Teams that dominate football nowadays have a frightening full-back partnership, but that’s not the case for Barcelona anymore.
Often confined to an afterthought, only playing in goal can claim to be as unfashionable. But even goalkeepers are kingmakers on occasion. Perhaps this is part of the reason behind the trend of converting your winger into a full-back – the least glamorous position of all.
Most grow up wanting to be Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Neymar Jr, not have them flying towards you. Dani Alves, however, is glamorous, eccentric – a star. He too transitioned into the role but it was no less peculiar when Sevilla’s best player, glitzy and brilliant, was a right-back. Dressed like Prince – the singer, not the Boateng variety –, the Brazilian has had a comparable impact on his own genre.
Only when Alves began gliding around midfield in Paris, with disconcerting lack of effort, was his technique properly recognised. For all his extravagance off the field and talent on it, he was never appreciated like other integral pieces of Barcelona’s pièce de résistance. Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta received a marching parade of events and simpering tributes; Alves was left to leave on a free. The club happy to save paying a premium salary for what, after all, was just a right-back.
Barça have still failed to replace the irreplaceable Dani Alves | Photo by Imago
In fitting with karma’s sense of satire, it would be the man playing in his position whose corner would consign a creaking Barcelona to total collapse. The quick thinking that now belonged to Trent Alexander-Arnold, which sealed Barcelona’s plunge from grace, was the sort of intelligence and invention which has been missing at Camp Nou since Alves’ departure. Before that match there were cracks, now there are gaping holes.
And yet at the height of the global game now, the footballing benchmark, is a team defined by its full-backs. Jürgen Klopp’s flanks at Liverpool both symbolise its attributes and act as a functioning litmus test for the manager. They are cause and effect. Quick, incisive and full of flare, Alexander-Arnold is a technical marvel. On the alternate side, Andrew Robertson is steely, forged from a gritty competitiveness. Honed by his master and commander, he carries out every order with maximum intensity and commitment.
Klopp’s most fierce adversary, who got the better of him, also set his stall out to dominate the Bundesliga with his full backs. Pep Guardiola’s Bayern set records in Germany, destroying everything put in their way. Suffocating opponents with possession. A domination made partly possible because he had two extra midfielders than everyone else – his full-backs playing inside not out. Like Liverpool, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm were probably the best around at Bayern’s zenith.
The stick they beat Bayern (and Pep) with was their failure to win a Champions League. Crucially, the team that won it more than anyone else had difference-makers at full back too. No doubt the Bavarians feel Real Madrid have stolen one or two from their grasp in recent years. But they too were powerless to stop the creativity and attacking prowess of Marcelo, irresistible on his day.
Expert game management was a hallmark of European trophies 10, 11, 12 and 13 for Los Blancos, but behind Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal has few rivals in this particular art form. Neither shy of claiming non-existent contact or making his own very real connections, what Carvajal lacked in poetry he usually made up for in efficacy.
A good full-back duo can make a team successful | Photo by Imago
So if full-backs are the measure of a good side, the proof of a quality outfit, Barcelona’s current options paint all too accurate a picture. At one time the best in the world, an ageing Jordi Alba is struggling to replicate his old self. Just five assists this season pales in comparison to the thirteen from last year, for one half of what was once the deadliest one-two in football. Nowadays Alba’s own gamesmanship borders on the absurd at times. In the past it was a tool against the opponent, for their benefit. Now it feels all too often like a cringeworthy attempt to distract from his own deficiencies.
Under Ernesto Valverde, Jordi Alba was one-dimensional – but extremely effective. Much like the side itself. Similarly both had their weaknesses cruelly exposed at Anfield in May 2019. Once so excellent at finding Messi on the return, laying it on for the finishing touch, the same move now looks laboured this season. Relinquishing all responsibility to Messi even in the event of teammate offering an objectively better option.
There is still the odd flash of Alba’s ability, the faint suggestion that if all the conditions were there he could reach the required level. But the average culé is left with the overwhelming sense that if not a replacement, a young pretender to at least challenge if not succeed Alba, is necessary. Only there is none forthcoming. The product of an incoherent transfer strategy, Junior Firpo lacks the confidence and the competence for this role. Favoured ahead of seemingly readymade youth products in Álex Grimaldo, Marc Cucurella and Juan Miranda – sold for a quick buck or lacking the trust they were never allowed to earn.
Barcelona have problems in both full-back positions | Photo by Imago
On the other side, the situation is less clear, a right-back spot that is not sure what or who it is. Nélson Semedo has shown instances of brilliance, exceptional footwork and lightning speed; yet there is inescapably something missing. Confidence, understanding of his role, cohesion with his teammates; after three years in Catalunya, the Portuguese still looks like a guest in his own home. Like many of Barcelona’s recent recruits, there is little doubt he is a good player, but he has never been at ease in this team.
His alternative is almost the polar opposite. With the ball, Sergi Roberto’s grasp of the game and. maybe more importantly, his relationship with Messi is often without fault. Yet all the smarts that he brings to the position are undermined by the small matter that he is not a right-back. It looked good for two seasons, intelligent even, but even those who adore him can admit the makeshift nature of this solution. So many of the key attributes required of the modern-day full-back do not come naturally to him. To his credit, his own success allowed the club to forget that it was a temporary option in the first place. Within the context of a dysfunctional unit though, it is hard not to remember.
In their own ways, just as with the excellent teams of past and present, Barcelona’s full-backs are a metaphor for the entire side. The days of supremacy seem increasingly distant, the heavyweights of a team never properly replaced or left to grow stale. Many of the players are not necessarily bad themselves, but are badly utilised. Without a defined system, their weaknesses are magnified. Simultaneously symptomatic of and contributing to the misshapen and floundering Barcelona we have become used to. You really don’t know what you’ve got until Dani Alves is gone.
Analysis of the left-back problem at Barcelona
On the 22nd of June in the year 2012 Barcelona re-signed once one of their own, Valencia speedster, Jordi Alba, for 14 million Euros. Once part of the club after coming through the esteemed La Masia academy, he was to replace Eric Abidal, the French left-back who had given much to Barcelona over the years but his unfortunate health problems meant it was the need of the hour to move onwards. Fast forward 8 years and a massive 335 appearances for the Blaugranas, the man who was initially dismissed as ‘too short’ by the Catalan club stands as a gargantuan figure who made the left-hand side his own.
It is unpropitious for Barcelona that time cannot be rolled back, because if they could, they would definitely look no further than the little man they signed in 2012 to fix their current concerns at left-back. As things stand, however, Alba is 31 and clearly regressing as each season passes. While he still has an excellent command on his attacking skill, it’s the defensive issues faced by him and the other fullbacks that puts the team in hot water consistently. Moreover, one of the key aspects to his game is the pace and acceleration he brought near the touchline, and that is one area that is bound to regress with age. It is, therefore, the correct time to look for a replacement for the Spaniard; otherwise, the Blaugranas risk being set back a few years as happened with replacing Dani Alves.
This train of thought was what Barcelona had in mind when they signed Junior Firpo from Real Betis in August 2019. He was, at that point, a highly well-regarded prospect in La Liga, with several teams including Real Madrid and Manchester City posing interest in the Dominican. However, Firpo’s attacking threat was nowhere close to the Spaniard. In the 17 appearances he did make, Junior Firpo had a low xA (Expected Assists) of 0.06 per 90 last season as compared to Alba’s 0.14 per 90. Additionally, he had 3.71 passes into the final third per 90 as compared to Alba’s 4.75. Finally, Firpo was never able to recreate the kind of understanding Alba had with team captain Lionel Messi which made the duo lethal. The young left-back never makes the same runs into the box as Alba and the Argentinian is often left wanting more in that regard.
Junior Firpo, at the moment, simply does not match up to Jordi Alba at all.
Defensively speaking, Firpo did attempt more tackles than the Spanish veteran – 2.12 tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 1.03 per 90 in 19/20, but it is often due to necessity as he is caught out of position very often. This trickles down to the fouls, which stand at 3.1 fouls per 90 for 24-year-old, as compared to Alba’s 0.74. Consequently, Firpo picked up 5 yellow cards while Alba picked up 7 in a little more than double the starts, indicating a lack of discipline in Firpo’s case. The duo is similar with regards to successful pressures, as Alba had 2.8 successful pressures per 90 last season and Firpo had 2.65 for the same.
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
For what it is worth, Firpo does bring a touch of aerial dominance into the picture, but that is hardly a requirement for the left-back of a team like Barcelona. The youngster’s growth has stagnated over the season, and he showed no signs of adaptability when it came to moving from a 5 at the back system at Betis to a flat 4 at Barcelona. Maybe with time, Junior Firpo becomes an able replacement, but with multiple players past their peaks, including long time mainstays Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique who have been so crucial to the Blaugrana’s defensive system, Barcelona must bring in a fresh face. Someone who can fill the massive shoes of Alba quickly. We, at Barca Universal, therefore, look at 3 possible replacements for the Spaniard who can complete the Blaugrana’s search in that position.
Going the Jordi Alba route: Alex Grimaldo
A name Barca connoisseurs will be familiar with, Alex Grimaldo is also from the once-famed La Masia, and was one of the highly touted prospects before he chose to move to Benfica, eyeing the possibility of more playing time since Alba had a tight hold of that spot at Barcelona. Now that Alba is ageing, it might be time to dive in for another trusted La Masia prospect who will know the workings of the club from his academy days.
Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images
Grimaldo is a short and lean player, with a boosted acceleration – a profile very similar to that of Alba. Often used as a midfielder in his earlier days, he has the decision making and a great handle on what to do when he has possession of the ball, which is a massive bonus for a team like the possession hungry Catalans. He has a tremendous attacking output and is genuinely fearless, something Firpo is clearly lacking. The 24-year-old Spaniard has racked 22 assists in 88 games in the Primeira Liga and is one of the top fullbacks in the league. His xA per 90 stood at 0.21 as compared to Alba’s 0.14 last season, and he also led the numbers for tackles, making 2.34 successful tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 0.58. When it comes to passing, Grimaldo completed 83% of his passes last season, whereas Alba made his passes at a completion rate of 87.1%.
While Grimaldo is short in stature and teams often look to go over him, he still has the positioning to make up for the same and has the pace to make up ground if he falters. Something prime Alba can massive relate to.
The short-term, big success option: Nicolas Tagliafico
The red and blue of Barcelona owes a lot to the red and white of Amsterdam. From players like Johann Cruyff and Jari Litmanen to more recently, Luis Suarez and Frenkie de Jong, there have been a plethora of players who have represented both the clubs. Now that Barcelona have been looking to offload the regressing Suarez, Nicolas Tagliafico could turn out be an interesting option to entice Ajax for a swap deal.
Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images
The Argentine left-back moved from Independiente in 2018 and has since appeared 65 times for Ajax. While he is not as much of an attacking threat (8 assists in 2 seasons), the 28-year-old does give Barcelona something they desperately need in their current predicament – defensive solidity. Compared to Alba’s 25 tackles attempted in the 19/20 season, Tagliafico attempted almost four times that number (96) and successfully completing 61 of them, compared to Alba’s 14. He was also able to block 10 shots compared to Alba’s 5.
However, the defensive side of the game is not all he provides. He is solid while in possession as well, completing 86% of his passes, and playingi in one key pass every game. He also created seven big chances last season, of which only four were converted. Tagliafico stands at a modest 5’7”, but he does have the lung-bursting stamina in him, which will be a criterion to consider while replacing Alba. In buying Tagliafico, Barcelona could potentially look to employ something their Blanco rivals in Madrid successfully did after buying Ferland Mendy – plug the defensive errors from the wings and solidify the defence as a whole.
The left-of-centre option: Jose Gaya
Barcelona looked towards Valencia in 2012, and maybe the solution lies there in 2020 as well. Jose Gaya has been one of the most highly-rated left-backs in La Liga for years. Despite, that, he is only 25 years old, but has already racked up 144 appearances for the club. With Valencia having a fire sale, it would be the perfect time for the Blaugranas to target their academy graduate.
Gaya is a very attacking fullback who tends to occupy areas on the left-hand side byline a lot. He is an outstanding crosser and attempted 3.08 crosses per game in the 19/20 season. He had a total of 939 touches in the mid and final third combined, showing his tendency to push up in the opposition half and receive the ball high up the pitch. If he loses the ball, Gaya has the electric pace that can help him catch up with opponents quickly. He is not afraid to complete a challenge and is hard to take on, given his short, but robustly built. Gaya was one of the standout players in what was a rather disappointing season for Valencia, and Barcelona should grab the chance to buy him with both hands, especially after his excellent display against them in La Liga this season.