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The Dani Alves curse: Barcelona’s right-back woes

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The club are yet to find the perfect replacement

Sevilla v Barcelona - Supercopa Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

In 2015/16, Dani Alves was averaging 1.7 dribbles, 1.6 crosses completed, 7.7 passes into the final third and 2.6 balls into the box p90. Even in his final years at the club, Alves remained a creative tour de force, linking up with Messi and Neymar almost telepathically. And, contrary to popular belief, Alves was not defensively shabby either and was averaging 5.2 successful defensive duels, 2.7 ball recoveries, 5.3 interceptions and 0.4 successful slide tackles p90 . Talk about an ‘all-round’ performance. At the age of 32, Alves was putting up extraordinary numbers, that too in the most demanding position in the modern game. However, as was suspected at the time, the Brazilian’s shoes have proven too big to fill. Neither Sergi Roberto (the Barça handyman) nor Nelson Semedo have been able to cement the right-back slot, owing to their lukewarm performances throughout.

It is worth remembering the backdrop to Alves’s departure. He had called the board “false and ungrateful” and had said that “the people at Barcelona don’t know how to treat footballers”. It was a bitter divorce with an incompetent board. It is somewhat poetic, then, that Barça have not been able to replace him ever since. Karma, if you will. Both Semedo and Roberto have shown promise, at times, but neither have been able to replicate the all-round prowess and consistency of Alves. And, perhaps, that is understandable on some level. Dani Alves is a once in a generation player; he cannot be replaced. However, it is still worrying that four years on from his departure Barça are still heavily reliant on a makeshift full-back to put in a shift.

Lyon V Barcelona Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

This is especially strange because in 16/17 and 17/18 too, it looked like Roberto was going to be the undisputed starter. In his first season in the new position, Sergi was averaging 1.7 dribbles, 0.8 crosses and 1.4 chances created per 90, alongside 4 interceptions and 3.7 successful defensive duels. It looked like Roberto was going to build on a stellar platform. But that never happened. Infact, his numbers have declined gradually to their lowest point today. Semedo’s trajectory has been equally underwhelming. He has never quite hit the heights of his Benfica days and has often struggled to string together a run of strong performances. Often, the two of them seem like peas in a pod.

This season is a case in point. In the preseason, Valverde made it clear that Sergi was going to be moved back to midfield, with Semedo and Wagué competing for the right-back slot. And for a while, it looked as if that was going to be the case; Valverde started with Semedo on the right for seven consecutive matchdays, with Roberto filling in in midfield. And, even though he wasn’t particularly excellent, Semedo was still a natural in the role and offered a level of athleticism that Sergi did not. However, in the game against Getafe, Valverde chose to designate Semedo to the bench and started Roberto instead. So much for promises, eh. After that, all hell broke loose. Semedo was often started as a left-back, at the expense of Junior ( a player that was bought specifically to offer cover for Alba), and Moussa Wagué was completely discarded. Barca were once again caught in the Semedo-Roberto vicious circle.

To understand the underwhelming nature of their performances, we need to compare Semedo and Roberto to some of their colleagues. The difference is stark. Semedo and Roberto only manage 1.3 chances created p90 combined, which is less than half of what Trent Alexander-Arnold manages on his own. And even leaving aside crosses (the volume of which can depend on a team’s style), it is clear that the pair cannot hack it amongst Europe’s elite. Even Emerson, who is on loan from Barca at Betis, is doing better than the two, with eight goal involvements.

However, ever since Setién’s appointment, Semedo has become the starting right-back (especially after the shift to the 4-3-3). In that time, he has put in a much improved shift, especially in the opposition half. The games against Levante and Sociedad are good examples. Whether this improvement warrants a starting position come 20/21 is open for debate. Setién has also pushed Roberto into midfield/attack after initially playing him as a centre-back. Always the handyman.

Barcelona V Getafe Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

It is disappointing that neither of them have been able to stand up and make a case for themselves. Transitions are often the perfect time to make a name for yourself. While Barça’s priority come the summer should undoubtedly be a left-back, they should have a look at the other flank as well. Ending Emerson’s loan early (with a fee if need be) would be a good start. The return of a Brazilian right-back may augur well for the team ( and no, not Douglas).

Until then, Alves’s shadow looms large.

A note: I’m sorry I did not clarify this in the previous (Messi) article, but all the data used in these articles is obtained from Wyscout, with the exception of key passes (from Understat).