Before Neymar went and flipped Barcelona’s outlook for the summer transfer window upside down, the club’s main objective for this offseason was to strengthen the midfield. PSG star Marco Verratti was the Blaugrana’s top target, and for a brief time it seemed Barcelona had finally managed to recruit a legitimate replacement for Xavi.
Once that dream was crushed, Nice’s Jean-Michael Seri was the only midfielder Barça pursued whose profile is similar to Verrati’s, and at this point the club’s actual interest in him still isn’t clear. What is clear is that Barcelona’s board ran out of ideas after discarding Seri, instead putting all of its eggs in the Philippe Coutinho basket even though he plays a very different position. For many, the failure to secure a deep-lying player was chief among Barcelona’s transfer shortcomings.
But maybe the player Barcelona needs to bridge the gap until the next star signing in midfield arrives (or develops in the case of Carles Aleñá) is already here. Maybe Barcelona already has a player with a diverse skillset well-suited for playing next to Sergio Busquets in a two-man midfield; a player who has the workrate to close down the ball in a high-tempo pressing game and the quality to help control the game with the ball at his feet.
Maybe that player is Ivan Rakitic.
To some, that will come as a shocking suggestion, because Rakitic’s form has dropped steadily during the past few seasons. But anyone who has watched Barcelona during the past couple of years would be able to identify the adverse conditions Rakitic has been playing in as Barça’s right-sided center mid in a 4-3-3.
Rakitic is a delightfully skilled player, and his qualities make him the perfect compliment for a midfield that features the world’s best CDM in Sergio Busquets and a creative ace like Iniesta. But take one of those cogs away (Iniesta’s productivity), give Rakitic more defensive responsibilities and throw in a tactical shift that favored quick transitions to the forward line rather than buildup play in midfield and you create an environment that very few midfielders could thrive in.
With Sergi Roberto playing out of position at right back and Messi frequently abandoning the right wing to drift into central positions, Rakitic’s role was stretched from CM to RM and even RWB far too often after the departure of Dani Alves. So much of Rakitic’s energy was spent patrolling the right sideline to help out defensively, and the game plan often called for him to be ignored so the forwards could get on the ball as soon as possible.
Luis Enrique shoehorned Rakitic into the role Paulinho was just bought to fill, but unlike Paulinho, Rakitic wasn’t recruited to be a workhorse. Rakitic was the best midfielder in Spain outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid’s teams when Barça bought him. He was Sevilla’s talisman and led them to the first Europa League title of their three-peat, even earning Man of the Match honors in the final. He outdid himself during his debut season with Barcelona, helping the club reach the Champions League Final and scoring the opening goal in the final against Juventus.
But Rakitic fell out of favor with Enrique last season as the manager tried desperately to get Andre Gomes acquainted with the club. Even players like Rafinha and Denis Suarez started key games instead of the Croatian, and yet Rakitic still finished the season with eight goals and five assists, making him the team’s most prolific player outside of MSN.
Luckily for Rakitic, Ernesto Valverde seems to count on him to play an important role in his midfield this season. Horrible performance in the Spanish Super Copa aside, Valverde’s midfield has looked strong with the ball and without it in the first two games of the La Liga season, and Rakitic has been an integral part of his tactics so far.
Playing alongside Busquets in a double pivot, Rakitic has been a focal point of the team’s midfield play. Rakitic had 203 touches in the first two games of the season (Busquets had 198) and he currently leads La Liga in passes per game. This is a massive uptick in participation for Rakitic compared to his three years under Luis Enrique, for his time on the ball dwindled each passing season with Lucho.
|Season||Passes Per Game (La Liga)|
While this season’s average obviously comes from a small sample size, there is no doubt Rakitic’s heavy involvement at the start of this campaign offers us some insight on how Valverde plans to use him. Rakitic might not have the legs to be an advanced playmaker and a defensive workhorse like he was during his peak at Sevilla, but he does have the passing range, tactical astuteness and defensive desire to sit back with Busquets in a two-man midfield and help orchestrate the game from deeper positions.
I went back and took a close look at all of Rakitic’s touches from the season opener against Real Betis, and it was a performance worth reviewing. Assuming Valverde decides on a 4-2-3-1 alignment for the majority of this season, Rakitic’s showing against Betis will be the template for Barcelona’s supporting midfielder alongside Busquets this season. He barely put a wrong foot it, kept control in tight areas, read the game well from a defensive standpoint and was at the root of a number of the Blaugrana’s most threatening moves.
Rakitic did a brilliant job of playing short passes, picking out the over the top ball on the touchline to the fullbacks or wingers and recycling possession when there were no immediate forward options. Unlike last season when the entire midfield seemed absent in the buildup, Busquets and Rakitic made a number of direct passes that spurred dangerous chances. Rakitic displayed a comfortability and patience on the ball that he wasn’t afforded under Enrique, and he looked like a totally different player.
What made Rakitic’s performance whole was his mobility when Barcelona lost the ball. Rather than sprinting back to cover the flank like he had to do any time Roberto marauded forward last season, he was darting forward to win the ball back high up the field. When Barcelona sat back in their 4-4-2 shape, Rakitic was willing to join the press from midfield while Busquets protected the backline, and that combination has also been solid while defending side-by-side.
There were some doubts about whether Valverde would employ a 4-2-3-1 at Barcelona because Busquets has always been at his best as the lone pivot who splits the centerbacks in possession. But the early signs indicate Barcelona can get even more out of Busquets by involving him in the buildup a bit further up the field and by providing him with a midfield partner who will complement him defensively.
In some matches, Paulinho might be the best option, because his workrate and tackling ability are great attributes in road fixtures against teams that will want to possess the ball. On other nights, Sergi Roberto’s direct style and more advanced positioning will be necessary to break down teams playing a deep block.
But in most games this season, I think Rakitic will be the ideal midfield partner for Busquets.
At this stage in his career, Rakitic doesn’t approach the world-class level of a player like Verratti, but I think he has been too quickly discarded as a player Barcelona desperately need to replace. Seri was an interesting and captivating target because he has professed his love for the club and said he dreams of playing for Barcelona, and he fits the profile of the kind of midfielder Barcelona need. That said, if you rewatch the first two games of the season, you don’t have to squint too hard to see Rakitic fulfilling the same controlling midfield role Seri would have, albeit with a bit less flair and trickery.
Barcelona failing to sign midfield reinforcements this summer was a massive blow to the squad’s overall potency and the board’s lack of a single fully-vetted backup plan for Verratti or Coutinho is unforgivable. But I think the more obvious hole will be in the attacking midfield role, particularly as Iniesta ages past being able to play at a top level every week.
A bit deeper in the midfield, though, Barcelona has an in-house option who has the quality to transform into a deep-lying playmaker. While it might not be as flashy or exciting as a new signing, shifting Rakitic into a position that takes better advantage of his skillset should benefit Barcelona greatly. After years of sacrificing his game for the betterment of the team, Valverde is going to give Rakitic a platform to showcase his talent, and I think he is in for a bounce back season.