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The right-back conundrum: Barcelona’s faith in two makeshift full-backs a tricky compromise

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Can Roberto and Vidal fill the void left by our legendary RB?

Sergi Roberto and Aleix Vidal

On June 7, 2016, the second-most decorated European footballer in history and the most prolific Brazilian to ever grace the game with his presence officially transferred from FC Barcelona to Italian Serie A champions Juventus.

Dani Alves, the tenacious rightback who dominated the right flank of the most successful club side in modern history, decided that winning trophies with FC Barcelona was equivalent to playing the beautiful game on easy mode. Juventus, a club hell-bent on European glory after forming a sensational unit, had motivations that seemed to align with Dani’s, and that’s where he decided he would spend possibly his final years in Europe.

It’s not difficult to sympathize with Alves. Despite the institutional troubles of recent times and the occasional hiccups every now and then, Barcelona’s success on the pitch has been more consistent than the waters of the free-flowing twirls and twists of the Amazon River. On a personal level though, it hasn’t been a bed of roses for Alves, as he’s often been the designated scapegoat by the media and fans during his tenure as a Blaugrana – the victim of sometimes warranted but mostly unmerited criticism.

The true value of anything precious however, can only be admired once it is lost.

Withdrawal from something or someone you hold dear isn’t a foreign feeling to us humans, and we tend to project these forebrain longings onto groups of individuals we have never known in person or will ever know. It’s safe to say that with Dani’s departure, this sense of longing is looming amongst the fans of the Catalan club. Cursed, criticized, victimized, and at times requested to be ostracized entirely from the club by fans and critics, Alves’ influence on and off the pitch is now yearned deeply.

This longing has only exacerbated after the recent preseason friendlies Barcelona has played in the past week. Many rested their faith on Roberto and Vidal to somewhat – if not in totality – fill the tangible void left by Dani Alves on the right flank. Unfortunately, this faith was birthed from blind hope, as subconsciously every well-versed Culé knew the gaping weaknesses in the individual abilities of Sergi and Aleix.

Neither have played a substantial amount of their career at the RB position, and while the same could have been argued for Dani Alves when he was signed from Sevilla back in 2008, the clear difference is that neither of them have been conditioned the way Alves was to completely dominate their flank offensively and defensively.

Vidal’s incredible pace and verticality is an asset when he bombs forward, but it cancels out with his suspect defending. Where Dani would impose his physical presence on wingers twice his size by inducing claustrophobic unrest through his pressing and close-quarters aggression, Vidal’s diffident approach engenders confidence in his attacker to take him on and nullify his presence through a mix of trickery and positional awareness.

Time and time again Vidal has been beaten by a simple dribble or has been found outright AWOL. His presence on the ball and vertical approach in attack is nothing short of commendable, but as a rightback, he makes Dani Alves – a player often criticized for showing apathy towards defending – seem like a right-sided Maldini.

On the other hand, the Catalan Sergi Roberto appears to be stuck between the lines. A jack of all trades, Roberto is truly a master of none. His positioning, passing, and build-up play is reminiscent of a central midfielder (which he innately is), and though he possesses above-average pace for the positions he has played in the past, Roberto lacks the instinctual drive of an attacking full-back who understands when and where to attack, and when to fall back into a defensive formation.

Roberto’s defensive astuteness gives him an edge over Vidal when it comes to protecting Barcelona’s right flank, but his infancy in the wide position leaves him exposed, particularly when the opposition assault makes its way close to the 18-yard box. While in possession, Roberto offers good rhythm and control, but fails to make enamoring runs forward that would make it easier for the likes of Messi and Rakitic to pass to him.

The most important deficiency in Roberto’s game as a rightback is his inability to stretch play effectively, something both Dani Alves and Vidal excel at. Often, Roberto is left isolated, ignored both by his teammates and also the opposition fullback/winger while in possession. This comes down to the lack of injection he offers as a lone pseudo-winger as Barcelona launch marauding attacks against pinned oppositions.

With Sporting Director Robert having bluntly stated that no influx of any sort of rightback would be observed this season, there is a genuine cause of concern for Culés. It is also a problem for Luis Enrique to ameliorate by either resorting to targeted training regimes for Vidal and Roberto to overcome their weaknesses in an unrealistically short period, or personally request a transfer of a RB instead of a CF.

Despite my undamped skepticism towards Munir’s ability to play as a regular at Barcelona, his impressive showing in the preseason games has made me more open to him retaining his role as the fourth forward for the upcoming 2016-17 season. If that sacrifice (if that’s what you wish to call it) is to be made, it would be ideal to pool the remaining transfer budget into the efforts of buying a RB.

Lots of recognizable (and some unrecognizable) names have been tossed about in recent times as far as the ideal RB target is concerned. The most obvious and most popular has been Hector Bellerin. However, the possible poetic return of the Catalan unpleasantly reminds me of the entire Cesc Fabregas saga, and solely because of that I refrain myself from fully committing to its cause. Other names such as Hysaj, Fabinho, José Luis Gómez, and Jonny Castro have also been suggested.

In my opinion, what’s important is not the name, but the traits of the RB we should be targeting if it comes to it. The generic statement of "attacking rightback" is a moot argument that only defines a portion of what is truly required from a fullback at Barcelona.

Yes, a Barcelona fullback must have the capacity to effectively bomb forward and impose himself on the flank. However, this attacking trait is only a by-product of a more essential attribute: the ability to stretch the play.

Our fullbacks do not have to have the more primal attacking traits of a winger, like relentless dribbling and counter-attack initiation. They only need two core attributes: the ability to stretch the play by luring midfielders, fullbacks, and wingers closer to the touchline like a magnet, and to have adequate defensive instincts to prevent the opponent beating them when the team is out of possession. As long as our Sporting Director searches for these traits in a fullback, we shouldn’t have a problem.

Robert has proven himself to be an astute Sporting Director – one who works with discretion yet displays efficiency, and we’re yet to witness a transfer we cringe at, a reaction that was second-nature with almost every signing Zubizarreta announced. That’s why the name doesn’t worry me as much as the likelihood of Enrique whispering the need for a RB does.

Despite delivering immense success in the past two seasons, "Lucho" has proven to be a stubborn man in certain aspects. His stubbornness and excessive trust on Roberto and Vidal could prove to be a wonderful decision, or it could prove to be detrimental for the course of the season. So far, the preseason performances by Roberto and Vidal haven’t instilled faith in Culés.

Barcelona has a fair amount of depth and looks ready to be favorites for all major competitions once again, but in my opinion, that one key position of rightback could be the difference between a treble and anything less.

Showing faith in Roberto and Vidal is currently a necessity for Culés and the team, but I feel the Sporting Director and managerial team should be prepared for evasive maneuvers in-case the duo is not up to task.