It was a mid-summer day in 2015 in Berlin, when Mr. Barcelona himself, Xavi Hernández retired from football but it was a happy farewell. Winning a treble in his last year and leaving behind what seemed at that time, a perfect heir to his throne in Ivan Rakitic.
The top three of Lione Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar had broken all goalscoring records, Sergio Busquets was back to his best again and the defence of the slow and steady Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano was perfectly complimented by the ruthlessness and the pace of the wide men, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves.
The bench was as strong as anyone could have imagined; Pedro the ideal man to be chipping in goals after any unit of MSN was substituted. Jérémy Mathieu (at least then) seemed a veteran presence among boys and provided much-needed experience to the squad, while Marc-André ter Stegen was then a young and rash goalkeeper but always reliable. Last but not least, The Maestro and Orchestrator, Xavi bringing it all together whenever Barcelona lost their composure and being the captain that he was. All seemed right in the Culés world.
Two years on and it’s a travesty in the Barca nation. The team are 4-0 down to Paris Saint-Germain, the MSN no longer clicking and have been tactically found out in Europe. The midfield is lacking its omnipresent composure once headed by Xavi, the defence is extremely old and worn out, lacking Dani’s passion and Jordi’s motivation, the former replaced by a midfielder in Sergi Roberto playing out of position.
Once one of La Masia’s most prized young prodigies, Roberto was now lost in his own Cruyffian Ability (the ability to play in any position introduced by Cruyff at Ajax as Total Football) and being used in whatever way seemed necessary. His understanding of the game became his greatest fault and the own nail in his coffin.
Whenever anyone was injured, the immediate replacement was Sergi and he was willing to do anything for the cause. Hence when Aleix Vidal got injured, who other than Roberto to take over at right-back? Mind you, he did a commendable job playing out of position, something we’ve often see great footballers fail at (take Wayne Rooney at centre-midfield as an example).
Chipping in cross after cross while running back and forth on a wing that was almost empty most of the time whenever Messi probed into the middle of the field but Roberto did not complain. Barcelona was his home and his life and he’d give up anything to play for the team he loved so much and because of this, often becoming the runt of the family and being the scapegoat for everything wrong with Enrique’s Barcelona philosophy.
La Masia seemed dead and Barcelona did not care too much for possession but again Roberto did not complain. He was not given credit for most of what he did either. For example, when he slid a perfect no-look pass to Suarez in Barcelona’s 4-0 battering of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, a page out of Cruyff’s textbook to passing.
So when Barcelona were down to PSG in the second leg, Roberto as he had always done came to the rescue. Neymar is often hailed as the hero in the tale of PSG’s 6-1 defeat and rightly so, but as always, Roberto is always left out of any credit.
Yet it was his energy on the field that lit up the Camp Nou, and the players as well, but at the end of the day, he proved how good he was when he swallowed up a delicious ball in by Neymar and completed the fairytale.
As he had always done, he had changed the game in seconds. After Enrique was let go, finally Sergi could prove who he was under Valverde and step into that midfield that has been crying out for some fresh Catalan blood for so long.
But it wasn’t to be. He was not given the opportunity with the signing of Paulinho and to his dismay; he even lost his first team position to the one of the best signings in Barcelona’s recent history, Nelson Semedo.
But he did not complain, put his head down, got to work and again proved his mettle when he saved Barcelona from the clutches of defeat against Atlético Madrid when he chipped in the perfect cross for Suarez to head away.
Barcelona’s midfield maestro is cyclical in nature. Guardiola replaced Cruyff and Xavi replaced Guardiola but the one thing they all have in common is that they all came from La Masia. No one can understand Barcelona better than the kids at La Masia. Sergi Roberto is one of those kids.
However, let me clarify any misconceptions, no one can replace Xavi, NO ONE just like nobody could truly replace Cruyff. That’s why Barcelona is beautiful. It’s like walking into different types of gardens with different types of flowers but they all smell the same.
Hence, the answer to Barcelona’s midfield composure is not Marco Verratti, it’s not Jean-Michael Seri and it’s not Leon Goretzka. It’s Sergi. He’s not Xavi’s replacement but a step further, a different kind of breed, an evolution and that’s exactly what Barcelona need.