With the Bundesliga resuming on Saturday, the transformation of Iván Rakitić explains the rise from a prospect at Schalke into a winner at Barça.
Roughly two months later, football is back. And it’s back with the first of the top 5 leagues to resume its competition: the Bundesliga. German football returns with a strong clash, as it’s nothing less than a Revierderby what will open this weekend’s matchday. Teams will have to adapt to a new reality, and watching a silent Signal Iduna Park will be a very odd sight for any football fan. With that being said, the encounters between the clubs of the Ruhr region are always historic. Games between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 never disappoint, regardless the circumstances. A young Ousmane Dembélé had the privilege of taking part in these derbies, while his current teammate Iván Rakitić had the same opportunity in his three and a half years in Germany.
Rakitić, a boy of Croatian parents but raised in Switzerland, began impressing at Basel, where he was named the best young player of the 2006/07 Super League season. As another exciting prospect from the Swiss academy, Iván was transferred to Schalke in 2007. He made a quick start to life in Germany, scoring in his Bundesliga debut against VfB Stuttgart. Yet Rakitić had high aspirations, and wouldn’t stop till achieving them. “As a little kid, I dreamed of scoring a goal past the great Oliver Kahn”. So, in only his fifth Bundesliga match and only his first against Bayern, the 19-year-old beat Kahn in what was the only goal he has ever scored against the Bavarians.
He had joined a Schalke side that was on the rise. In his first appearances at Gelsenkirchen, Rakitić already forced his way into the starting XI of a very young and thrilling squad. With academy products like Mesut Özil and Manuel Neuer established in the first team, the Royal Blues finished third in the league in Iván’s opening campaign in Germany. His figures were impressive for a teenage attacking midfielder: 3 goals and 10 assists in that 2007/08 Bundesliga course.
Schalke 04, where it all began for the likes of Manuel Neuer and Iván Rakitić | Photo by Imago
However, with Özil having departed to Werder Bremen in January 2008, and with three managerial changes, Rakitić’s second season with Schalke was much tougher. He was left out of the starting line-up consistently, and Die Königsblauen ended in eight in the league table. But then, in 2009 the now Croatian international started experiencing a massive transformation. It was coach Felix Magath who marked him the most. While Rakitić had previously been deployed mostly as an offensive playmaker in the left, right or centre, Magath exploited the defensive qualities no one else seemed to had spotted in the young player. First Iván struggled to adapt to a more all-round role, as he exclusively played the full 90 minutes once in the first half of the 2009/10 term. Nevertheless, after the second match of the new year, the former Basel sensation became undroppable. He did not miss a single second of action, as he played 12 of the following 17 games from a deeper midfield position.
❛ The holding midfield role in football today is perhaps the most important position because there are both defensive and attacking responsibilities. I decided to play a similarly important role for Schalke ❜
Hard working in defence, he contributed to the attacking phase too. In Magath’s 4–2–2–2, Rakitić began deep in midfield but had a box-to-box role. In that campaign he scored a total of 7 goals. Then, he only made 16 Bundesliga appearances in the 2010/11, but it was for other reasons that his numbers dropped. Excelling alongside teammates like Neuer, Raúl, Höwedes or Huntelaar, in January 2011 Sevilla were convinced that Iván needed to be signed. So on to Spain he went.
At the Sánchez Pizjuán he initially operated between the lines again, but he learned all about the difficulty of playing in tight spaces. More precisely, it was Pep’s Barcelona that challenged him the most. Talking about one of his meetings with Barça, he said: “In the first half, I found it hard to get involved while playing as the number 10 because Barça take the air out of their opponents. During the break we then agreed that I drop back into a holding midfield role to organise the game from deep and stabilise our defence. Against Iniesta I needed to get aggressive, which worked quite well, although it’s frustrating with his movements and feints”.
During his time in Germany Rakitić possibly didn’t imagine what he would achieve as a footballer | Photo by Norbert Schmidt via Imago
With every passing year, Rakitić elevated his status as he was becoming a legend himself in the Andalusian capital. Ahead of the 2013/14 course, Unai Emery named the versatile midfielder Sevilla’s new captain. That year the Croatian ended up lifting his first and only Europa League trophy, after a penalty shootout against Benfica in a final in which he was named Man of the Match. He was included in both the UEFA Europa League and La Liga Team of the Season. In 2014, as Barcelona looked for a potential successor to Xavi, Rakitić fulfilled his dream of moving to the Camp Nou.
Except for this last season, Iván has been a regular for Barça in every single year in Catalonia. Transformed into a more tenacious and industrious midfielder, his complete role has been key in, among many other achievements, winning the Champions League and Treble in 2015. In the Bundesliga from 2007 to 2011, the same period his now teammate Arturo Vidal spent at Bayer Leverkusen, Iván Rakitić went from a promising creator at Basel and Schalke to an extraordinary and triumphant midfield general in Spain. A conversion for glorious success.
Trincão, Griezmann or Dembélé: Who should start for Barcelona?
From having to field center-mids such as Arturo Vidal on the flanks to now owning the likes of Dembélé, Trincão and Griezmann, it’s probably safe to assume that Barcelona’s wing play finally seems to have adequate profiles, individuals worthy of starting out wide. But, while healthy competition is always welcomed at the club, it’s apparent that Koeman must quickly find his “go-to player” and analyse whom he must bet on to consistently start games. With Barça successfully concluding their pre-season and looking ever so dominant in the opening game of La Liga, let’s take a look at what each player brings to the table.
Currently, it looks as if Antoine Griezmann has been reserved as a starter, which doesn’t come as a surprise given his immense status and the weightage his name carries in the squad list. However, Ronald Koeman’s intricate 4-2-3-1 system hasn’t truly allowed the Frenchman to fully express himself yet. Against Villarreal and even in the matches Antoine previously featured in, Griezmann was deprived of a fixated role and alternating occasionally with Messi as a direct number 9 or as a somewhat number 10 often left the right-hand side vulnerable, where Sergi Roberto would be tasked to produce most of the output upfield. Although Griezmann was seen making some well-timed runs, his link-up play was far from satisfactory, and as Messi would occupy the number 9 role, the former Atletico man would fail to operate effectively behind Leo or out wide.
In Barcelona’s La Liga opener, the left flank ticked every box the club seemed to have left unanswered and neglected last season. Jordi Alba’s runs from deep, Coutinho’s additional support as a mediapunta, and Ansu Fati’s exhilarating flare on the touchline proved too much to handle for Emery’s side since diverging attention from even a single player would lead to the visitors getting battered in the final third. Even so, while the Catalans eliminated their narrow and horizontal football to a somewhat acceptable extent, Ronald has only managed to refurbish one side of the pitch, with Griezmann and Messi’s natural tendency to operate centrally leaving the right flank vacant.
Therefore, to truly make the most of Barça’s offensive yield, it is vital to rely on natural wingers such as Trincão or Dembélé, players that can be considered ruthless on the counter and unforgiving in transitions. Whilst both players may eventually qualify as classic wingers, these two individuals propound different options, proving to be ideal in their respective departments. For example, in contrast to Dembouz, Trincão is likely to excel far more against a team with a low-block, given he is an exceedingly refined dribbler and considerably polished in his movement on/off the ball. Dembélé, on the other hand, could bring maximum results against a team with a higher line or a side that prefers to apply a suffocating press, mainly due to the fact that the winger is a space dominant player, and his unparalleled pace and chaotic style of play tends to add a sense of unpredictability on the flanks. Nonetheless, despite the slight differences in gameplay, they are ideal contenders to start for Barça, and must be prioritized in line-ups.
Spectators saw Lionel Messi function as a pure false 9 in the closing minutes of the game against Elche a few days ago as the Argentine partnered up with the likes of Dembélé and Trincão on each side of the pitch. Although Ansu Fati is probable to own the left flank for the upcoming games, it was refreshing to witness the Blaugranas look so imposing with two explosive wingers by Lionel’s side. As it turns out, Koeman’s experiment worked out even against the Yellow Submarine with him applying the same method in the second half. Barça saw their most promising football after proceedings just as Griezmann came off the bench for Trincão, who went on to form a trio with Lionel and Ousmane. Such flare and aggression was not seen previously considering most of Barça’s harvest came solely from the left-hand side of the field.
At this very moment, Barcelona has ample options to choose from, but for the newly adopted 4-2-3-1 formation to continue working at the highest level, it’s important to make the most of such diverse profiles in the squad. Ronald Koeman still has a backlog of work to do and must completely eliminate Barcelona’s horizontal structure if the club truly intends to compete in Europe. With Ousmane and Fransico looking immensely promising in their recent outings, the Dutch coach should take the bold decision of starting either one of them and pursue enhancing the front four’s capabilities.