After a secondary role at the start of the season, and after being close to an exit in each of the past transfer windows, Barcelona midfielder Iván Rakitić has experienced a commendable resurgence after the coronavirus break.
Iván Rakitić. A name that often fires up even the most saintly supporters of Barcelona. In all likelihood one of the most hated players of the squad in recent times, there are innumerable agendas against him. The hatred has spread as fast as a pandemic, and really for no fault of his. The dissatisfaction was justifiable to an extent, attributed to the fall in agility as he aged. To add to that, his inability to thread forward passes at crucial moments was something rather disappointing. But putting all these hindrances to one side, he has stepped up when the team needed him the most, proving exactly why he is valued so highly by coaches and teammates alike.
With Frenkie de Jong seemingly out for a few weeks, Barça find themselves in a rather uncomfortable situation. Playing a game every three days is no mean feat; every player is a bag of gold at this stage. The Croat is undoubtedly massively underrated at this stage of his career and, of course, heavily criticised. It is important, however, to give absolute credit where it is deserved.
After a tough start to the season, Iván Rakitić has had a resurgence lately and is earning a spot in Barcelona’s starting XI again | Photo by Carlos Sánchez Martínez / Icon Sportswire via Imago
On what seemed another desolate and despicable night of football against Athletic Club on Tuesday at the Camp Nou, he gave the city of Barcelona another reason to celebrate on St Johns eve. Needless to mention, his sumptuous strike just six minutes after coming on was more than just a perfect birthday present for Barcelona’s prodigal son, Lionel Messi.
Rakitić said after the game: “Well, it was an important goal. It was a tough game – it was hard for us to open the game up. Athletic played really well, we have to admit that, but at the end of the day our moment came and I am absolutely delighted to get my first goal of the season at last”.
“I want to dedicate the goal to my wife and daughters, who have had to endure me for the last few months. I am angry that my first goal in La Liga this season came so late”
To be fair, his contribution goes far beyond just the winning goal against Athletic Club. Over the last two or three matches, there has been an evident shift in manager Quique Setién’s tactics. This has seen Barcelona press much higher up the pitch than they used to before, pressurising the opposition at the level of their centre-backs itself. This is much more conspicuous in the first 30-odd minutes of the game.
A major chunk of responsibility for this high energy press to win the ball back has fallen on the shoulders of this man. Right from the encounter with Leganés, Rakitić has played an active role in not just ball retrieval, but in connecting the defensive lines to the attacking third. His pace can be questioned, but his efficiency and dedication cannot be doubted. The verticality in his passing range has been on the rise.
Most importantly, though, Iván is showing how important it is to flow with the system at Barcelona. Having been at the club for a reasonably long time, he certainly has the trust of all players. He effortlessly combines with all the homegrown players, including Messi, often in scintillating one-twos. His energy has been crucial in maintaining possession of the ball, which is all the more important when the team lacks creativity in the heart of the midfield and width at the spearhead of the attack.
Quique Setién once again reiterated the Croat’s importance in the team in his post-match press conference after Tuesday’s win: “He came in in the second half for the Busi [Sergio Busquets] card. He has done it frankly well. He understands football very well. He has placed himself well, has stolen balls and has joined a definitive action. I am very happy for him”.
If there was ever a right time to step up, this would be it. With such a congested fixture list up ahead, it is vital that all the players stay at the top of their game. Undoubtedly, this resurgence from a rejuvenated Iván Rakitic can be nothing but a blessing for the club.
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.