“Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practising. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate.” — Johan Cruyff.
The inimitable Dutchman may have left the world, but his ideas will resonate in football for decades to come.
With Barcelona hosting Real Madrid on Saturday for the Clasico, the focus is bound to be on the front three of the two teams. Had Cruyff been around, he would have perhaps picked the battle in the midfield as more significant; the one that pits two Croats against each other. Neither Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona nor Luka Modric of Real Madrid would be the top choices at show-your-skills promotion videos of the two clubs. They have the Neymars, Ronaldos and Rodriguezs to do that. If however, passing the ball with one touch, at the right speed, to the right foot of a player is the need of the hour, there are hardly better men to choose than the two.
This is not to say that a Neymar or a Ronaldo wouldn’t be favoured by Cruyff had he been their coach. There us undoubtedly far more to them than the Youtube-ready skills. Nor is it true that Modric and Rakitic are footballers just tapping the ball around in a world at variance with Vines and video tributes. The two have an uncanny ability to pick their teammates with aerodynamic marvel of passes initiated with an innocuous swipe of the ball with the outside of the boot.
However, being part of teams filled with larger-than-life superstars, and playing in a position that is not always at the focus of the camera — the central midfield — the two manage to slip under the radar. Even their remarkable passing range (a good mix of forward, backward, square, long and short passes) and the accuracy (close to 90 per cent) tend to be overlooked.
Nevertheless, behind the extraordinary chemistry between Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi, is the underrated contribution by Rakitic winning and distributing the ball, picking the right person among the three at the right time and keeping all busy and relevant. Modric does the same at Real Madrid, behind a less-in-love front three of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo, besides compensating for the tactical flaws of fellow midfielders James Rodriguez and Isco, depending on who among them get the nod from Zinedine Zidane.
In that context, the Clasico at Camp Nou could well be decided by who among the two Croatians gets to pick their teammates freely. If Rakitic, with the help of Sergio Busquets, another underrated midfielder, gets the freedom to not just pick his passes from the centre but also drift closer to the Real penalty box, the abundance of options he would then have, in Barca’s front three or even Andres Iniesta, will seal the deal for the Catalans. If Modric, however, gets the space and time to float the ball over a Barcelona high line to an onrushing Bale or Ronaldo, or even straight to Benzema, then all that clever planning by Luis Enrique would go down the drain.
“His goal today makes him more visible, but for me what he brings to the game is a must,” Sergio Ramos said of Modric after the game against Granada earlier this year. “He’s never marked out much, but he is the backbone of the team.” Such tributes come Rakitic’s way too.
The equation, however, will change if Rakitic do not recover from his calf injury in time. Croatia national team coach Ante Cacic had to look beyond Rakitic for the recent friendlies against Israel and Hungary, partnering Modric with Marcelo Brozovic. On the flipside, that the Catalan club may have impressed upon Cacic in the selection is also a possibility. “Rakitic will have further medical tests but our doctors are optimistic and he should return to normal work with Barcelona soon. He will be fit for El Clasico, no doubt. It is minor injury, a partial calf rupture,” Cacic was quoted as saying by the ESPN.
If that is the case, there needs no further argument on the importance of Rakitic to Barcelona.
Sometimes, you don’t have to be the best to be the best.