Summer came, then went and Luis Enrique hit the ground running. To the strains all throughout of excited titter among Barça-watchers as to what new idea would be birthed.
One or two pre-season training sessions were enough to give the the giddy Catalan press licence to tout the most fantastical of prescriptions for this new Barça: a 3-2-3-2 featuring Cuadrado-Messi-Iniesta behind Neymar and Suarez perhaps? Novelty and audacity whet the public’s appetite – and boost paper sales. But Cuadrado never came and Luis Enrique made clear his committment to a back-four in some shape or form. The likes of these pharaonic schemes at least raised the possibility of Barça forming a double-pivot, which in and of itself would have been groundbreaking.
Thus far, Luis Enrique has shown little inclination to field Mascherano and Busquets together in a double-pivot. In fact, he seems unconvinced of the merits of a double-pivot of any composition.
And into this unknown steps Ivan Rakitic.
A dozen-odd matches into the season and Rakitic has been labouring unconvincingly as an interior in Barça’s ecosystem and against most rivals. In the past, as a mediapunta in the 4-4-1-1 of Unai Emery’s deeply reactive Sevilla side he was free to find pockets of space and, from those, launch counter-attacks. Such spaces aren’t easily gifted by opponents facing Barça, however.
Even when stationed slightly further back in the old Xavi-Iniesta stomping ground, such ‘interior’ positions are typically the first in Barça’s midfield to be targeted or crowded out by the schemes of opposing coaches. Water off a duck’s back for Xavi and Iniesta in their pomp, but Rakitic is nowhere near similar to that illustrious duo – not even in their declining form of late is he hewn from the same material.
When playing at the heart of midfield, the Croat needs to have a vast expanse of pitch in front of him and have the opposing pressure-lines with rival players arrayed clearly before him (out of the melée rather than in the thick of it). This second version of Rakitic also prospered at Sevilla, where, as Sid Lowe noted, Emery as good as admitted the entire set-up shifted according to where Rakitic was deployed on any given matchday.
Emery often would have Rakitic in the double pivot of two deep banks of four – hardly a realistic proposition for Luis Enrique, but so too did Niko Kovac when Croatia played the World Cup in Brazil. Admittedly, Croatia’s shape and intent were markedly different from those of Sevilla; a proactive approach featuring Rakitic and Modric in the double pivot – a portent perhaps of Carlo Ancelotti’s subsequent allying of the latter with Toni Kroos in a fluid Real Madrid side.
A double-pivot at Barcelona seems unlikely, given the almost genetic disposition toward triangular formations that runs through the club. But dare we think the unthinkable: Rakitic as the sole holding-midfelder?
Luis Enrique’s model of play requires a lot more running than before under Pep, and thus the role of the sole holding midfielder changes. This might be better suited to an exponent like Javier Mascherano, whereas Busquets finds himself overburdened patrolling a horizontal and vertical axis. Under the old system, Busquets could anticipate the need for intervention ahead and glide towards the sector threatened.
Nowadays, the team’s more frenetic playing style begets diminished accuracy which leads to more turnovers and with the players more distanced from one another across the pitch – thwarting the Sacchi-like ability to press in unison as a herd. Add to this the new coach’s penchant for having his full-backs stationed high to compensate the narrowness of the centre, and there is simply a vast tract of space for Busquets to cover in a heightened amount of actions and in a reduced window of time.
Placing Rakitic alone in this post would presuppose the same problems holding true; in fact, they might possibly be exacerbated. Luis Enrique would have to compensate by beefing up his other midfield posts – much like how Carlo Ancelotti would field warhorses Genaro Gattuso and/or Massimo Ambrosini in the vicinity of the artistic Andrea Pirlo. So the interior positions would likely be distributed according to some permutation of Busquets, Mascherano as well as the more creative types (Xavi, Iniesta, Rafinha etc).
The ostensible gain for the collective would be to have the Croat relatively unmolested in a deep position whence he could spray passes short, medium and long. Luis Enrique already used an assortment of players, all differing in nature, as his holding midfielder at Celta Vigo. In his more adventurous phases, Lucho even deployed the Dane Michael Krohn-Dehli – a tricky winger by trade – as the fulcrum.
Rakitic is not as defensively astute as Busquets. Nor is he as laconic as Pirlo.The question remains as to whether making Ivan comfortable is worth all that upheaval.