First, it was Lucas Digne. Then came youngsters Juan Miranda and Marc Cucurella. Next was Junior Firpo, followed by rumours of Jose Gaya that amounted to nothing.
For over half-a-decade, Jordi Alba’s quality saw him retain Barcelona’s starting left-back spot, fending off any replacements. That was until late 2022, with the emergence of a special youngster: Alejandro Balde.
Balde has taken the world by storm – and rightly so. The 19-year-old is Xavi’s first-choice at left-back, and his impact on the team’s new defensive strengths should not be understated.
Still, despite the change in scenery for Alba, he remains an important piece for the Catalans. To his credit, he has embraced a new role and is still finding ways to shine.
Let’s take a closer look at what Alba is doing so well this season, and, more importantly, how he’s reasserted himself.
Less playing time, more output
One sign of quality in a footballer is being able to replicate your performances and output regardless of playing time.
While it goes without saying that consistent playing time helps lead to, well, consistency, a lot has to be said about those who stay sharp, fresh, and on their toes without playing 90 minutes every match. In 2022/23, Alba is the perfect embodiment of that quality.
With less playing time, Alba is putting up better per-90-minute averages compared to last season and having more of his impact felt off the stat sheet too. The 34-year-old has seven goal contributions in only 19 appearances (14 starts), averaging almost one every two games.
On top of that, he is averaging more key passes compared to last season (from 1.77 to 2.58) and more progressive passes per game (from 9.67 to 10.4). Most impressively, he is fourth in the squad for shot-creating actions, behind only Ousmane Dembele, Raphinha, and Pedri.
A complete squad
So, what led to this change? After all, Alba played more than half of the 2021-22 season under Xavi. Has Xavi given him a better role, or has Alba simply unlocked another level of play in this late stage of his career? Both are undoubtedly at play, but one factor that has to be considered is the overall improved squad composition.
Defensively, Alba is now backed by an elite pair of centre-backs in Andreas Christensen (on the left) and Ronald Araujo (on the right), along with Jules Koundé, albeit the Frenchman is more of a full-back nowadays.
This stability means there’s less mental and physical responsibility on Alba’s shoulders regarding the defensive side of things.
Up front, Alba is now blessed with an array of attackers with A-list off-ball-movement and positioning.
There are runners like Raphinha and Ousmane Dembele who get in behind and attack the last line of the defence, and those with immense penalty-box presences like Robert Lewandowski. Even the interiors – looking at you, Pedri and Gavi – are making more effective runs in and around the final third.
Before we get into Alba’s specific attributes, let’s look at one more external factor: increased competition.
We have mentioned the likes of Digne, Firpo, and all the other players who could not dethrone Alba. For seasons on end, whenever Alba didn’t start, the team severely felt it. Now, Balde has taken the starting job, and the Catalans can envision life without the veteran full-back. Still, this competition has brought out the best from him.
We can’t see into the minds of professional football players, no matter how much FIFA or Football Manager we play, but we all know that competition breeds excellence –especially in sports.
One should not underestimate the impact that Balde’s rise has had on Alba’s performances this season. To a lesser extent, there was even a time during the beginning of the season when Xavi consistently chose Marcos Alonso over him too.
More so than mere competition, Balde and Alonso’s presence has also meant more rest for Alba. For his entire career at Barcelona, Alba has always been one of the first names on the team sheet, and without a dependable backup, that put more stress and strain on him. Now, he can work in spurts and maximize his playing time.
So, despite not being Barcelona’s first-choice left-back, Alba is still having a dominant season and has adapted perfectly into a substitute role. His professionalism in this respect must be acknowledged as well.
Creativity, vision, and precision
At the end of the day, Alba is thriving not only because of external squad factors and competition but because of the tools he has in his arsenal.
Balde’s stock has risen immensely, and he is now a sharper and better fit than Alba is at this stage of his career. The youngster is quicker, more vertical, and technical with his dribbling and runs into the box, serving better as an overlapping full-back.
Still, Alba’s vision, passing range, and precision, set him apart from Balde and Alonso and make him a crucial part of Barcelona this season.
Alba is no longer the player he once was, using pace to outpace his opponents down the left flank – where he did most, if not all, of his damage.
Instead, he now operates in a much wider zone, allowing his creativity, rather than his one-on-one abilities, to flourish. Throughout a match, Alba still makes his runs down the high flanks and keeps width, but he also does a lot more damage from lower, central positions.
In Xavi’s new box-midfield 4-3-3, Alba keeps width on the left flank and looks to make runs against high lines. This is especially the case when the team is looking to make quick transitions, or is against a defence that is out of shape. However, against mid or low-blocks, he doesn’t always look to play vertically or down the line.
The 34-year-old is adept at switching play across the pitch and allowing Barcelona to have qualitative superiority on the right-hand-side with either Raphinha or Dembele taking on a defender one-on-one.
Furthermore, he will often invert centrally to find Pedri or Gavi in front of him between the lines, with the midfielders hopefully making quick turns to play balls onto Lewandowski.
Perhaps Alba’s best quality is his crossing. He has an unrivalled ability to find his teammates in perfect positions or even guide them to those positions, whether those making runs to the near post, high balls into the middle of the box, or crosses into runners at the far post.
This season, he leads Barcelona with 1.08 crosses completed into the box, as well as behind only Raphinha for completed passes into the box with 3.08.
Alba is arguably Barca’s premiere left-back against mid or low-blocks, and his crossing and vision are precisely why. Simply put, teams that set up in such ways look to suffocate their opponents and leave no spaces between the lines or behind the defence.
It’s difficult to break down these blocks by taking players on (like Balde is so skilled at), as you will often run into multiple defenders.
Alba consistently finds spaces where there seem like none. Further, due to his improved inverting movement, Alba loves to get around the edge of the penalty box and whip crosses in from the left half-space.
This is where he can send looping balls for Lewandowski or even the right-winger to get on the end of. Further, he can play quick one-twos or even get into the box himself, breaking down compact and tight backlines.
Alba’s wide array of skills was evident against Sevilla, where he finished with an impressive one goal, one assist, five and shot-creating actions.
His goal came from a diagonal run into the box from the half-space– and a skilful outside-of-the-boot pass from Franck Kessie – and his assist after receiving the ball from a run behind the defence.
This brings us to the last point: his finishing. Alba’s shooting (particularly from long range) has vastly improved throughout his career. It is an underrated part of his game that allows him to maximize his runs into the box, as well as create chaos when Barcelona desperately need it.
If Alba continues to put up these strong performances for the rest of the campaign, he should be retained for another year to see out his contract that expires in the summer of 2024.
With more competition, rest, and all of his quality, the veteran left-back remains an important piece to Xavi’s Barcelona. Balde deserves to continue as the undisputed starter, but Alba is perhaps the best backup full-back in the world by some distance.
The sun is finally setting on Alba’s illustrious career, but it still has some light left in it.