Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic has been playing the best football of his life over the past three years. The Croatian has seen his stocks rise significantly since joining Lionel Messi and co. from Sevilla in June 2014 and has taken his game to a whole new level.
His presence in midfield has added new dimensions to the Catalonian's way of playing, but is the former Basel midfielder getting the praise and credit he deserves?
The Catalan giants made a huge and difficult decision by allowing La Masia student Cesc Fabregas to leave for Chelsea with an ageing Xavi in their ranks and Thiago Alcantara having already moved to Bayern Munich.
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Newly appointed boss Luis Enrique moved swiftly to secure the signature of the 27-year-old Rakitic as the new drive in his midfield based on the vision he had for 'his Barcelona'.
Despite having a wonderful year with Sevilla in the 2013/14 season and lifting the Europa League, eyebrows were still raised at the decision to allow Fabregas to leave and Rakitic seemingly taking his place.
The former Schalke man, like most of the Barcelona squad last season, struggled initially under their new boss, with Enrique experimenting with his players and trying different styles. Once he was satisfied with the way his team grasped his ideas, though, it all came together.
The Blaugrana then went on to lift the treble (Champions League, Copa del Rey, La Liga) in scintillating fashion, playing some exciting football with a certain risk factor about their game. The Croatian was - and still is - hugely important to Enrique's philosophies.
However, all the plaudits and credit goes towards Neymar, Luis Suarez and talisman Messi, and despite being kept in the dark over his contribution, Rakitic's role on the pitch must be highlighted.
With Sergio Busquets sitting deep and protecting the back four, Rakitic does most of the running in midfield, surging forward and tracking back. He is the man who plugs the gaps from box-to-box, tracking runs from midfield and providing support for the front three.
The dirty work falls squarely on the shoulders of the former Basel youngster, who just keeps his head down and carries on with it. He's a wonderful athlete and his athleticism has definitely added something different to Barcelona in the middle of the park.
STEEL IN MIDFIELD
Despite being a wonderfully gifted player technically, the Barcelona number four is more than happy to get stuck in, which doesn't get highlighted because his guile and grace on the ball always catches the eye.
However, his presence in midfield has definitely made Barcelona a tougher team and because of this they no longer get bullied or physically dominated in midfield.
His height is also a huge asset for the La Liga giants, especially against set pieces. There is still a strong belief that Barca are weak in the air, but such vulnerability has been reduced with the Croatian in the team.
His presence, along with Busquets and Gerard Pique, provides quite a few bodies in the penalty area capable of challenging any opposition in the air.
A feature of Barca's style under Enrique is the willingness to push midfielders ahead of their strikers in behind the defence. The Croatian, in particular, has done this time and time again, powering past defenders into the penalty area with his runs from deep.
The former Sevilla playmaker has popped up with some big goals in his career at the Camp Nou, none bigger than his early strike against Juventus in the Champions League final back in June. He has this unique ability to ghost into the penalty area undetected and with his quality and ability, the consequences are devastating if he latches onto a cross or pass.
It could well be a tactic used by Enrique because of the extra attention and fear provided by the presence of Suarez, Neymar and Messi. Rakitic's power, strength, athleticism and willingness to make those runs time after time must be commended.
THE PERFECT LINK
The Barca philosophy has always been to dominate possession. It is a norm for the four-time European champions to play out from the back, retaining possession in midfield and pushing on in attack.
In Enrique's approach, Rakitic seems to be the perfect link between defense and attack. With his technical qualities, he is very comfortable on the ball and has an excellent range of passing capable of picking out any player.
Even in congested areas, whether in his own defensive third or in midfield, the Croatian is a picture of calmness and composure, playing himself and the team out of trouble. Barcelona a far better with him than without him.
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