After a very disappointing season last year for Barcelona, in which they not only failed to win any of the three major trophies available for the taking, but did so without any fighting spirit whatsoever, something had to change at the club.
That change came in the form of a major overhaul at the club which started with the hiring of new coach Luis Enrique from Celta Vigo and subsequently triggered the departures of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas.
Changes at the club
Carles Puyol, the rock and heart of Barcelona retired, and started in a new position in the administrative ranks of the club, and Xavi the veteran midfield maestro was supposedly on his way out of the club, a move which obviously did not end up materialising.
Enrique at Barca
One of the priorities of Luis Enrique upon his arrival at the club, was to find a suitable replacement for Fabregas, who was supposed to be the heir to Xavi’s role at the club, but who endured a mixed season and like most of the squad, failed to perform when it really mattered.
Finding a suitable replacement for Xavi was always going to be tough, given that only a handful of players in the world can command the midfield and dictate the tempo of the game like the Spanish legend, but Enrique had his eyes set on Croatian wonder boy Ivan Rakitic.
The then Sevilla man had just come off the back of a spectacular season with the Andalusian club in which he guided the club to Europa League triumph, and a 5th place finish in La Liga, chipping in 15 goals and 18 assists in all competitions.
Thankfully for Barcelona, despite interest from Real Madrid for the Croatian, the midfielder was as determined to lineup for the Blaugrana, as the Blaugrana were interested in having him do so. The mutual interest resulted in a transfer that cost Barcelona about €18 million a steal, compared to the transfer fess commanded by some of other players of relatively inferior technical ability and work rate, such as Alberto Moreno, Adam Lallana, and the list goes on and on.
At first some quarters were critical of the move for Rakitic, for what was essentially a like for like swap for Fabregas, with the exception that the Spaniard has been statistically more dominant. However, the critics failed to realised the attributes that Barcelona saw in Rakitic and not Fabregas, that they were hoping world spark the revolution of the club.
Better than Cesc?
Much like Fabregas, Rakitic’s preferred position is as the number 10 from which both players are very decisive in the final third.
However, with Fabregas failing to establish himself in Xavi’s midfield role, and Rakitic showing extreme versatility at Sevilla that also had him playing as the center midfielder, Barcelona were banking on his seamless transition into such a role for them, the same role Fabregas could never make a success of at the club.
It is very early in the season, but with five games played, Rakitic looks like he came up through the Barcelona ranks. He has transitioned perfectly into the right side of the midfield, next to Andres Iniesta, in the trident that also includes Sergio Busquets, and his understanding with the team, and especially Lionel Messi, who is occupying the number 10 position, has been remarkable.
These first few games, as much as it hurts to say, have shown that Rakitic is an upgrade for Barcelona, because not only is he a superb player in possession, with nimble feet and exceptional vision like Fabregas, but he also displays versatility, tactical aptitude, and a work rate that is simply superior to his Spanish counterpart's.
The perfect buy?
The merits of the Croat midfielder were fully on display yesterday in the game against Levante, when one minute he had to sprint back to make a last ditch goal saving tackle, following a mistake from Jeremy Mathieu, and the next, he was powering home a rocket from 25 yards out, at the other end of the pitch.
Unlike Fabregas, and Xavi, Rakitic excels in interceptions, tackles and aerial duels, and his work rate brings a different dynamism that was simply lacking from Barcelona’s ensemble last season. The icing on the cake for Barcelona, is his impressive long range shooting ability as demonstrated against Levante.
He may be no Fabregas, or Xavi, but he is simply what Barcelona needed, as they gave Chelsea all they needed in Fabregas too. At the end of the day, €18 million for a player of such versatility and technical ability, is not only the steal of the season for Barcelona, but is arguably the signing of the season for any European teams (and yes, I considered Fabregas, and Diego Costa).