Sergi Roberto has not only helped Barcelona forget the best right-back in history, Dani Alves, but he’s also allowed the club to improve on the left side of defence with the competition between Jordi Alba and Lucas Digne. Last season served as confirmation for Luis Enrique’s intuition and this year it’s become and incontestable reality: the 24-year-old's a top full-back.
Once again, Sergi Roberto produced an extraordinary performance on Saturday. This time at El Molinon, where he recovered 10 balls, gave three assists (counting Neymar’s tap in after Paco Alcacer hit the bar) and provoked a red card for Lora, which led to three goals at the end of the game. That midfielder who shone as a youngster in La Masia has become one of LaLiga’s best right-backs. His metamorphosis would not have been possible without having a reference point like Dani Alves, whose best virtues he has tried to take on.
Mentally, Dani Alves is unique. It cost him to reach the top, fighting hard from a young age, and once he got there he was not moving. Both at Sevilla and, above all, at Barcelona. A complete professional, Dani Alves has a confidence which means he does not doubt himself, something which is necessary at a club like Barça. Off the pitch, he is exuberant, often in the public eye and not afraid to say what he feels.
Sergi Roberto is more discreet, as professional and without comparison on an emotional level. There are no examples of the converted midfielder uttering a word out of place. At the beginning of his time with his first team he lacked confidence, too, which was logical given he wasn’t given the continuity to explode. Once he obtained that, his football quality has stood out in its own right. No-one doubts him now, something which couldn’t be said before.
Alves, now at Juventus, has a natural fitness. Maybe it wouldn’t be the case if he didn’t look after himself, but a big part of it does seem to be in his genes. He was capable of giving absolutely everything at Barça without it affecting his performances. He could be better or worse in other aspects, but physically he was always up and down, up and down the right flank. In addition, his recovery time was above the average.
Maybe Sergi Roberto doesn’t have that, but he substitutes it with other virtues, like his great understanding of the play, which allows him to know when to run and when to stop. However, his best qualities when he was in midfield, such as his starting speed, mean he’s ideal as a right-back in Barça’s system. As time passes, it will become easier to evaluate Sergi Roberto in his new position.
Like any good Brazilian, technique is one of Alves’ virtues. And at Barça, you don’t get by for so many years without being good with the ball at your feet and attacking, even if you’re a defender. Each season he was one of the top goal makers in LaLiga which is no coincidence, even if being surrounded by such quality players means your passes are more likely to lead to goals.
Without standing out for his style, Sergi Roberto has nothing to be jealous about technically of Alves. We’re talking about a product of Las Masia. There’s no academy in the world where they learn to take care of the ball as well. The man from Reus can play anywhere across the midfield and now also as a full-back, which is all possible because of his technical ability and his versatility, which is clearly superior to Alves’.
Perhaps this would be the area where Alves suffers the most. Understanding when to go and when to stay was never one of his best qualities when at Barça. That may be something which costs him even more in Turin than at Camp Nou, because Barça are a club who demand attacking intent from the full-backs. He makes up for this occasional deficiency with his fitness and willing.
On the other side of the coin, Sergi Roberto understands Barcelona's football like only an academy graduate could. He’s read the complete A to Z. He knows where to be at any moment to make sure that play continues to flow. He knows what positions to occupy at any given time. Tactically he’s a 10, which allows him to keep on top of his work defensively as well.
They’re both different players, with different ideas of the game, but they both have the skillset required to succeed at Barcelona. Dani Alves did as much during many years of the club’s recent history, while Sergio Roberto’s journey is just beginning. If it’s as long and full as success as his predecessor’s…