It only took three games into the restart for Barcelona to falter in the title race. Dropping points against Sevilla in what seemed to be a dull outing has now put Real Madrid in the pole position. Amidst the disappointment, there is one thing that the fans for once agree with: the stepping up of Iván Rakitić at the right time.
Iván Rakitić is amongst the most controversial players playing for Barcelona at the moment. His actions and choice of words about the club have put him far from the fans’ good books. Poor performances, lack of commitment and an evident sign of disinterest saw him edging closer to the door. Even before the restart, the only conversation that Rakitić would come up in is related to leaving the club.
Suddenly, fortune seems to have struck the Croatian at the right time. Injuries in the midfield department have helped him get a chance to regain the fans’ confidence. He played 45 minutes of the first match at Mallorca, a full 90 minutes against Leganés, and 87 minutes versus Sevilla. Even if a secluded bunch of people may disagree, he has been one of the best performers for the blaugranas on Friday.
Despite the entire clash with Sevilla being completely lacklustre, Rakitić had a performance to be proud of. There seems to be a gradual rise across the last three games. Against Leganés, he made 54 touches in the midfield third and 32 in the attacking third. In his trip to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, he had 47 touches in the midfield third and 41 in the attacking third.
Iván Rakitić had a subsidiary role at the start of the season | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
Clearly, he was one of the most influential players on the pitch. In terms of touches in the attacking third, he made the third most by any footballer on the pitch. Only Lionel Messi, with 62, and Nélson Semedo, with 42, were more involved in the final third. Furthermore, Rakitić also pulled a shift defensively. With a 100% tackle success rate, and a 52.6% success rate in pressing, he was also instrumental in winning possession back.
The numbers speak for themselves. There is no denying that Barça had a subpar evening against Julen Lopetegui’s men. However, credit must be given where it’s due, to Rakitić, for stepping up and pitching in a well-rounded performance. His improvement comes at the right time with the Catalans losing Frenkie de Jong to a calf injury. With the Dutchman’s return date unspecified, nothing could do a bigger favour to Quique Setién than having his senior player rising to the occasion.
Indeed, there is a discrepancy over Rakitić’s future, and the likelihood of him leaving at the end of the season is high. Nevertheless, the azulgranas aren’t in a comfortable position to neglect the Croat’s services. The stalemate with Sevilla means that their rivals Real Madrid will have their fate in their own hands. A win against Real Sociedad this evening would put Los Blancos at the top of the table. With the head-to-head going in their favour, it would mean that, from hereon, anything short of a win is useless.
Losing De Jong at such a crucial period is something unprecedented. There is no time for Quique Setién to loom over the loss of his best performing midfielder, as the games keep coming rapidly. He has to trust the available players, and Rakitić’s performances in the recent games are reassuring. He will probably get more starts from now on. And if he manages to rediscover the form that made him one of the best in his role, then they might miss De Jong a little lesser.
Notwithstanding Rakitić’s recent decent patch, it’s quite understandable if the fans consider him unreliable. The last two seasons saw an exponential decline in Iván’s form. He was lethargic, made the midfield static, and brought almost nothing in terms of creativity. His presence in the midfield only reduced the pace of Barça’s passing. At one point, the opposition even considered the number 4 as the vulnerable point to exploit. Finally, after several games of observation, the fans began to lose faith in him.
But now, even though the slate isn’t entirely wiped, there’s a need to trust him. At his best, Rakitić can give a different dimension of physical and technical service. His tirelessness and continual shift throughout the pitch makes him an asset to behold. The fans shouldn’t forget how excellent he was in his prime.
“For me, Rakitić is one of the most underrated players in the world. He is a fantastic player at every level. He does a massive defensive work on the right side to compensate for Messi. He runs miles. In ball possession, he is fantastic. He is simple but extremely effective”
It will be interesting to see if Rakitić can win back the fans’ trust. Either way, should he manage to prove everyone wrong, it would only benefit the club. The upcoming fixtures will allow him to reignite his Barcelona career, by stepping up exactly when the team needs him the most. We have already seen Arturo Vidal silence the critics who questioned his tactical profile. It is now in Iván Rakitić’s hands to do the same. The ball is in his court.
The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.