Every team, no matter how big and successful, needs to rebuild or rethink their approach every once in a while.
The signing of Croatia star Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla is a sign—a sign that this is what’s happening to Barcelona ahead of next season under the guidance of the new coach Luis Enrique.
“I want more. I’m hungry for success,” the 26-year-old player told reporters after his move to the Camp Nou had been confirmed.
He explained that last season’s triumph in the Europa League with Sevilla "whetted" his appetite and he now wants to “make history.”
And what better place is there to try that than Barcelona, one of the greatest teams of our time?
Rakitic joins the Catalan giants after a disappointing World Cup display with Croatia. In Brazil, his team’s hopes ended in the group stage, as they bowed out to a surprisingly superior Mexico side in the deciding match.
His role in the campaign—and particularly in that game—has been a subject of much heated discussion in Croatia because there’s an overwhelming stance among the critics that manager Niko Kovac failed to use him properly.
Short of quality holding midfielders, Kovac decided to field Rakitic in the deepest midfield position. The player often dropped back to take the ball off the centre-backs and did much of defensive work, which in turn limited his influence in building attacks.
Only late in the game, when Mexico were already 3-0 ahead, did he appear in the final third of the pitch to provide a superb back-heel assist to Ivan Perisic, who routinely scored a consolation goal.
Kovac found himself under severe criticism from the media and his peers in Croatia for not using Rakitic, who scored 12 goals and provided 10 assists in La Liga last season, further up.
However, the player backed his boss and told Sportske novosti’s Jure Buric (article in Croatian) that he felt comfortable with the position he played in at the World Cup.
For much of his career, there were debates about the ideal position. The truth is, Rakitic is a very versatile footballer who can play—and has played—in any midfield role, depending on what the team needs.
He has also proven to be a true professional, never putting his own interest ahead of the collective benefit.
So what does Barcelona need from Rakitic? Why did they buy him?
As his impressive goals and assists outputs will suggest, the Croat mostly played closer to the opponent’s goal for Sevilla last season. He thrived in space, running with the ball and taking on players, and he tried his shot very often.
He was Sevilla’s prime shooter with 2.4 attempts per game. He also provided 2.3 key passes (fourth in the league) and 2.1 accurate crosses (third in the league) per game.
By the looks of it, this is someone who doesn’t really conform to the short-passing, patiently-building Barcelona style.
If he received the ball 20 yards from goal and wasn’t closely marked, the Rakitic of Sevilla would much likelier blast it towards the net than continue to move it around the box until a team-mate finds space to run into.
He would also be likelier to pass long and try killer through balls that can slice open the opposition defence. Last season in La Liga, he averaged 51.2 passes per game with a less-than-impressive 79.7 per cent accuracy, which means he’s prone to riskier attempts and turning over possession.
This doesn’t sit well with Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, where keeping the ball is an absolute priority. But to label his playmaking style "direct" would perhaps be oversimplifying things.
Rakitic, obviously, is capable of playing in a more direct midfield role, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t be bothered to take on a different one on a team whose player characteristics and style differ significantly from those of Sevilla.
In fact, the ability to switch from one approach to the other with ease could be Rakitic’s biggest strength. It could also be precisely the most important element he will add to Barcelona.
If you often watched him play, you might have noticed how Rakitic persists with the short passing game for long periods of time, then suddenly bursts into out-and-out action with an energetic run with the ball, a pass across half the pitch or an unexpected shot from outside the box.
At the World Cup in a deeper role for Croatia, he recorded an 86.4 per cent pass accuracy whilst trying no fewer than 29 long balls and misplacing only four of those.
Those were only three games, but the pattern is clear.
Barcelona have looked sterile in possession far too often in recent times.
Luis Enrique is unlikely to move too far away from the established tiki-taka style, but he could really use a player who can provide a different option while still boasting the ability to operate in the classic team mode and the comfort to line up in practically any midfield position.
Rakitic, who is clearly at the top of his game at the moment, might just be that player.
Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com.