained untouched.
Despite having three years worth of evidence on what not to do at Barça, Ronald Koeman continues to make the same exact mistakes as his predecessors. He at least makes rotations in the starting eleven every once in a while, but unless, of course, the team is in a comfortable winning position, he will wait until at least the 80th minute to effectuate any changes to the team’s shape, tactics, or personnel. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that almost every game that has seen Barca trail this season in La Liga has gone on to end as either a draw or a loss of all three points.
Against Paris, many fans observed the gaping holes left in between the defence at the halfway line and the poorly dispersed midfield and attack. This was at halftime, yet in the second period, he left it as it was rather than change up the team’s shape. The exact same mistakes occurred at home against Cádiz in both the first and second period and was only met with a change in the final minutes of the tie.
In La Liga, where the level is lower, managers can get away with a draw here and there, but in the Champions League, where every mistake is punished, they all falter, and to the surprise of no one. When push comes to shove, they all look clueless, lose their train of thought, and as has been the case in each of the last four years, the Blaugrana have lost and lost heavily to equal opposition.
Players that simply don’t make the cut
It comes to reason that not every defeat is as a result of managerial or tactical mishaps. Sometimes, and as has been the case for many years now, tactical flaws have been compounded with some ghastly individual errors, some of which lead fans to question how it is that these players became professionals in the first place.
There are many games that can illustrate this, but none more so than Barcelona’s almighty collapse against the new sextuple winners, Bayern Munich. It is quite unjust that subsequent to such defeats, only the manager’s contract is cut short. Some of the mistakes made by the entirety of the team in that game were so blatantly unacceptable that at least half the team should’ve been sacked at the end.
A score of 4-1 against Paris, or 3-0 against AS Roma this year and in 2018 respectively could be attributed to a manager’s inability to take a firm hold of the game, but when it goes beyond five, it is imperative that the players, perhaps more than their manager, be put to question.
Despite the average age of the squad on that night being over 30 years of age, everyone on the team, from Lionel Messi upfront to Ter Stegen in goal, made rookie mistakes. Leading from the front, the Argentine couldn’t be bothered to press for the ball, despite his individual mistakes directly leading to a quarter of their goals.
Luis Suárez partnering him, made just eighteen passes, nine of which were from the centre circle at the start of one half and one for each of the eight goals that Ter Stegen, a man whose capacity to play under pressure, is being questioned more and more by the year, conceded.
The entirety of the team has this impeccable ability to collectively fall into pieces, with mentalities that shrink to the sub-atomic level when faced with the slightest of adversity. The usual suspects in defence, these coming in Jordi Alba, who almost singlehandedly won Liverpool the second leg at Anfield, Samuel Umtiti, whose career essentially came to an end after the 2018 world cup, Clément Lenglet, whose in-game reactions can be outpaced by a tortoise, are often the catalysts to the team’s failure.
Football is a team game, but individual errors often do have a profound impact on the collective. How is Barca supposed to be challenging for La Liga when their defence is the one with the most individual errors leading to a goal in the entire division.
How are clean sheets meant to be preserved when individuals like Clément Lenglet concede 3 penalties in the same campaign, each leading to a loss of points. It is borderline impossible to challenge for anything when half the time, in do or die situations, you have defenders that shoot themselves, and thus the team, in the foot.
But it’s not only the defence to be blamed. The attack and midfield, charged with finishing chances and creating an air of stability, respectively, do none of the like when called upon. Against the Bavarians, the midfield was essentially inexistent, with next to no pressing, and even when applied, none of it had any coordination or impact on the much superior German machine. Passing somehow from a trio or quadruple of players whose careers are built on just that, all inexplicably goes awry or loses all meaning at the slightest instance of pressure.
The forward line, as seen on innumerable occasions this campaign and during their European disasters, somehow collectively forgets how to find the back of the net. No one can be spared from this judgment, not even Messi.
Ousmane Dembélé had the chance to kill off the tie against Liverpool, but rather than blast the ball past Alisson in a 1v1 situation, he chipped it into his arms and did basically the same thing against Paris last in midweek when he wasted a chance to take the game to 2-0, only for the visitors to equalise within seconds. The same was the case as recently as yesterday against Cadiz, whereof 23 shots made, only one via a penalty found the back of the net.
Barcelona not only have to contend with managers who show complete ineptitude at understanding or implementing the one style of play asked if them, but also a team that, when needed to perform, has not the slightest idea how.
As Johan Cruyff once famously said, “football is a game of mistakes, and whoever makes the least mistakes wins.” When it comes to Barcelona, winning goes from something that should be a regular, weekly occurrence to a proverbial mountain crafted from the tiniest of anthills.
These errors span all the way from managers in the dugouts who, despite years of experience, keep making the same mistakes to the players on the pitch, who, through a lack of attention to detail, ridiculous mistakes and otherworldly missing, never cease to contribute to the demise of the team.