Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Ivan Rakitic to FC Barcelona: A new Maestro or another Song?

Ivan Rakitic to FC Barcelona is yet to be officially announced. I mentioned on twitter I will avoid writing about it till it is official, but you know… This is Wednesday and by tomorrow, we will be all too involved in the World Cup to bother. So here we are…

I’ve been fortunate to watch Rakitic this season in many occasions at Sevilla and for Croatia, yet the game that caught my attention most was Sevilla’s game against FC Barcelona where Rakitic played a very interesting role in midfield. If there is a game that made Zubizarreta remembers Ivan’s name, I’ll put my bet on this one.  This morning, I watched Sevilla-Real Madrid, which confirmed lot of the earlier observations.

Pull the leash, though; let’s start with the risks first, and get it out of the way…

For once, we will believe media narrators assuming that Ivan Rakitic will join FC Barcelona to replace Cesc Fabregas. Putting all the impulsive rants aside, no one can deny that Cesc is a player you can trust to perform in 75% of the games, while being a predictable underperformer in the close vital ones.

Anyone who watched his performance for Arsenal for many years would have never imagined that Alexandre Hleb will faint to failure to THAT extends after joining FC Barcelona.

So if anyone assumes that replacing a 75% reasonable performer, and a leading player in assists and goals in La Liga for any other player is no risk, such fan is no doubt suffering a Culexitement syndrome that we all know how it starts, and how long it lasts.

Call it “High risk, high return” if that sounds nicer, but read the full statement, not just the second part.

How long have you been a fan of Ivan Rakitic?

Exactly! I’d gamble and assume that 95% of Ivan’s fans have never noticed his existence on planet earth –like- eight months ago. His form last season was beyond all expectations, even the expectations of a shrewd man like Monchi who made the attempt to protect the player’s contract a season too late.

There are two explanations for such boost in performance. The first is Ivan Rakitic peaking. His age (27) support such argument as this is the period of time where players approach their best football cycle.  Some players curve moves gently up, others can make such wide steps of improvement when entering their football maturity. Playing for the fourth season for Sevilla is also a factor as he is by now fully adapted to the team (That’s a plus or a minus, depending on how you look at it). The other explanation for his exceptional performance last season could also be, well, being exceptional…

Another challenge Ivan Rakitic has to overcome if he joins FC Barcelona is what I like to call the Del Piero Syndrome. Those who watched Del Piero’s best years at Juventus can get the context by comparing his performance in those years for the Italian National team.  While being the Chuck Norris of Juventus then, he (relatively) never met the expectations for Italy. Some players can only perform to their best when such player is The Man of his team, the point of reference, and the uncompromising, indispensable star player. Players with such flair shine when they are the ones who take responsibilities. That’s when they never fear committing mistakes. Such immunity leads to making fewer mistakes. Confidence players if you like. Zlatan is a more recent example of many you can spot across the fields of football from grassroots to world cup contenders.

Such is the case of Ivan Rakitic at Sevilla, and the moment he start having second thoughts before triggering such magic, he will start complicating it for himself, and everyone. Ask Neymar.

Another challenge will be the demands held on the shoulders of any center midfielder playing for FC Barcelona. Putting pressure in the opponent’s final third goes hand in hand with the ability to make fast transition whenever the opponent breaks through such pressure and generate counters.  While not being a lazy player by any mean (in fact Rakitic is a very dedicated hardworking midfielder), he is not the fastest player to make such transitions. This challenge is not only on Rakitic, but also on Luis Enrique and the methods he will deploy in midfield to get the best out of this player. If there is one element in Cesc’s game that stand out as an advantage over Rakitic, it’s that. However, Rakitic can definitely make for it for being exceptional with his positioning sense. Such quality can overcome a slightly lower transition pace IF given the right tactical template to operate through.

Now to the more entertaining part: The good

One of the most exciting elements in Rakitic’s game is his eye that spots passing lanes and players’ movement in front. Make no mistake, his passes are not always Xavi-tic and many of it goes wrong. But, possibly, that is not a bad thing considering the range and diversity of his passing game where he usually take more risk than Xavi. With him in midfield, the team will add a dose of directness and verticality that FC Barcelona lacked in previous seasons. Players like Alexis and Neymar will not complain about that for sure, as their movement went continuously unnoticed too often for their liking.

Talking about Xavi, assumptions about Rakitic being Xavi’s replacement are as close to the truth as Emile Heskey’s techniques. Rarely can you find two center midfielders who are that different.  So let’s get that out of the way and predict where Racitic can perform best for FC Barcelona.

While Racitic assists and goals are the most praised features in his game, I’d say his less glorified attributes will be the key for his success with FC Barcelona. Ivan is a very tough player to dribble or beat in 1v1. He has a Busquetic ingredient with his ability to trigger buildup from deep position. He did an amazing job against FC Barcelona and Real Madrid last season, unlocking the pressure the two teams put on the backline and ejecting Sevilla’s buildup forward.

His positional sense, defensive notable contribution, and of course offense quality in assists and goals implies that he has a better chance excelling at FC Barcelona as a box-to-box midfielder than an attacking playmaker in the final third. If you look at a midfield of Busquets-Rakitic-Iniesta, and while Rakitic being a more proven goalscorer, I still prefer to see him (tactically) between Iniesta and Busquets than ahead of them. Worth noting that he is very good timing his runs to the opponent box, and doing so by overlapping Iniesta can catch opponents by surprise more often than it will happen if he plays under the eyes of opponent’s defensive midfielder.

All that is good, but what about the transition issue? Is he capable to do the back and forth runs consistently and fast enough? He shouldn’t need to, and that is where Enrique needs to do his homework. When the team loses possession, Rakitic should have the priority to position himself right in midfield over contributing in the pressing dynamics. The times when Rakitic is left with no choice but to press opponent, Iniesta need to retreat, and in all cases, one of the fullbacks should always do so as well.

Another advantage in having Racitic in such role is that it helps FC Barcelona to become less Busquets dependent. A midfield of Mascherano-Rakitic-Iniesta can tick all the boxes required to run the show in midfield. Yet, the most exciting news will be a successful football chemistry between Busquets and Rakitic capable to close down the midfield defensively, and move the ball forward when in possession, without the need for Iniesta or Messi to go pick it from deep.

Then of course, the height factor, adding a 185 cm tall player to the selection is always welcomed even if he is a volleyball player – considering all the troubles suffered in set pieces both in offense and defense. Ivan Rakitic can also add a welcomed dose of physical presence Barcelona lacked since the departure of Keita, the great. In that sense, he is for me what Alex Song should have been, more than being Cesc’s replacement.
With Xavi getting a year older, and in a team that can’t afford giving a player the needed time to adapt, Rakitic will not have his fair opportunity to integrate in the team gradually. There will be a demand that he signs on, and gets in firing in all cylinders. He should at least be able to deliver in those 75 % of the games where Cesc was not very Fabregased, or else FC Barcelona’s season will get messy, same as Rakitic career in the club. That is where a serious risk should be recognized.

Yet, with the qualities he possess, with the right tactical guidance, and if he doesn’t get too overwhelmed by the challenge ahead, he should easily be able to deliver in his first season what Cesc Fabregas did, not only for a lower cost but even with Zubizarreta counting the extra cash he got from the operation of selling Cesc and buying Ivan. That will be more than enough for a start.

Sevilla always pass FC Barcelona brilliant players who deliver and write their names in the club’s history. Ivan Rakitic, at best, might be the new great in the making. Only time can tell.

You can always check latest rants on @FootballMood

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