Barcelona got back to winning ways in a 1–4 thumping of in-form Villarreal. There were many positives to take from the game. But the one person who deserved massive praise for standing out in midfield was Sergi Roberto.
On Sunday, in the visit from Barcelona to Villarreal, when the line-ups for the fixture were announced, culés were left in a confused state. The inclusion of Sergi Roberto in midfield made absolutely no sense to them when youngster Riqui Puig was doing impressively well. However, what followed was 90 minutes of absolutely firm and resolute performance from the Spaniard. It was Sergi’s first start since he suffered a fractured rib against Leganés.
For a long time, the 28-year-old has been lauded for his versatility. Be it right-back or central midfield, Sergi Roberto always puts a shift in that position. Nonetheless, in the fans’ opinions, he is a jack of all trades but a master of none. As Puig has been doing fabulously well since Quique Setién has given him an opportunity, starting Sergi Roberto in midfield ahead of him didn’t go well with the supporters. Notably, while playing a team that’s doing very well, one would expect Setién to go with players who are in form.
Notwithstanding, Villarreal proved to be a less challenging task than expected. The Yellow Submarine is chasing a berth in next year’s Champions League. And so, they were tipped to turn up against the Catalans. But Setién’s men were ready for the match. From the very first whistle, they were in complete control. One of the players who received massive praise for pitching in an excellent and professional display was Roberto.
Sergi Roberto’s role in the game
As we all know, Quique Setién was put under the microscope for his handling of Antoine Griezmann against Atlético de Madrid. To incorporate the Frenchman, the manager went with a 4–4–2 diamond. Sergi was responsible for providing an equalling number at the centre of the pitch. Villarreal went with a 4–4–2 that had a double pivot of two sturdy defensive midfielders. Thus, Sergi Roberto was deployed on the sides of Barça’s diamond midfield to provide stability and control and generate numerical superiorities.
Sergi Roberto excelled both in midfield and at right-back, where he would have recorded an assist to Lionel Messi had it not been for a previous offside position from Arturo Vidal | Photo by José Jordán / AFP via Getty Images
As expected, he didn’t have the most glittering performances. Instead, he did what he was told to do. With a pass accuracy of 97.7% and a total of 95 touches, Roberto had a calm and controlled impact on the pitch. He carried the ball for a total of 311 yards and was one of the most progressive players on the pitch. Furthermore, in the entirety of the match, he was dispossessed only once.
Defensively, he was more involved in pressing down the middle. The Catalans gave no time for the hosts to build with the ball. Sergi Roberto was crucial in ensuring that Villarreal’s midfield wasn’t given enough space to work its way upwards with the ball. Instead of tracking back and making tackles, the attacking threat was halted at the centre of the pitch.
There’s no way that the diamond would have worked without a player doing the tireless legwork. Even Quique Setién was appreciative of the shift the La Masía graduate put in.
“He was spectacular. He came with positive and renewed energy after that injury. I’ve told him that he has to be versatile. He does it well. He always does it to perfection”
on Sergi Roberto’s performance versus Villarreal
The fans, the coach, and even Roberto were pleased with the role he was given and the subsequent exhibition. The outing against Villarreal was one of the most satisfactory displays that Barcelona have showed collectively since the restart. Since the dominant performance against RCD Mallorca, this was the first away game where there was control from the start till the end.
The likelihood of Quique continuing with this tactical approach is high. The incorporation of Antoine Griezmann was helped with the settling in of Sergi into the role he was given. The 61-year-old tactician seems to finally be finding the correct combination for his starting XI.
“Tactically, it has been a while since I played there. Sometimes I play central midfield but on the right, and today I was on the left side, where I am most comfortable. It’s where I played for Barça B.
I enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun, with space and focused on the opposition’s defence. It’s a shame I had to go back to right-back [late on] but I am happy to help the team playing wherever”
on his new role
It will be interesting to see if the same approach is applied for the upcoming games. With the blaugranas hosting rock bottom RCD Espanyol on Wednesday, a dominant performance is mandatory. With Sergi Roberto bringing a more calming presence to the midfield, there is no reason why Setién should alter his role. The versatility of Sergi is something that should be appreciated a lot more than it is.
Be it right-back, or central midfield, Sergi Roberto always gives his 100%, shifting from both positions with ease. He might not be the most technically astute player, but he understands the Barcelona way to the fullest. It will be interesting to see what the formation and tactics are when Frenkie de Jong returns from injury. To incorporate Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann, only a diamond-shaped 4–4–2 seems to be the likely solution. But the midfield at the heart of the pitch is critical, and Sergi Roberto appears to have found his best role under Setién.
Trincão, Griezmann or Dembélé: Who should start for Barcelona?
From having to field center-mids such as Arturo Vidal on the flanks to now owning the likes of Dembélé, Trincão and Griezmann, it’s probably safe to assume that Barcelona’s wing play finally seems to have adequate profiles, individuals worthy of starting out wide. But, while healthy competition is always welcomed at the club, it’s apparent that Koeman must quickly find his “go-to player” and analyse whom he must bet on to consistently start games. With Barça successfully concluding their pre-season and looking ever so dominant in the opening game of La Liga, let’s take a look at what each player brings to the table.
Currently, it looks as if Antoine Griezmann has been reserved as a starter, which doesn’t come as a surprise given his immense status and the weightage his name carries in the squad list. However, Ronald Koeman’s intricate 4-2-3-1 system hasn’t truly allowed the Frenchman to fully express himself yet. Against Villarreal and even in the matches Antoine previously featured in, Griezmann was deprived of a fixated role and alternating occasionally with Messi as a direct number 9 or as a somewhat number 10 often left the right-hand side vulnerable, where Sergi Roberto would be tasked to produce most of the output upfield. Although Griezmann was seen making some well-timed runs, his link-up play was far from satisfactory, and as Messi would occupy the number 9 role, the former Atletico man would fail to operate effectively behind Leo or out wide.
In Barcelona’s La Liga opener, the left flank ticked every box the club seemed to have left unanswered and neglected last season. Jordi Alba’s runs from deep, Coutinho’s additional support as a mediapunta, and Ansu Fati’s exhilarating flare on the touchline proved too much to handle for Emery’s side since diverging attention from even a single player would lead to the visitors getting battered in the final third. Even so, while the Catalans eliminated their narrow and horizontal football to a somewhat acceptable extent, Ronald has only managed to refurbish one side of the pitch, with Griezmann and Messi’s natural tendency to operate centrally leaving the right flank vacant.
Therefore, to truly make the most of Barça’s offensive yield, it is vital to rely on natural wingers such as Trincão or Dembélé, players that can be considered ruthless on the counter and unforgiving in transitions. Whilst both players may eventually qualify as classic wingers, these two individuals propound different options, proving to be ideal in their respective departments. For example, in contrast to Dembouz, Trincão is likely to excel far more against a team with a low-block, given he is an exceedingly refined dribbler and considerably polished in his movement on/off the ball. Dembélé, on the other hand, could bring maximum results against a team with a higher line or a side that prefers to apply a suffocating press, mainly due to the fact that the winger is a space dominant player, and his unparalleled pace and chaotic style of play tends to add a sense of unpredictability on the flanks. Nonetheless, despite the slight differences in gameplay, they are ideal contenders to start for Barça, and must be prioritized in line-ups.
Spectators saw Lionel Messi function as a pure false 9 in the closing minutes of the game against Elche a few days ago as the Argentine partnered up with the likes of Dembélé and Trincão on each side of the pitch. Although Ansu Fati is probable to own the left flank for the upcoming games, it was refreshing to witness the Blaugranas look so imposing with two explosive wingers by Lionel’s side. As it turns out, Koeman’s experiment worked out even against the Yellow Submarine with him applying the same method in the second half. Barça saw their most promising football after proceedings just as Griezmann came off the bench for Trincão, who went on to form a trio with Lionel and Ousmane. Such flare and aggression was not seen previously considering most of Barça’s harvest came solely from the left-hand side of the field.
At this very moment, Barcelona has ample options to choose from, but for the newly adopted 4-2-3-1 formation to continue working at the highest level, it’s important to make the most of such diverse profiles in the squad. Ronald Koeman still has a backlog of work to do and must completely eliminate Barcelona’s horizontal structure if the club truly intends to compete in Europe. With Ousmane and Fransico looking immensely promising in their recent outings, the Dutch coach should take the bold decision of starting either one of them and pursue enhancing the front four’s capabilities.