To think of Barcelona is to remember the great sides of years gone by with Pep Guardiola’s recent edition and the style of tiki-taka football most prominent in hearts and minds.
The most important part of that side was the midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta – the metronome keeping that well-oiled Barcelona side ticking over.
Now, only deep-lying midfielder Busquets remains at the Camp Nou and Sunday’s emotional goodbye to Iniesta served as a further reminder that these are changing times at the club.
Increasingly, then, this is a club dependant on Lionel Messi’s enduring brilliance and their pulling power of global stars.
A new Barcelona
However, it should not be forgotten how big a role the new set of central midfielders have played in the Blaugrana’s success this season.
After all, this is a side who completed the domestic double and came within two matches of an unbeaten La Liga campaign.
Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona are not similar to Guardiola’s, nor can they compared to his predecessor Luis Enrique’s version, when emphasis was on the brilliance of their attacking trident of stars.
Valverde places more emphasis on the collective rather than the individual – although Messi, inevitably, is the man who has made the difference.
Ivan Rakitic has featured in all but three league matches for the club this season, starting 31 times.
It is the Croatian’s drive and energy which is a fundamental part of this season’s success.
Heads were turned when the Catalan giants spent €40 million to lure Paulinho last summer but the truth is the Brazilian was brought to further solidify a team who promised to be efficient if not spectacular.
However, it is the former Sevilla man Rakitic who has proved fundamental to his coach’s ideals.
A solid, reliable performer who rarely puts a foot wrong and who assists his side in moving as one, as a unit.
A box-to-box midfielder who offers energy and timely runs into the box, creating space for Messi, Luis Suarez and the plethora of attacking talent within the team.
Coming back to prominence
Whilst the 30-year-old was also key in Enrique’s team, there was a distinct lack of balance in that side’s style of play which meant Rakitic’s contribution was minimalised.
Now the midfield engine has come to prominence with an emphasis on short, succinct passing and movement through the middle of the pitch, with overlapping full-backs also providing well-worked triangles to carve open opposition defences.
Rakitic has amassed over 90 caps for his nation and over 450 first-team appearances in Europe’s top five leagues since he joined Schalke from Basel in 2007.
He captained Sevilla to a Europa League title and the following year won the Champions League with Barcelona – the first ever player to win the trophies back-to-back with two different clubs.
There may be talk of Antoine Griezmann being the latest big-money arrival to the Catalan club but it is the work-rate and consistency of their Croatian midfielder and teammates which will ensure continued success beyond this season.
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