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.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.