In July of 2008, FC Barcelona signed Dani Alves, a 25-year-old Brazilian right-back from Sevilla. Little did they know at the time, they were signing a player who would make close to 250 appearances for the club and help them win unprecedented trophies under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, and later Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino and of course Luis Enrique.
When Dani Alves left Barcelona in the summer transfer window for Juventus, Cules may have been worried that the right-back position would begin to be a question mark on a team that needs definite answers at every spot to continue to compete at their magisterial level.
Fast-forward to September 6th to a 2018 World Cup qualification match between the Spanish national team and Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein might not be a European power on the pitch, but Cules should have been delighted to see their starting right-back getting the call from the first whistle at the same position in that match. Sergi Roberto is not Dani Alves, in playing style or demeanor, but the drastic improvements he has made showcase a player that may just reach the same world-class level.
Coming into camp, Sergi Roberto was supposed to battle fellow Catalan Aleix Vidal for the starting spot, but the former’s form plus some other circumstances has all but frozen Vidal out of the team. With a place in the starting XI secured, Roberto has elevated his game to be a force both offensively and defensively.
The first number that critics that never paid him much attention will notice is his assists. With four assists through six weeks of La Liga, Roberto stands alone at the top. Alves’ partnership with Lionel Messi on the right side of the field may have been the best in the world, but Roberto’s years training with the Argentine have certainly helped the transition.
The recent 5-0 thrashing of Sporting Gijon put on display all the improvements that Roberto has made. His two assists don’t do justice to the stability he added along the backline while recovering ten balls.
For years, Dani Alves looked to be the perfect full-back for the style that Barcelona employ and it seemed unlikely that there could be another mold, but Sergi Roberto is succeeding as quite the foil to Alves.
From a temperament standpoint, the two couldn’t be more different. Alves is exuberant and bombastic, and these personality traits come out in his play. His cavalier and swashbuckling runs into the penalty box and down the flanks helped to open up more space than the likes of Messi and Neymar even needed as the defense collapsed around the full-back.
Sergi Roberto is quite the opposite, at least in his disposition. He is much more reserved and thrives on confidence given to him by the coaching staff and his compatriots. Yet, equipped with that confidence, his work rate shines and he can be seen making similar runs as the Brazilian did; the runs that Barcelona’s system dictates.
Where Alves’ physically superior speed and masterclass technical ability with the ball at his feet made him a talent with few contemporaries, Sergi Roberto’s greatest asset may be between his ears. The La Masia product’s technical prowess is on display wherever he plays on the field, but his ever improving positional awareness at the back is what has him on the path to be one of the top right-backs in the world.
Sergi Roberto’s time as Barcelona’s starting right-back has just begun, but he is clearly on the right path to be as successful as his predecessor, albeit in a very different, yet very Catalan, style. Cules must not forget the great skill and achievement that Dani Alves produced at the Camp Nou, but they can rest easy knowing that they have an able replacement already sparkling at the position.
For the Catalan, he will expectedly continue his rise as Barcelona begin to face greater challenges from well-known rivals. These upcoming tests are the next hurdle for Barcelona’s right-back to jump as his continues his ascent on the world stage.
Most importantly, as evidenced by the signing of so many young players in their early 20s this summer, Sergi Roberto’s ability to fortify the right-back position quickly could go a long way as other positions begin their slow transition of change, most likely beginning with Javier Mascherano and Samuel Umtiti along the backline.
While many of these players were added to improve the squad’s depth and create competition, knowing that Barcelona already has a top right-back that Luis Enrique favors can give Cules the same confidence that the midfielder-turned-defender has earned.