“He’s a fantastic player at every level. 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.”
That was José Mourinho’s take on Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitić earlier this year. The former Real Madrid coach went on to label the Croatian schemer, ‘One of the most underrated players in the world’.
Yet the view of the coach who matters most is at odds with Mourinho’s perspective. Barça boss Ernesto Valverde clearly sees the 31-year-old differently. It’s why he’s made one start in LaLiga this season and clocked up 197 minutes of action.
For a player of his graceful style, with the ability to pierce defences and make those around him tick, it’s a criminal waste of talent.
The writing has been on the wall for the Croatian for some time. As far back as the summer, Barça were prepared to use Rakitić as a makeweight in a deal to bring Neymar back to Catalonia from Paris Saint-Germain.
It seems inevitable Rakitić, who is contracted until the summer of 2021, will be allowed to leave the Camp Nou. Either in January or next summer. He is not short of suitors with Manchester United, Atlético Madrid, Milan and Internazionale all keen.
United have been most strongly linked – on an almost weekly basis, in fact – and while there’s little doubt their midfield could use a sprinkling of Rakitić’s playmaking ability, he would not be a long-term of financially prudent investment for the Premier League side.
Given the Red Devils lack any semblance of a plan or strategy in the transfer market, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rakitić clutching a United shirt in January having inked a lucrative three-year agreement to move to the Premier League. He’s just the sort of expensive big-name signing they seem to be drawn to like a moth to the flame.
But how has he got to the point of being entirely dispensable?
Barcelona’s midfield is not what it used to be, after all. Of the holy trinity of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets it is only the latter who remains. Arthur and Frenkie de Jong represent a bright future for Los Cúles while the punky Arturo Vidal offers something different – and not just because he looks like the frontman of a heavy metal band.
That leaves Rakitić as the odd man odd having arguably done very little wrong.
The former Sevilla midfielder recently spoke out: “How does my little girl feel when her toy is taken away?” he asked. “Sad. I feel the same way. They have taken the ball away from me – I feel sad.”
Barça coach Valverde refused to discuss the midfielder’s future when pressed on the subject following last week’s friendly against Cartagena. “I have nothing to say to Ivan’s comments,” Valverde said after Barcelona’s 2-0 win.
Having initially been called up by Croatia for their European Championship qualifiers against Slovakia and Georgia, Rakitić pulled out but missed the friendly due to an Achilles complaint.
What makes Rakitić’s apparent exclusion from the Barcelona midfield more bizarre is as recently as last season he was still one of LaLiga’s best statistically.
No midfielder in Spain’s top-flight attempted (86.32 per 90) or completed (76.93) more passes. These weren’t passes for the sake of it either – he ranked third for forward passes (22.84 per 90) and top for touches (100.71 per 90), underlining his importance to Barcelona.
However, the most logical explanation for his sudden reduction in role is simply the arrival of De Jong. The Dutch midfielder was the most sought-after player in his position in Europe. Fully aware of this, Barça struck a deal with Ajax in January for a reported €75million, allowing him to remain in Amsterdam for the rest of the season.
“With his talent, at his age, he could become a Xavi or an Iniesta,” said former Barcelona winger turned Ajax sporting director Marc Overmars.
The similarity between the pair is highlighted in their respective Player Persona graphs, a visualisation created in Twenty3’s Sports Data Platform which ascribes attributes to players based on their statistical output.
As is evident below, build-up passing and dribbling are the two stand-out traits of both players.
The question now is what happens next for Rakitić. According to reports, an unnamed Premier League club has offered £13million for the Croatian this week – a bid which was swiftly rejected. Barça are holding out for nearer €35million (£30million). That is a not inconsiderable sum for someone who’ll turn 32 in March.
Both Milan clubs have been linked, as have Atlético and Juventus. The Bianconeri have a collection of central midfielders to rival almost any club in world football – so much so, in fact, that Emre Can was excluded from their Champions League squad.
At Milan, the purse strings have to be managed carefully. Spending €35million on a player with a limited shelf-life would be a hard one to justify in more austere times. Rivals Inter, then, seem Rakitić’s most-likely destination. They are light in midfield after Antonio Conte made it clear Radja Nainggolan was persona non grata before being offloaded to Genoa and the former Chelsea boss is desperate for greater depth in January.
There are few things Conte and his nemesis Mourinho agree on – a mutual appreciation of Rakitić is clearly one though.