As Ivan Rakitić has sealed a move to Sevilla, his former club, let’s take a look at his career at Barça, where he spent six seasons as a starter.
Succeeding in football is the best feeling ever. Excelling at one of the biggest clubs in the world is a whole different story, however. In those clubs, you can go from hero to zero in the matter of seasons if you are not careful enough. One must play well in every game, which is an unrealistic demand, and, along with that, help the team with goals and assists if they play further up the pitch.
Barcelona has a history with great midfielders who were not always the most prolific in terms of goals and assists, but who are now in every conversation concerning the greatest ever. The culés also have a history with turning on their players. From Cesc Fàbregas to Ousmane Dembélé passing by Luis Suárez, who is currently mistreated by the board, and Ivan Rakitić, many have had an unfair treatment for many reasons. To hate on someone because of injuries or bad form is sad and turning on a legend because he has had a steady decline is childish. The last name on this list has had a severe treatment from the fans and is now out of the club for good.
The story of Ivan Rakitić is the tale of a blond boy from Basel who had to battle his way to the top, passing by Schalke and Sevilla to achieve untouchable status at Barça. The Croatian has spent the best part of the last decade defying the odds in Spain. After becoming captain of Sevilla in a few seasons where he won a Europa League title, Rakitić jumped ship in 2014 to become Xavi Hernández‘s replacement in Barça’s trophyless 2014 squad. It’s fair to say he fit like a glove in Luis Enrique’s system, playing as a shuttler and covering Lionel Messi’s and Dani Alves’ runs forward and always having a rocket in him.
In 2015, Rakitić entered the best midfielder in the world conversation as he destroyed everyone on the defensive side or with his insane right foot that could break a net. While he wasn’t the classical Barça player, Luis Enrique knew how to use his midfielder to the point where he didn’t need to touch the ball for more than a few seconds before releasing it perfectly towards a teammate or the net.
Even if Rakitić’s time at Barça was up now, he has been a magnificent servant for the club | Photo by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images
This 2014/15 was Rakitić’s best at Camp Nou, and he will be forever remembered as the one who opened the scoring against Juventus in the Champions League final, with his shot nestling into the net after Andrés Iniesta’s magic footwork. In the following campaign, Rakitić was still an unmissable addition to the squad as he had another insane course behind the MSN front three. This time, he was more attacking and scored many rockets, as per.
Barça’s 2015/16 ended with mixed feelings as the Catalans tanked it a bit after Zinedine Zidane’s appointment at Real Madrid and the blaugrana outfit lost the Clásico and the Champions League quarter-final against Atlético de Madrid. The squad only finished with a one-point advantage against Zidane’s men in La Liga. Still, Rakitić was one of the reasons Barcelona had such a comfortable advantage going into this lost Clásico, and he began to tire out a bit as it was clear Luis Enrique overused his Croat star in midfield.
After 2016, Ivan Rakitić was untouchable in Barça’s squad and played every game of the season, even if it meant he would lose efficacity. It was in 2016/17 where he showed glimpses of what was to come with some iffy displays all year long covered by some superb goals like that one in the 3–2 Clásico win at the Santiago Bernabéu. The 2016/17 term was meant to be a warning sign, as if Rakitić was beginning to signal that he was not a robot and, sometimes, the bench was a decent option to get him fresher and more prepared for the next games.
It was around this time where interest in the midfielder increased, and Barcelona could have made big bucks on him, but decided to opt against selling their star man, understandably. The next season was the symbol of overuse as Ivan Rakitić did not have a minute to breathe as he went in as the player with the most minutes between everyone in the World Cup. A World Cup where he excelled and reached the final as a star in Croatia’s midfield, battering Leo Messi’s Argentina squad en route to the final.
This is where, after three quarter-final exits and humiliation in Rome in 2018, Barcelona should have possibly cashed in on their midfielder, who was in Paris Saint-Germain’s books to strengthen their squad. Rumours of exorbitant fees began and, if they were right, Barça should have sold Rakitić, first for financial reasons and then for the football.
Now Rakitić will be heading back to Sevilla, where he shone between 2011 and 2014 | Photo by Cristina Quicler / AFP via Getty Images
After 2018, nothing was ever the same for Rakitić, where Ernesto Valverde continued the trend of overusing his player at the detriment of the squad, getting humiliated twice in a row in the Champions League. Rakitić was, inexplicably, the first in the teamsheet for every important game of the year. Nevertheless, despite not being his old self and tiring out a bit, his solitary goal in March 2019, where he chipped Thibaut Courtois, was enough to win a heated clash against Real Madrid and give Barça the 2019 league title.
For that, Rakitić will always be rated at the Camp Nou, where he made a name for himself, and it wasn’t because of him that things went south. His 2019/20 campaign will be remembered as his worst one in a while, as he began the term on the bench and played awfully before lockdown. After the break, he looked revitalised and even scored the winning goal in Barça’s narrow 1–0 win against Gaizka Garitano’s defensive Athletic Club de Bilbao.
Now that he is almost officially a Sevilla player, Rakitić’s story at Barça will always be remembered thanks to moments where he showed heroic qualities and gave culés a smile on their face. Hopefully, now, Ivan Rakitić will be touted as one of the greats to have graced the pitch in Catalonia.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.