Few would disagree with the fact that Pep Guardiola was a footballing pioneer. While he did not come up with a new way of playing football (the false 9 was mastered by the Austrian football team in the 1930s, while Total Football is very famously Dutch), he did internally revolutionize the way Barcelona played football.
We were always a team that cared more about finesse than sheer strength, and while that’s certainly changing under Lucho, Pep did pave the way for his successor. During his last few seasons, the back line of Alves, Puyol, Pique and Abidal terrorized attacks all over Europe. Alves’ role in the team was to go up and down, link up with Messi, and put in crosses for the forwards. Abidal’s role was to make sure we were secure defensively by forming a three-man high line with Pique and Puyol. We were further shielded by Sergio Busquets.
However, when Abidal fell sick, and then retired, we tried to replace him with with a strikingly different type of player in Jordi Alba. While that has certainly done wonders for us, considering how we’ve won every single title possible with Alba, it begs two questions. First, have we really replaced Abidal, and more importantly, do we really need to?
Barcelona, this season, is at the cusp of being the strongest team in not only Europe, but also in the history of the club. We still have the holy trinity in MSN, and perhaps the most balanced midfield in the world in Rakitic, Don Andres and Busi. We’ve also successfully addressed our defensive issues by buying Umtiti and Digne, both of whom have a bucket load of potential, have sold Adriano, Montoyaand Vermaelen, and are in the process of selling Mathieu and Douglas. Frankly, we’re sailing.
That being said, we haven’t successfully addressed the elephant in the room. We don’t have a backup striker, and we haven’t done anything to replace Dani Alves, who is the greatest right back we’ve ever had. Which really begs the following questions – Should we rely on a combination of versatility in Aleix Vidal and Sergio Roberto, or buy a philosophical successor in Hector Bellerin/Bruno Perez, or thirdly, which I believe most people haven’t considered – finally replace Abidal.
While no one questions that an attacking right back is deeply wedged in Barcelona’s DNA, and how that’s helped us cultivate the greatest player of all time, perhaps we should keep our minds open to the possibility of innovation. Let me explain.
Messi’s not getting any younger, and over the last two seasons, in a pursuit to elongate his career, we’ve seen him slowly transition into a floating midfielder. A perfect example of this was the game against Celtic, when he gracefully interchanged positions with Denis Suarez several times during the match.
Now, in the future, assuming Messi moves to an Iniesta-type role, our greatest threat would then come from the left, where we have Neymar, one of the best in the world, alongside Alba, who is a great attacking threat, and would probably perform better now that we have Digne in reserves, instead of an incompetent Adriano. On the right, however, we might have an ageing and defensively immobile Messi, who would try to interchange repeatedly with a midfielder so he can deliver his classic lobs on the left.
Now this transition, because it’s so new, hasn’t really been dealt with well by other teams, so we haven’t been exploited. Messi still changes the shape of the defense every time he moves in, creates space for someone (Alves, essentially), to cover up for him. Rakitic has also done a fantastic job holding up the shape of the midfield, and Alves was still present, working tirelessly. Messi’s still young and energetic, so all our loopholes are in the making.
A few seasons down the line, however, Messi might convert to a midfielder, Rakitic and Pique would be older and slower, and the absence of Alves might come to haunt us. This would leave us with a huge void in the right half of the field. Rakitic is an engine, and he might perform his box to box duties regardless, but if we want Messi to come in and interchange with a midfielder several times in a match, perhaps our best bet would be to have a solid right back who can also serve as a right center back three-man defense. Sure, we might no longer be the threat we are on the right, but we’ll have the greatest player of all time setting up his ideal successor, and that would be just as magical to watch.
What do you guys think?