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.
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.