With the Balkan schemers set to offer up one of the more aesthetically pleasing head-to-heads of Sunday's ruck, Michael Cox assesses their roles for Barca and Real this season...
In this age of technical, possession-based football, the concept of the playmaker has taken on added importance. The most valued midfielders aren’t box-to-box players or feisty tacklers, but players who can control the game and provide killer passers. Traditionally, few countries have produced as many talented playmakers as Croatia.
If the likes of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were inspired by Pep Guardiola’s legacy as a midfield orchestrator, then the current brand of Croatian playmakers were inspired by Zvonimir Boban, the wonderful No.10 who starred for Dinamo Zagreb and Milan. A hugely intelligent footballer on and off the pitch – he’s now a highly-respected pundit in Italy – few have played the game with such elegance.
BOBAN ON BOTH
"Ivan will grow beside players like Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. He is very dynamic, but rather individual in his game and should conform to the style of the team. Modric is more the style of Barca. Only now are some convinced in Madrid that he is a great player... it's taken them time."
Two of his ‘pupils’, however, are starting to rival his legacy. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are among the finest playmakers in Europe, and this weekend they’ll face one another in the Clasico for the first time proper – Rakitic was surprisingly only a substitute for the reverse fixture earlier this season, a 3-1 Real win, although the duo still swapped shirts afterwards. This weekend will be a perfect opportunity to compare two tremendously gifted compatriots.
From the same cloth
Modric and Rakitic are both highly-gifted and versatile playmakers, capable of playing either deep in midfield or at the top of a midfield triangle. Indeed, one of the tactical dilemmas for Croatia coach Niko Kovac at last summer’s World Cup was whether to deploy a third central midfielder behind or ahead of them, making either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. The third midfielder, Inter’s Mateo Kovacic, was yet another intelligent playmaker.
Pleasingly, for the sake of comparisons, both Modric and Rakitic are essentially playing the same role in their midfields this season. Real Madrid’s shape is something of a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid at times, but when it’s clearly the latter, Modric plays a right-of-centre role in the trio. That’s where Rakitic has slotted in at Barca too, effectively in the Xavi role.
They are slightly different types of player. Modric is more of a natural organiser, someone who dictates the rhythm and flow of a game in tight, congested midfield areas. He’s capable of skipping past a challenge to give himself freedom, but that’s the most direct element of his game – he doesn’t usually play ambitious forward passes.
Instead, his distribution is sideways, albeit over long distances. At Tottenham he became accustomed to spreading the play with long passes along the ground to Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon.
At Real Madrid, he’s again linking with Bale – although Cristano Ronaldo is something of an upgrade on Lennon. His distribution is extremely careful: in the win at Levante earlier this season, he only misplaced one pass in the whole game.
Ivan the engine
Rakitic can also dominate a game, although he naturally plays more ambitious passes – at Sevilla he regularly lofted balls over the top of defences to the forwards. For Barcelona he’s playing a different role, more restricted in terms of both his positioning and distribution. Compare his passes from the Manchester City match to those from one of his Sevilla games last year, and while there are more, they’re also much shorter. He’s adapted to the Barcelona way nicely.
Whereas previous Barcelona sides were based around clever integrated movement between midfield and attack, Rakitic and Iniesta tend to hold their position more, creating a structured triangle in the centre of the pitch. It means the positions of Rakitic’s passes are very wide, almost out near the touchlines.
That said, Rakitic did burst through the Manchester City defence for this week's winner in the Champions League, and is more capable of those goalscoring runs than Modric. The Real man has only managed 18 goals in nearly seven years of top-level league football, whereas Rakitic has managed 25 in his last three seasons (although, in fairness, he did take penalties at Sevilla).
The duo are broadly similar, however – hugely authoritative in possession, and intelligent enough to play a number of midfield roles and adapt to the tactical circumstances of a game. Since moving to big La Liga clubs they’ve also demonstrated a selflessness and willingness to take backseat roles, as attacking players dominate the side. Before, they were accustomed to starring roles at their previous clubs.
As always, there are hundreds of subplots ahead of Sunday night’s Clasico, but this could be one of the most intriguing parts of the game – which Croatian playmaker gets the upper hand.
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