Ivan Rakitić’s Barcelona future has been the subject of much speculation. The Croatian has consistently affirmed his commitment to the club but it seems he’d like to see that commitment reciprocated with a new contract.
Barcelona appear unsure. There are rumours the midfielder could be sold in the summer, with Manchester United among the interested parties and, if social media is any barometer, many Barça fans wouldn’t miss him.
But, at 31 and now in his fifth season at the club, Rakitić has been one of the pillars of Barcelona’s recent success, and his contribution is deserving of more respect and recognition.
José Mourinho, in his work as a TV analyst during a recent Clásico in which Barcelona defeated Real Madrid at the Bernabéu, hailed Rakitić, who scored the game’s only goal, as “one of the most underrated players” in the world.
“He’s a fantastic player at every level,” Mourinho enthused. “He does defensive work on the right-hand side to compensate [Lionel] Messi, he runs miles. In ball possession, he’s fantastic, he’s simple, and he’s effective.”
Arriving from Sevilla in the summer of 2014, Rakitić had huge boots to fill at the Camp Nou in the form of legendary midfielder Xavi. The then-club captain was 34 and in his final season with the Blaugrana before heading into semi-retirement in Qatar.
Rakitić assumed Xavi’s position in midfield, alongside Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, and despite forming a key part of Luis Enrique’s treble winners in his first campaign with the club, the former Basel and Schalke midfielder has perhaps always suffered from comparison’s with the metronomic pass master he replaced.
He could never match Xavi’s ability to bend a game to his will, to slow things down to lure the opposition into a false sense of security before quickening the pace and catching them off guard. He could never split defences asunder with passes no one else but Xavi sees, nor could he conjure slick interchanges of passes at will to drag an opposing side out of shape.
But the focus has always unfairly remained on what Raktić can’t or doesn’t do, rather than what he can and does.
The Barça that won the Champions League in 2015 under Enrique were vastly different for Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side. They relied heavily upon the dynamism of the ‘MSN’, the frontline of Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar, more incisive in transition and less reliant on possession.
Rakitić’s ability to transition quickly between defence and attack, to seek the ball when the opposition had it and to quickly pick out a more gifted team-mate in an advanced position, was vital.
Under Ernesto Valverde, Barça again espouse a more considered style of play, and Raktić has grown into this, too. He has never been a particularly prolific scorer at the Camp Nou – nor were Xavi and Iniesta; the team is tactically disposed to filtering chances to its forwards – but he has a knack of scoring in the biggest games; with four goals and four assists, he has been directly involved in more goals against Real Madrid than any other opponent except Real Betis (five goals) in his career, and it was the Croatian who opened the scoring against Juventus in the 2015 Champions League final.
Without the ball, Rakitić is supremely disciplined, whether filling is for Busquets as the pivote or in his customary position on the right of the midfield three. Valverde’s tactics at Barça have at times been a little more cautious than many fans would prefer, with the Blaugrana tasked with containing the opposition and relying on Messi and Suárez to provide inspiration.
Without the presence of Rakitić on that side of the pitch, the fact Barcelona have never adequately replaced Dani Alves at right-back might have seen them more glaringly exposed.
With Iniesta gone, Rakitić has assumed a role of greater responsibility, evidenced by how his average for passes per 90 minutes has risen to 85.2 this season, the highest of his career, an increase on last term’s 79.1, which itself was up from 59.6 and 61.9 in the previous two campaigns.
As Real Madrid found out when their Galácticos policy of the early 2000s yielded an underwhelming trophy haul, too many stars unbalance a team. Rakitić – whether it’s been Messi, Neymar, Suárez or Iniesta ahead of him – is the consummate counterweight.