He’s the man everyone has been talking about over the past few days—but can Ivan Rakitic spice up the hype with a decisive performance for his country against Brazil?
Obviously, the hosts are huge favourites, and almost everyone expects them to beat Croatia, with that win being only the first in a row that could potentially take them all the way to the final. However, there are certain things that could work in the Vatreni’s favour as well. Their fabled, in-form playmaker duo is one of them.
Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Sevilla’s Rakitic won the Champions League and the Europa League, respectively. Both of them have been among the key players for their respective teams, and both have played their best football this past season. They are clearly on top of their game.
Of all the squads at the World Cup, arguably only Spain has more creative central midfielders, and Croatia’s chances will largely depend on the performance of their dynamic duo. While Modric is the undoubted superstar in the team, it’s Rakitic’s role that could prove crucial against Brazil.
The Swiss-born player is the more direct of the two. According to WhoScored.com, he plays less passes per game (51.2, compared to Modric’s 58.4) and with less accuracy (79.7 percent; Modric 89.7 percent).
At the same time, more of those are "key" passes (2.3 per game; Modric 1.5), and he also produces far more accurate crosses than his counterpart (2.1 per game, compared to Modric’s 0.7). Rakitic is among the top four La Liga players in those two categories—but he’s also the fourth-best rated player in Spain, behind only Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s star duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
As central midfield is the only area of the pitch where Croatia can realistically hope to gain an advantage against Brazil, they will try to keep the ball there as much as possible. This is one of the reasons why manager Niko Kovac is considering even the risky approach of fielding a team without a "destroyer" type, squeezing Modric, Rakitic and the young Mateo Kovacic into the middle of the park.
All three players are versatile, tactically intelligent and defensively responsible; all can keep the ball and dribble their way out of trouble, but none offers the kind of "muscle" that is often crucial in stopping the opposition attacks going through the middle.
But the thing about Brazil is that they have more quality in wide areas and will probably attack down the flanks, where they are far superior to Croatia. Given the characteristics of players whom manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has at his disposal, that’s only normal; the hosts will try to overload the opposition full-backs, with Dani Alves and Marcelo overlapping Hulk and Neymar on each side.
That spells trouble for Croatia—especially on their left side, where a right-footed Sime Vrsaljko is expected as an improvised alternative for the injured Danijel Pranjic—but it can also be an opportunity.
With Alves and Marcelo advancing high up the pitch, they will inevitably leave space behind them. If Croatia can fend off Brazil’s initial wave of aggression, that’s bound to happen more and more often. The hosts could become impatient with the home crowd spurring their attacks and demanding goals.
One of Ivan Rakitic’s best traits is to quickly switch from the ball-winning or ball-keeping mode to attack-minded playmaking.
His long passes and through balls can slice open any defence. While he never was among the fastest in any team he played for, his understanding of space is exceptional, and he can turn up in the final third when you least expect him there. He’s also very good shooter from the outside.
Rakitic’s fantastic record of 15 goals and 18 assists for Sevilla this past season is proof enough of how dangerous he can be. According to news reports in Spain, per Marca’s R. Guevara and S. Font, his transfer to Barcelona is imminent and should be announced any day now, maybe even before the Brazil vs. Croatia game.
If true, Dani Alves and Neymar could be the first ones to greet their new team-mate on the pitch—but they might not quite enjoy his first performance as a Barca player.