Jordi Alba only assisted Lionel Messi six times in his first five years at Barça. In the next two years, he racked up slightly more than double of that. The Messi-Alba partnership seems part and parcel of Barça’s football these days, a ubiquitous influence in the Blaugranas attacking play. Yet, that wasn’t always so.
With Neymar’s departure and Ernesto Valverde’s arrival, Barça began to move to an asymmetrical 4-4-2, with one or even two tucked wingers/wide midfielders. Often, Andres Iniesta would start as the midfielder on the left side. This was often supported by a Ivan Rakitić-Sergio Busquets double pivot. This narrow midfield called for width from behind, which was often provided by Alba; he’d constantly be bombing up and down that left side. This is where the partnership with Messi was born. With Alba’s constant runs into wider channels, Messi found it easy to pick him with a lofted ball; this was then followed by an Alba cutback which was blasted into the net by a Messi who would delay his run into the box. It was an oft-repeated sequence. Yes, oft is an understatement. The same sequence of moves - Alba run, Messi pass, Alba cutback and Messi shot would play itself out several times in a game, with Luis Suárez providing the occasional dummy run. Despite it being so commonplace, it rarely caught on amongst opposition defences.
The finest hour for this partnership was undoubtedly 2018/19. Alba has been heavily criticised for his performances last season, yet apart from the capitulation at the end, Alba was stellar throughout. He held together attacking transitions on the left whilst also taking charge of several aspects of progression. Was he the best in the world last season? He was definitely up there.
Interestingly, Alba’s best season in recent memory also coincided with Messi’s best season in recent memory. With Messi dropping deep and constructing moves, Alba was free to hold up space on the left wing. This didn’t only result in the usual cut-back goal though, their combination also set up others moving into the box, especially Suárez and Arturo Vidal.
The season was really an exhibition in the power of in-game IQ. With minimal coaching from Valverde’s side, the players were instead relying on their instinctual understanding of the game to guide themselves in attacking transitions. This is why Vidal and Alba became so crucial to Messi’s attacking progression. They were able to play off of his movement and time their runs into the final third. This was integral to Messi’s overall success.
Alba isn’t a particularly well-liked figure amongst fans these days. He’s made unsavory comments from time to time and has largely underperformed this season. The criticism is understandable. Yet, he remains an important part of Messi’s game and removing him from Barça’s attacking play abruptly isn’t an option. He needs to be phased out to ensure that Messi can find an able deputy in wider areas.
As a club, Barça are very reliant on width from full-backs. Alba has been absolutely key to that style of play. He deserves some credit.