Why Ivan Rakitic is irreplaceable for Barcelona and the most underrated superstar in football

Why Ivan Rakitic is irreplaceable for Barcelona and the most underrated superstar in football

At a team full of superstars, and from a country where Luka Modric gets all the praise, Ivan Rakitic has managed to be an underrated serial title winner.

For his Barça coach however, he couldn’t be any more important.

Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Celta Vigo at the Camp Nou on Saturday guaranteed they go into the New Year top of the La Liga table, maintaining a three-point distance on their nearest rivals and ensuring that defending the title is still entirely up to them.

Barcelona ace Ivan Rakitic in action in the Copa del Rey

Who will get the plaudits for the mature display? Perhaps Ousmane Dembélé, whose opener was his seventh goal of the league season. Or Jordi Alba, with a pair of excellent assists. The little Argentinian guy in the number 10 shirt, who also scored and was typically brilliant, may just get a few column inches too.

The person many won’t write about though was the Barcelona number four who time and time again provided the platform for his more eye-catching teammates to build upon.

Ivan Rakitic, who started for the 15th time this La Liga season, was the lungs of a Barça side in which he continues to do the unglamorous work at the expense of showing off his sizeable individual talent.

Being quietly vital is the theme of his 2018. While Luka Modric was busy collecting the Ballon d’Or spurred largely by his performance at the World Cup, few chimed up to point out that Rakitic was also a titanic figure in Croatia’s run to the final.

Rakitic talks to Luka Modric as Croatia lose to France in the World Cup final.

Remember, this is the player whose ice-cold definitive penalty against Denmark sent Croatia into the quarter-finals. Who then produced another in the next game that eliminated Russia and took his nation to the semis. Not to mention delivered perfect pass after perfect pass, tackle after tackle and right decision after right decision in that unlikely run to the final hurdle in Russia. He couldn’t have done any more.

Modric got the glory though, and at Barcelona, others do so too.

Yet Ernesto Valverde, the man whose opinion really matters in the Catalan capital, is well aware how indispensable the blonde-haired warrior is.

Along with Sergio Busquets, Rakitic has played more games than any other outfield player for Barcelona this season, including appearing in an in theory straightforward Copa del Rey return leg against Cultural Leonesa in which the coach judged his presence was still necessary, just to be sure.

Put simply, he is one of the few irreplaceable Barça players – not a small feat when the company in that category is the likes of Messi, Busquets or Gerard Pique. Philippe Coutinho, Arturo Vidal or increasingly popular Brazilian pass-master Arthur may drop in and out of the team, but Rakitic is always there.

Ivan Rakitic celebrates a Barcelona goal with his team-mates.

Whether it’s on the right of midfield, the left, as a midfield pivot or even emergency centre-back as was the case on one occasion this season, his presence makes life easier for the defending champions. It’s as a left-sided central midfielder, in theory an unnatural role for him, that the Croatian has been particularly vital for Valverde as of late.

In his quest to find balance on the side of the pitch that features the anarchic Dembele without sacrificing the playmaking influence of Jordi Alba, the Barça manager’s solution has been to shuttle Rakitic across to put everything right.

On Saturday the midfielder was Mr Fix-It once again: always tidy, never taking unfeasible risks but still looking to play the ball forward whenever possible. He was also relentless in trying to win it back, doing so on seven occasions (for perspective, the closest any other Barça player got was three).

And the recoveries were important ones too, whether it was stopping Brais Mendez from being played in behind Clement Lenglet with acres of space that the winger would have been able to exploit, or holding up Hugo Mallo to kill an attack where the away team was at a numerical advantage. Even the one ball Rakitic lost was recovered five seconds later as he leapt to his feet to undo the rare error.

Rakitic’s stunning volley against Tottenham Hotspur has been one of the goals of the season.

Then there’s his positioning, a constant quest to make life easier for his team. Sometimes it involves slotting in to the deep area of midfield to provide the first passing option for Busquets when the Catalan places himself between the centre-backs.

On other occasions, he’s on the left wing to put out fires behind Alba and Dembele. The Croatian will also appear in the space behind the attack to look for a splitting pass or lofted ball to an overlapping full-back in the final third, but only when it isn’t a risk to his team. He’s as tactically sharp as they come.