By guest contributor Emile Avanessian (@hardwoodhype).
Between the departure of Xavi following the 2014-15 season and that of Andrés Iniesta this past spring, FC Barcelona suffered losses in midfield in three calendar years on par with arguably any team in the history of club football. In terms of technical skill, institutional knowledge and a preternatural understanding of time and space, this duo forever sits at the pinnacle of the game. To lose one such maestro is a significant blow. To lose two, in relatively quick succession, one would assume, would be crippling.
Barcelona carried on domestically in the aftermath of Xavi’s departure, winning two La Liga titles (and finishing three points shy of a third, with a league-best goal difference, by a margin of fourteen goals) and all three Copa del Rey trophies. Given the monumental void in the middle of the pitch, positive results have continued to pile up, and the fact that trophies continue to find their way to the Camp Nou is a testament to the efforts of Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić, Sergi Roberto and, to lesser extents, the likes of Paulinho and Denis Suarez. Restocking the midfield has not always gone smoothly – consider the swings and misses on Arda Turan and Andre Gomes, and Rafinha’s struggles, both to consistently appear on the pitch, and to produce in what playing time he’s had – but the crew on hand has managed to keep things turning over.
Big money was invested over the summer to bolster the midfield, with the additions of Arthur (€31 million from Gremio) and Malcom (€41 million from Bordeaux), as well as a like-for-like replacement of Paulinho with Arturo Vidal. The trio has yet to make an impact in the season’s opening weeks save for the last two starts by Arthur, resulting in Barcelona once again leaning on the incumbent unit of Busquets, Philippe Coutinho and underrated stalwart, Ivan Rakitić.
Acquired to support, and subsequently succeed Xavi, Rakitić has occupied multiple roles in the Barcelona midfield: willing defender, gifted facilitator – either via the dribble or excellent vision and passing ability, and occasional weapon in attack. It’s this versatility, along with an outstanding feel for the game that have made Rakitić indispensable to this era of Barcelona football. Beyond this, however, his personality and attitude that enabled him to succeed alongside the world’s most dominant players and personalities. Though sometimes polarizing among fans, Rakitić is a trustworthy decision-maker on the ball that seldom, if ever, shirks his on-field responsibilities. And, perhaps most importantly given the role he’s asked to play, he is not a player consumed by the pursuit of individual glory.
Additionally, since moving from Sevilla in the summer of 2014, Rakitić has been a workhorse for the Blaugrana, appearing in no fewer than 51 La Liga/Copa del Rey/Champions League games in a season. He’s actually upped his workload over the past year, with both club and country. In the 336 days between the Supercopa de España preceding the 2017-18 season (on August 13, 2017) and the World Cup Final on July 14, he took part in 71 games – more than any other player in football. For Barcelona, Luis Suárez (3,786) and Lionel Messi (3,780) were the only outfield players to log more La Liga/Champions League minutes than Rakitić (3,597). Then, at season’s end, he went to Russia and proceeded to play 638 high-intensity minutes in Croatia’s seven-game run to the World Cup Final.
The heavy lifting has carried over into the early stages of this season, as Rakitić has since taken part in nine matches for Barcelona (7 in the league, and two Champions League outings) and one for Croatia, during which he’s been on the field for more than 90% of the possible minutes. Though he’s continued to work hard and, by and large, has still been effective, the effects of the extreme workload of the past fourteen months have occasionally shown.
Much as he did during Croatia’s run in the World Cup, he’s been – and let’s acknowledge the notable exceptions of the thunderbolt at Wembley and the breath-of-an-angel lofted assist for Messi against Huesca – he’s not provided quite the same consistency in attack. Both in terms of penetrating defenses via the dribble and getting into positions to actually threaten the opposing goal, Rakitić has lacked something, that last 10%, which enables him to operate at the peak of his powers.
Despite this, however, it would be wrong to underestimate Ivan Rakitić’s role on this Barcelona team. Even at something less than full capacity, he provides not only a safe and trustworthy pair of hands (or feet, I guess) in a vital spot on the field, but also a strong rapport with the most important members of the squad: Messi, Busquets and Suárez.
Ivan Rakitić’s arrival coinciding with the twilights and departures of the greatest midfield pairing the game’s ever known was always going to invite unfair comparisons. To his credit, he’s taken that most unenviable of positions, made the most of it, and made it his own. His last year of play has seen him nominated for the Ballon d’Or alongside teammates Messi and Suárez.
At this point, his greatest sin lies in his not actually being Xavi or Iniesta.