Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, and Barcelona’s added directness


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  • After the final whistle of Barcelona’s 7-0 2012-13 Champions League Semifinal loss to Bayern Munich it was clear that the reign of “Tiki Taka” was over.

    The legs of holding midfielder Xavi, who tallied a large amount of matches during Championship runs with Barcelona and the Spanish National Team, were gone. Barcelona had become too reliant on center forward Leo Messi to create and score goals after the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup injury to David Villa and the failed transfer of winger Alexi Sanchez. The decline of their central midfield was now unable to mask the liabilities of their centerbacks.

    “Tiki Taka,” a possession based style of football perfected by former manager Pep Guardiola, was built around the lightweight but technically superior central midfield pairing of Andreas Iniesta and Xavi, who were both protected by holding midfielders Yaya Toure or Sergio Busquets. To augment their possession based attack, Messi played as a “False 9” center forward, abandoning his forward position and dropping deep to add an extra midfielder, thus helping to facilitate Barcelona’s possession based play.

    While Messi’s movement aided Barcelona’s ball retention, which limited opposition scoring opportunities, with the loss of Villa and the subsequent limited success of transfer Alexi Sanchez, Barcelona regularly failed to threaten opposition behind their defensive lines and regularly became trapped with purposeless possession.

    The 2013-14 season was the most underwhelming performance from the Blaugrana since Guardiola was given the reigns of the club in 2008. For the first time since the 2007-08 season, Barcelona did not win a trophy and for the first time since the 2006-07 season, Barcelona did not reach the Semifinals of the Champions League.

    Their 2013-14 transfer window was dedicated to completing the tumultuous transfer of winger Neymar, who only scored 14 goals in 39 competitive matches (31 starts), including La Liga, Copa Del Ray, and Champions League matches, making no serious additions to their central midfield, while simultaneously losing Thiago Alcantara, the heir apparent to Xavi.

    “…Again, entering the 2014 summer transfer window, Barcelona needed to address their inability to provide Messi with support, weaknesses in central midfield, and a leaky defense. To fill these needs they signed Liverpool forward Luis Suarez and Sevilla central midfielder Ivan Rakitic…”

    Again, entering the 2014 summer transfer window, Barcelona needed to address their inability to provide Messi with support, weaknesses in central midfield, and a leaky defense. To fill these needs they signed Liverpool forward Luis Suarez and Sevilla central midfielder Ivan Rakitic.

    After a difficult incubation period due to a suspension that Suarez incurred during the 2014 World Cup that made him ineligible until late October and the inability of Luis Enrique, Barcelona’s manager, to field a cohesive first eleven, the additions of Suarez and Rakitic have added a dynamism and directness that has brought much needed diversity to Barcelona’s play.

     Suarez has acclimated himself perfectly into Barcelona’s front line as their new starting center forward. He has undertaken a more functional role looking to create space for Neymar on the left wing and Messi, who now plays on the right wing in a narrow inside right position. He drifts from flank to flank, generally right, attempting to pull Barcelona’s opposition’s central defenders into wider positions, creating space for the incutting attacking runs of Barcelona’s technical wingers.

     Suarez also provides an attacking threat behind opposition defensive lines. Since the defeat to Bayern Munich, many teams have imitated the compact press with a high defensive line that was used to control Barcelona’s attack.

    Also, as demonstrated by his match winning 60’ minute game winning goal in Barcelona’s recent 2-1 victory over Real Madrid, Suarez provides a direct solution against high defensive lines by making attacking runs that expose their advanced positioning and offside traps.

    Rakitic brings a skillset to Barcelona that they have not valued since the inception of “Tiki Taka.” While he is more than adept at playing in a patient attack built around possession, he brings an energy and directness of play that Xavi, his predecessor, did not provide.

    As Rakitic displayed with Barcelona’s second and third goal in their 3-1 victory over Granada, his willingness to send direct passes over opposition defensive lines, generally to Suarez, puts their opposition in no win situations as he can punish a defense for focusing their defensive efforts on controlling the most dangerous attacking player of our generation.

    Also, he uses his athleticism, as he did with his first goal in the same match against Granada, to make attacking runs into the space created by the movement of opposition defenders who are attempting to mark Barcelona’s attackers, and to provide a counter attacking option against stretched defenses, as exhibited with the match winning goal in Barcelona’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City.

    While the 2014-15 Barcelona side may never reach the aesthetic heights of Barcelona between 2008-2011, the additions and combination of Suarez and Rakitic have allowed Barcelona to play a more complete brand of football, while creating more space and opportunities for their attacking teammates. They are a serious contender to complete the continental treble.