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Analysis

Iván Rakitić: from Schalke to Barça, from playmaker to midfield general

David Bravo

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Header Image by Imago

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.

Manuel Neuer Iván Rakitić Schalke 04 Barça

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 ❜

Iván Rakitić
in 2010

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”.

Iván Rakitić Schalke Barça

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.


See more

Ousmane Dembélé at Dortmund: The definition of a wonderkid

• Arturo Vidal, a warrior in Pep’s Bayern

• Marc-André ter Stegen: A look back at his time at Borussia Mönchengladbach

• The agent of Sergiño Dest denies rumours of a sealed move to Barça

As someone once said, football is the most important of the least important things in life. Football, though, is a passion lived 24 hours, 7 days a week. My life could not be understood without Barça. Having always lived in Barcelona, the deep love for this club was transmitted to me from before I can remember. With an affection that can be found in my most profound roots, my goal now is to share this admiration with other football enthusiasts.

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Analysis

A Detailed Look into Barcelona’s defeat against Getafe

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

Barcelona fell to defeat in Madrid, and Barça Universal brings a detailed analysis of how the visitors fared against the relentless Getafe.


Matchweek four saw FC Barcelona travel to Coliseum Alfonso Perez to take on yet another difficult opposition – Getafe. In recent years, Getafe have seen an uptick of fortune under manager Jose Bordalas, by opting to play a straightforward counterattacking style of football while staying defensively compact. It is easy to not classify their game as pretty. Still, they are highly effective – with constant disruptions to the game with a very physical style of play, they forced Barcelona to stay out of their box very effectively. The game indeed was gruesome to watch and ended in Getafe eking out a narrow 1-0 victory – their first over Barcelona in the league since 2011-12.

The Shape of the Teams

As the team returned from the international break with many of the players having played 180+ minutes, Ronald Koeman rang in some interesting changes. However, one could always argue if there were, in fact, enough changes and whether they made a lot of sense. Neto, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Sergi Roberto at right-back, and Sergino Dest as the makeshift left-back formed the back-five, with the usual double pivot of Sergio Busquets of Frenkie de Jong.

Ousmane Dembele was back in action on the left-wing, Antoine Griezmann started in a false 9 role, and Lionel Messi as the nominal ‘right-wing’. The biggest surprise perhaps was the first start handed to 17-year-old Pedri at central attacking-midfield.

From the pass-maps and the following touch-based heatmaps, you can see that Messi did stay a lot wider than the “false RW” role he had under the previous two managers. Still, he kept interchanging slots with Griezmann quite a bit as well, especially in the deeper zones. The Frenchman had a lot of touches in the wider zones while tracking back. As such, and combined with his highly ineffective combination play with the midfield and the forwards, it does the beg the question as to whether it makes any sense to put Griezmann up top, or for that matter, as a starter in the team at all.

Also, de Jong’s role and influence in the game was in sharp contrast to the previous games and Busquets’ as well. Busquets influenced a lot of the central zones, while Frenkie tried to rattle wider, and deeper areas more, partly due to the absence of Jordi Alba.

Getafe came up with a highly asymmetrical 4-4-2, with very distinctively different lines of midfielders in possession, and very different roles of the wide players on two sides:

It was former La Masia youngster Marc Cucurella, playing as a left wide-mid, who was really the most adventurous of the lot and showed the most attacking prowess. In midfield, Mauro Arambarri had the freedom to drift around a bit while Nemanja Maksimovic stayed deep and patrolled in front of the defence, seldom venturing up.

Offence

This was a game with very little quality and very few clear cut chances. Getafe didn’t allow Barcelona to create a lot with extremely compact and physical defending. Barcelona enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession, but to no avail. They could have easily scored at least once in the first half through Antoine Griezmann, where they were clearly the better side. The biggest chances they conceded came in the second half – the unfortunate penalty, and counter-attacks in the late stages of the game.

Apart from the shots shown here, there was a dangerous moment where Cucho Hernandez had the opportunity to take a crack at Barcelona’s goal but slipped at the vital moment.

As for the goal, it resulted in a really unfortunate foul in the box by Frenkie de Jong. It came from a set-piece play pattern, and after the ball had pinged inside and outside the box a few times, de Jong tripped Djene Dakonam in the box as they both went for the ball.

Getafe, as was shown in the pass-map before, were not interested in deep build-up at all. They constantly went direct, staying true to their style of play. The attack pattern of swift transitions is clearly visible in the buildup to some of the shots they took, as shown below. These shots either came from forcing high turnovers or from speedy breaks from their own half with just a handful of passes only to transition over a large vertical distance:

In contrast, Barcelona were rambling, slow and sometimes clueless in the buildup, especially in the second half. There were two opportunities following two gorgeous buildups. The first one was intricate and involved a beautiful turn by the youngster Pedri to set up Dest, who cut the ball back for Messi. The Argentine’s left-footed precision shot evaded the Getafe goalie David Soria but cannoned off the post.

But the best opportunity of the first half fell to Griezmann. Yet again, the creator was Pedri, who met the World Cup winner’s wonderfully timed run with a delectable through ball. Griezmann raced clear of Getafe’s defensive line and with only the keeper at his mercy, shot high into the stands. The buildups are shown below:

(To be noted: neither Antione Griezmann’s shot nor Cucho Hernandez’s shots were on target – they blazed over the goal-post. The visuals above should not confuse the readers.)

The majority of the rest of the shots that Barcelona took came from set-pieces or hopeful crosses into the Getafe box. Apart from the cross that was almost turned into his own goal by Erick Cabaco late in the game and the one where Lenglet failed to connect properly with Messi’s freekick, the rest aren’t even worth discussing.

Barcelona did manage a lot of successful takeons, way more than Getafe, but most notably perhaps, none successful in Getafe’s box. The bulk of these duels were restricted in the wide areas, where Dest and Messi showed good feet. In the central zones, only Messi and Pedri were skilled and silky enough to beat their marker.

Passing

Barcelona’s progressive passing took a bit of hit this game. Here is a compilation of the successful progressive passes by all Barcelona players shown below. Something that strikes out immediately – there was almost nothing down the middle. Frenkie could only exert his influence through passing in the wide areas. Both centre-backs heavily sprayed out the ball wide. The characteristic dagger balls from Lenglet that we have grown used to seeing was missing this game:

Next we take a look at the assortment of most threatening passes that Barcelona put together:

Just like the game against Sevilla, there were barely any successful entries into the box. Many passes were sprayed out wide, which only halted the progress till that point. Simply put, Getafe were just too compact and physical to allow anything constructive to happen.

Shown below are Getafe’s progressive passes by all players, and their most threatening passes. They were either mostly pinging long balls into Barcelona’s third or launching counters from the deep bypassing the entire midfield and trying to catch Barcelona out. Unlike the visitors, there were a lot more entries into the box mostly coming from wide areas.

The two passes that standout are Cucurella’s pass to initiate a fast counter, and Pedri’s ball to Griezmann. Cucho Hernandez led the Getafe side with 3 key passes, with Cucurella and Enes Unal with one each. For Barcelona, Dest had two key passes, and Messi and Pedri had one each.

 

Next we look at switches of play. There is an amazing distinction between the two. Getafe’s switch passes from the wide areas were mainly to attack Barcelona’s 3rd and the box. Barcelona’s switches mainly came in buildup phases, attempting to open up Getafe, almost exclusively in the middle 3rd.

The quantity used here to compare passes into the final third is called field tilt – it’s the number of final third passes completed by a team, divided by the sum of final third passes completed by both teams, expressed as a percentage instead of a fraction. It’s a stat introduced by Statsperform (previously Opta) to measure territorial dominance.

Barcelona completed a greater number of final third passes than Getafe, and yet had a lower number of box entries – this is simply unacceptable in the future. Shown below are the mean field tilts as well as the time evolution. Barcelona overall had much higher territorial dominance with 67%. The only times Getafe enjoyed a better share of the territory was in the first 15 minutes of each half, and they made their territorial dominance in the second half count with a goal within that 15 minutes of the restart.

Defence

As a short side note, PPDA serves as a proxy of pressing intensity. It tells us how many passes the team in possession is allowed to make in their own 3-5ths of the pitch before disrupted with a foul or a tackle or an interception by the defending team. Lower the PPDA numbers, roughly speaking, higher the pressing intensity upfield. Getafe are known as notorious pressers, but they didn’t try to press too high or too much against Barcelona – recording a modest PPDA of 11 as compared to Barcelona’s 5. Also shown is the PPDA time evolution below:

Getafe exhibited their best press between the 15-30 minutes of the first half, and then at the beginning of the second half. It was 15-minute slot when the second half started where they dominated territory and pressed extremely well, and eventually scored. Next, let’s take a look at the defensive activities heatmap:

Barcelona’s pressurizing defensive actions were mainly concentrated on the left courtesy of Dest, Dembele, and de Jong. In the box, Pique and Lenglet held their own for the most part, and Neto was a safe pair of gloves. In fact, the Brazilian stopped a great shot from Cucho late in the second half to prevent Barcelona from going 2 goals down.

Getafe pressured the middle third to great effect and targeted Dembele’s wastefulness on the left flank and Roberto’s lack of support on the right. The unsuccessful passes tell the story of very curious pass weights by several Barcelona players, but most notably Dembele who couldn’t seem to get anything right in the first half. Misplacing so many short passes – for a team like Barcelona- should be a crime.

In terms of turnover creations, Barcelona managed a few handfuls on the left flank, helped by a reasonably good left-back outing by Dest. Getafe created turnovers in the middle and defensive thirds mostly.

Of course, you can’t describe a Getafe game without mentioning fouls. Fouling is an extremely effective strategy by Bordalas’ men, and an obliging referee meant they got away with almost everything. Getafe committed twice the number of fouls as Barcelona – 20 to 10, and yet had only one more yellow card than Barcelona. Allan Nyom should have easily seen the red card – if not direct, at least by accumulation – but escaped with just yellow.

Issues

There were several issues. The passing weight remains an issue. It was an issue against Sevilla, at the Camp Nou. It was an issue against Getafe. Dembele had a torrid showing. This was his first start and the first bunch of meaningful minutes. But nothing on display was encouraging, and it remains to be seen how much faith Koeman puts in him in the upcoming matches.

The midfielders were mostly solid – and that’s about it. They failed to influence the game with incisive passes. De Jong was pushed deep and wide. Busquets had one good pass, and the rest were all simple.

In the absence of Alba, the left side is almost as dead as the right. Dest tried a lot, and he was along with Pedri, the only standout performer for the travellers. He had two key passes, and a couple of really admirable dribbles, going toe-to-toe with Nyom. But he wasn’t nearly close enough to being the marauding Jordi Alba. The Messi-left wing connection has been a super fruitful one over the last few years, and that was sorely missed yesterday.

Speaking of, Messi was not utilized well at all in this game. He wasn’t allowed to drift as much and stayed wide a lot more. He was also not a part of the buildup as much as Barcelona would have preferred. If this was a conscious tactical decision not to involve Messi too much, it is much better to let him rove near the goal so he can make the most of his stellar finishing.

One way or the other, Messi looks really uninvolved and it’s costing Barcelona. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Griezmann continued to be underwhelming for Barcelona. He did nothing notable from the right-wing in the previous games, and he did nothing notable as the false 9 against Getafe. Barely involved in possession, he did make a good run only to smash a shot into the stands. At this point, it’s a fair call to try other attackers on the wing, especially with Fransisco Trincāo and Konrad de la Fuente waiting for quality minutes.

The refereeing was questionable, to put it mildly. Cucho Hernandez ran into Pique’s elbows and won a foul, with the Spaniard on the receiving end of a yellow. To even things a bit, the referee gave Mata a yellow for a soft foul on Lenglet. But nothing was more contentious than the elbow in the face of Messi by Nyom, who amazingly enough, escaped any card at all. He kept committing several fouls and was only shown a yellow after his 7th foul of the game, when in fact, he was lucky to survive that long.

The substitutes

For the first time, Ronald Koeman’s substitutes made no sense and brought no spark to the game. In theory, bringing Ansu Fati for Ousmane Dembele made sense, but it changed nothing in the broader context of things. Pedri did not deserve to get yanked before Antoine Griezmann given how well he was playing. Pique moving up to play striker late in the game meant there was no midfield bar Riqui Puig (getting his first minutes of the season) and Barcelona were easily countered. The subs were too late and made little sense.

Conclusion

It was an ugly game and required real motivation to keep watching. Barcelona needs to be much more direct – like the first two games. The Griezmann experiment probably needs to stop, and the excessive fluidity is coming at the cost of too many people trying to do the same set of things and occupying the same zones.

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