He was arguably the most welcomed signing of the Pep Guardiola era. Without any argument, he was the best. He's fought for the Barça colours as passionately as the most devout Catalan and he's embodied the spirit and understanding of La Masia as intuitively as any of their graduates. And when the wholly unpopular board of FC Barcelona failed to honour their commitment to that other stalwart Eric Abidal, he symbolically denounced their betrayal by wearing Abidal's No. 22 jersey for the last two years. Now at 31 years of age, as if to say such protests are not welcome, that board aren't offering any contract extensions to this old warrior and he's become the subject of unseemly speculation by a belligerent section of the media. In typical style, he responded with the type eloquence that makes this man who he is and brilliantly frames that portion of the media for what they are. The man is Dani Alves and we will simply not know what to do when he's gone.
So reliant on the Brazilian's talents have we become that it's difficult to remember how exciting a prospect he was when he made his move from Sevilla in the summer of 2008. A right back in the mold of a Cafu or Roberto Carlos but with a much vaunted determination and explosiveness, he had led that team to a Copa del Rey, two UEFA Cups, and one Super Cup. At Barça, he was to add to those honours, two more Copa del Reys, four Liga medals, two Champions Leagues, four Spanish Supercups, two UEFA Super Cups, and two FIFA Club World Cups. But what all those medals could not fully reflect was his relevance to the system of play that had won them.
Playing in the system of Pep Guardiola's Barça wasn't easy for anyone but alongside the false nine and the pivote, the right back role was of more specialised importance to that system than any other. Occupying a higher starting position than the classic full back (with the left back sitting deeper), he has been described as a full back, a wing back, and a midfielder while Pep even used him as an outright forward on some particularly memorable occasions. In truth, he has been none of these. At least not in the classic sense for, in all other cases, the job of a winger is to defend and maraud the flanks. Being, at one time, the fittest defender in the world, Alves has certainly done that with inconsistent degrees of effectiveness but where he forged an entirely new niche for himself was in his deft pass-and-move interchanges with Messi, Xavi, Pedro, and (to a lesser extent) Alexis. Steel-nerved ball retention, close quarter control, and a short passing game to rival the best of his teammates is what has defined his game.
Any other player with these skill sets would have been moved away from this more "marginal" role into the centre of midfield but so irresistible was his power and pace that he seemed tailor built to reinvigorate the style of play traditional to the right flank. And despite only sporadic recognition by the coaches of his national team, that's exactly what he's done for the best part of a decade. So much so that the defining image of Alves during his Barça tenure will unquestionably be one of him occupying the top right corner of the opposition box releasing Messi with disguised passes, touch-and-turn one-twos, and piercing the opposition's last line, not down the flank, but on a diagonal run towards their six yard box.
The cynical might argue that the more lingering image would be of those wayward crosses and while his inability to hone that skill is one of the two undoubted black spots against him, Pep very much saw the cross into the box like a cross-field pass, knowing that the pinned-back opposition would more than likely send the ball back out to the waiting Busquets and co. Therefore, even in his weak crossing, Alves contributed significantly to the system that won Barça more trophies than ever before.
The other black spot has been his defending (okay, maybe the diving too!). Though his ultra-forward role should definitely excuse some of the many goals that have been conceded down his flank, even when he gets back in time, he's liable to get sucked towards the ball and leave his man free to dart inwards. But people remember the mistakes most easily and we should, at least, remember the myriad examples of his clever defending. For the first two and a half years of Cristiano Ronaldo's Liga career (right up until Pique's dramatic drop in form and leadership), the Portuguese could barely score against him and the sight of the diminutive Brazilian taking the ball off his toes caused the Camp Nou to erupt on countless occasions. And that he more often than not went on to initiate and help complete the subsequent attacking move only further endeared him to the fans. Simply put, over the last seven years, no one player has contributed so exhaustively to both Barça's attack and defence as he has.
However, what is most noteworthy about his career is how, as a non La Masia graduate, he came to embody the pass-and-go total football of the famed academy as much as anyone who has come through there and better than most. In an age when importing a fully complementary talent into the first team represented Guardiola's biggest challenge, Dani Alves was the one resounding success story. In fact, it might even be said that he was Pep's poster boy for he was one of those special few who helped show the world that a clever dwarf could outmatch a giant idiot any day of the week:- a message Guardiola was preparing to emphatically send during that faithful summer of 2008.
- FC Barcelona News: 13 March 2015; Barcelona Ready to Make First Ipurua Visit, Xavi Leaning Toward Staying Until January
- Barcelona can't fail at Eibar
- La Liga: FC Barcelona 6-1 Rayo Vallecano: Player Ratings
- Dani Alves Denies PSG Rumor, Attacks Marca
- FC Barcelona News: 12 March 2015; Dani Alves Linked to Paris Saint-Germain, Three B Team Players Join First Team in Training