When the season began for Barcelona, there were many doubts cast over the team. There were questions about the deadwood at the club – and many cules believed Jordi Alba, the left-back that had served them well for eight years, should be one of the players on the chopping block. Then-president Josep Bartomeu seemed to agree, as the Spaniard did not make his ‘no-sale list – even though players like Nelson Semedo did.
Safe to say, many questioned Alba’s credentials. While he was still a force to reckon with in attack, his defensive frailties had been one of the major reasons for Barcelona’s questionable performances in defense. Notable lows included the defensive collapses against Liverpool and Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Furthermore, when the season began, the Spaniard was off to a rather shaky start. It seemed like the end of the line for him after being so pivotal in many of Barcelona’s conquests.
Expectations before the season
After the previous season, which saw Barcelona concede the La Liga title to rivals Real Madrid, it was expected that there would be new signings in defense. The consensus was the fullbacks were an area of concern for the Blaugranas, with Nelson Semedo and Sergi Roberto the options at right-back not doing so well either. While Barcelona shelled out money for American-Dutch wonder-kid Sergino Dest at right-back, they did not sign anyone at left-back.
Although Alba was definitely still a quality player in attack, age seemed to be taking a toll on the Spaniard. His defensive work rate was questionable, and injuries had seemed to be occurring much more frequently. While he had clocked over 4500 minutes in the 2018/19 season, he garnered only 2800 minutes in the 2019/20 season due to frequent injury concerns. With backup Junior Firpo not providing anything significant, it seemed like the correct time to move on to a younger player who could rotate with Alba or replace him altogether.
However, with no players signed, it seemed like new manager Ronald Koeman had faith in the veteran fullback. Alba went into the season as the undisputed starter at the left-back spot, and it was expected that the speedster would continue to provide quality in attack. Furthermore, with the new signing Sergino Dest being very attack-minded, it was expected that some of the attacking burdens would be taken off the Spaniard, and consequently, he could improve defensively.
A puzzling first half of the season
The start of the season was quite strange for Alba. When the first two games against Villarreal and Celta Vigo led to no goals conceded coupled with an assist against Villarreal, things seemed to be on the up for the experienced left-back. Unfortunately, in the next game against Sevilla, the Spaniard picked up a hamstring injury, which led to him missing the next two games for Barcelona, with Dest filling in at left-back.
One of the two games missed by the Spaniard was a 1-0 loss to Getafe, in which Dest failed to complete a single cross, lost 9 duels, and picked up a yellow card. Barcelona sorely missed an effective attacking source on the left flank. Getafe manager Pepe Bordalas opted to play both his right-backs, Damian Suarez and Allan Nyom, on the flank, effectively shutting the flank down. It was clear that Barcelona needed a more creative presence there.
Alba’s next game was the Clasico, which did not quite go Barcelona’s way. The Spaniard was clearly rushed into the XI and looked rusty defensively. However, he did pick up an assist, post which Los Blancos tracked his runs and his passes very well. Other than that, Alba failed to do anything substantial that could contribute to changing the result of the game.
The next few games included inconsistent performances from the left-back. The showings in the first leg against Juventus, the 5-2 win against Real Betis, and in both games against Dynamo Kyiv were solid. Alba was pivotal in keeping a clean sheet in the 2-0 win against Juventus. Moreover, he came up with an assist starting in the game against Betis and off the bench in the 4-0 win against Kyiv.
However, in the games against Deportivo Alaves and Atletico Madrid, Alba did not contribute significantly. In these very games, Barcelona dropped points that would prove disastrous in the grand scheme of the title race. Although never the worst player on the pitch in those games, more was expected of the veteran left-back.
As Barcelona entered the tail end of the first half of the season, manager Koeman had realized it was time to change things up. Barcelona had lost consecutive games to Cadiz and Juventus. Moreover, the key man in defence Gerard Pique had suffered a long term injury. Therefore, the Dutch manager started to move away from his preferred 4-2-3-1 more often and started to play newly bought wonderkid Pedri in the side as a regular.
These changes not only brought about an uptick in Barcelona’s performances but in Alba’s as well. The left-back had newfound freedom in the last few games of the first half of the season, which showed in the game against Real Sociedad, where he managed to get on the scoresheet in a 2-1 win over the Basque side.
All in all, the Spaniard’s performances in the first half were average. While he was solid in many games, one could not see the attacking potential he brings to the table regularly. In 18 games, he managed six goal contributions – with two of them coming against Ferencvaros and Dynamo Kyiv. In important games where Barcelona could do with a creative presence like him, Alba could not showcase his ability — the prime example being the game against Atletico Madrid.
Attacking ability on full display
Barcelona entered January on a good run of form, winning three and drawing one game post the loss against Juventus. With the change in Koeman’s tactics, fans were treated to a more expressive Alba, looking to get into the final third areas more often.
While Barcelona was on a good run of form, the effort made by Alba reflected in the underlying statistics as well. Having a look at Barcelona’s games in January, one could see the success he was having on a regular basis. For example, in the game against Huesca, Alba completed 111 passes at a 94% accuracy, created 3 chances, and had 3 key passes – all of this coupled with a clean-sheet for Barcelona.
In the win against Real Sociedad in the Spanish Supercup semifinal, Alba completed 93 passes with 88% accuracy, created 3 chances, and had 3 key passes. In the Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao, the left-back delivered the assist that had seemed to be the game-winner for Barcelona until Asier Villalibre’s late equalizer ruined the party. All in all, the month was a fruitful one for Alba.
The next few games were a mixed bag from Alba. Arguably his best performance, as well as his worst one, came in the next few games. His best performance was arguably against Granada in the Copa del Rey. In a 5-3 win after extra-time against Granada, the Spaniard scored twice and added an assist on top, ending up as one of the best players on the pitch alongside cup-hero Antoine Griezmann.
Alba’s first goal came late in added minutes of normal time, scoring the important equalizer for Barcelona to make it 2-2. Moreover, his assist to Griezmann gave Barcelona the initial lead in extra time, and his goal in the 113th minute was the final nail in the coffin to seal the win for Barcelona. He also managed a goal against relegation contenders Elche in the same month.
However, in the same period, Alba delivered poor performances in a 4-1 loss at Camp Nou to Paris Saint-Germain and the 2-0 loss away to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semifinals. Not only did Alba not provide anything substantial in attack, but he was also rather poor defensively in those performances, reflecting the frustration fans had at the beginning of the season.
The Spaniard redeemed himself in the next few games — in the two games against Sevilla and the league game against Osasuna, Alba created five chances, scored against Osasuna, and assisted the winner against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey in extra-time. However, the damage in the Champions League was already done. While Alba completed 105 passes and created 4 chances, Barcelona could only manage a 1-1 draw away to the French side and was subsequently knocked out.
Barcelona looked to win the domestic double with only the league and the cup left to play for. With a great run in the league and games against rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid upcoming, the Blaugrana faithful were hopeful of conjuring a great end to the season. The games preceding these important clashes were fruitful for Barcelona and Alba. The best performance of the run before these important clashes came in a 6-1 win against Real Sociedad at the Anoeta, with Alba notching an assist.
When the big Clasico came up, much was expected of Alba. The new year had seen an upturn in his performances. While the Spaniard created 3 chances and managed to notch an assist, the Azulgranas fell disappointingly short once more, losing 2-1 at the Bernabeu.
What followed this game was another impressive Copa del Rey performance in the final. Alba completed 95 passes with 92% accuracy, created 4 chances, and garnered 2 assists in a 4-0 romp against Athletic Bilbao. Post this, in key away games against Villarreal and Valencia, and Alba was pivotal in both, creating 4 chances in those and creating general havoc in the final third.
Then came the crunch tie against Atletico Madrid. With the title in their own hands, Barcelona could not take advantage at the Wanda Metropolitano, coming away with only a 0-0 draw. While the team was disappointing, Alba managed to create four chances and had four key passes in an otherwise sub-par attacking performance by both teams.
Post this draw, Barcelona ended the season on a rather poor note with a 3-3 draw against Levante and a 2-1 loss at home to Celta Vigo. In both of these games, Alba showcased his defensive frailties and hardly created any chances. At the tail end of the season, this poor run saw Barcelona finish 3rd in La Liga — their lowest finish since the 2007/08 season.
The second half of the season saw a clear improvement in the attacking performances by Alba. The Spaniard ended the season with 18 goal contributions, having had just six in the first half. This turn in Alba’s form was one of the major reasons for Barcelona closing in on Atletico Madrid and coming within a length of the La Liga title.
Moreover, the Spaniard was pivotal in Barcelona’s cup success, coming up with seven goal contributions in just five games. While his defensive frailties were on display in games like the 4-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain, these games were a rarity. All things considered, one could say Alba was arguably one of the better players for Barcelona in 2021.
Final thoughts and season rating
While Alba’s start to the season was rather mediocre, his performances in 2021 were key to Barcelona winning their only trophy of the season – the Copa del Rey. The Spanish speedster showed Koeman what he could provide in attack, even at the age of 32. However, one cannot ignore the performances at the beginning of the season.
Barcelona desperately needs a long-term replacement for El Ferrari, who can contribute both defensively and in attack regularly. Alba’s poor defensive performances in important games, especially in the big games, have become a regular thing and something that the Barcelona management should keep in mind.
One of the major reasons for Alba’s average performances in big games could be a lack of competition, which could be solved by signing a competent left-back. Signing someone like Valencia’s Jose Gaya could provide Alba with the rest he needs and avoid burnout. Moreover, the experienced left-back could act as a mentor to such a signing and ensure a long-term solution for the Garnet and Blue.
While Alba turned his season around this time, his last season and the start of this season indicate that Barcelona should definitely buy a more competent left-back – someone who could not only act as competition but take a little burden off the veteran’s shoulders.
Barça Universal rating: 7.5/10