The year was 2008.
Barcelona had just wrapped up their league season, finishing a staggering 18 points behind the eternal enemy, Real Madrid. It was now two years since the club had last lifted a trophy and the questions far outweighed the answers. Fans wanted blood, a thirst that could only be satiated with scorched earth change. As a result, manager Frank Rijkaard was sacked and club icons Ronaldinho and Deco were sold. It was the end of a polarizing era, one that started with so much promise, albeit for not very long.
Club hierarchy decided to hire their next manager from within, promoting the B squad youth manager, Pep Guardiola. Pep was determined to change the DNA of the squad. He started by promoting canteranos Sergio Busquets, Pedro and Jeffrén to the first team and by stressing a harder work-ethic from players all the way to the Camp Nou groundskeepers. In his eyes, the defense was one of the main areas in need of repairs — more specifically, the right-back. Gianluca Zambrotta’s play had deteriorated into a sad state-of-affairs, culminating in his sale to AC MIlan. For a replacement, Pep zeroed in on a rash and enigmatic Brazilian who was stealing headlines at Sevilla.
He wouldn’t come cheap (€35M after performance based incentives, a world record fee for a defender at the time) or 100% willing (He vowed to stay put and later cried at his press conference), but the deal eventually got consummated. Since the day the ink dried on the contract, Barcelona have been the most decorated club on the planet. Dani was there for all 23 trophies, including 9 in European competitions, second all-time to Paolo Maldini’s 10. But what made him so good and why did he fit Barcelona’s system so effortlessly? Two word’s — Pace and stamina. Because of it, Barcelona were able to deploy a side that could attack defenses like few have seen before. Dani’s incredibly high positioning on the field allowed players such as Messi, Luis Suarez, and David Villa before him, to slide in and play more centrally. Often times, there was no attacking player on the right, entrusting Dani to cover that entire flank almost single handedly. This amount of attacking pressure essentially forced opposing defenses into a back five, taking away an opposing midfielder who would be crucial in build-up and attacking play. Over 8 seasons, he compiled 21 goals and an absurd 71 assists, including the most to Messi of any player at the squad during his tenure.
Often times, Brazilian defenders forget that they are just that — defenders. But when Dani was called into action on that side of the field he displayed an incredible knack of arriving and extinguishing danger at just the right moment. He may not have been Maldini defensively but he was the best there was in the attacking mold of full-back. His stamina was also world renowned, often times spearheading the ball pressure Barcelona made famous, reminiscent of a pack of piranha blitzing and devouring their prey.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and this triumphant tale was no different. Change is inevitable in life, and for Dani, a new challenge was something to be craved. Off to Juventus, a large hole is left to be filled. But how exactly does Barca plan to plug it? So far, the answer remains unknown.
This summer, Barcelona have paid €79,75M on four new arrivals, including two on the defensive side of the ball, but neither is a right-back. Lucas Digne has never played the position and was brought in primarily to supply Jordi Alba a rest when his body requests it. Barring some unforeseen event the position is up for grabs, and it's between two hold-overs from the season before, Sergi Roberto and Aleix Vidal.
Vidal arrived from Sevilla last summer for €17m but because of the stipulations of the transfer ban, he was forced to watch the first half of the season from the sidelines. Admittedly, the Spaniard came back physically unfit, losing his managers trust in the process. He made only 14 appearances, including 9 In La Liga (544 mins). When using Squawka’s comparison matrix, the numbers are staggering. On a per 90 min average, Vidal achieved an attacking score of 1.98 and a defensive score of 3.85. For comparisons sake, Dani Alves recorded an 8.45 offensive and an 4.93 defensive.
Now, things may be looking up. Vidal and Luis Enrique recently sat down and attempted to clear the air, via Sport:
For many, Vidal wasn’t alone. Sergi Roberto is a jack of all trades, evidenced by his play in as many as seven different positions last term. But for all of that versatility, right-back was a position few would have envisioned. Tactically a midfielder, Roberto displayed potential as someone who possesses the required fitness for this system and the ability to put in a good cross when called upon. He produced an offensive score of 9.75 and a defensive of 8.92, respectively. He is only 24 years old and a product of La Masia. All signs point to the job being Roberto’s to lose but can he consistently fill the role and be counted on in some of the biggest games Europe has to offer? This is a question only he/or someone else will answer, but one thing is clear. Dani Alves revolutionized the position and was just as integral to Barcelona’s dominance as the rest that get the credit. Now that he's gone, how much will he be missed?