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.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.