Xavi’s big bet this season has been choosing the young Alejandro Balde and Eric Garcia over club legends Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique.
Even though he backtracked against Bayern Munich, leaving all four players on the bench, it’s clear that Balde and Eric have earned the confidence of their manager, and are the next building blocks to be added to this Barcelona project.
Eric Garcia has some work to do in beating out the likes of Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde, but he’ll be right in the mix from game to game because of his unique abilities in possession, and in opening the field with line breaking passes.
But it’s Alejandro Balde who is the true breakout star this season, with the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Pedri and Gavi as a teenager with a long and bright future at the club.
Balde is a La Masia product through and through, having joined Barcelona at the age of eight. This is a player we should all be rooting for as proof that the Barca academy can still cultivate world class talent at a variety of positions.
He’s been on the cusp of the first team for years, but struggled to earn minutes over Jordi Alba in Xavi’s first season in charge.
That’s what makes this development so interesting. Maybe with so much on the line last season, Xavi felt dissuaded from taking chances on too many young players, and instead opted to rely on the experience of Alba and Pique. To be fair, both players had very good seasons, which makes it even more surprising to see them fall from grace so fast.
In the case of Balde, perhaps it’s just a matter of a player taking an opportunity and running with it. He had an impressive preseason, so much so that many pundits were wondering whether it was necessary to bring in Marcos Alonso at all.
Currently, there is stiff competition at the left-back position, and Balde is leaving his older compatriots in the dust, putting in high-level performances on a consistent basis.
Balde may be best as a wing-back, but has been very competent on both sides of the ball in Xavi’s preferred 4-3-3.
Much of the talk will be on his ability to run with the ball, attack up the wing, and play a good final ball into the box.
He has linked up well with Robert Lewandowski in particular, assisting two of the Pole’s goals, and that chemistry may be the most important factor of all for why he continues to be chosen by Xavi. This team really is starting to revolve around providing the center forward with service, and whoever can do that best will play the most. The full-backs and wingers have the most riding on those partnerships flourishing.
Because Balde is a true Barca boy, Xavi can trust him to take risks going forward while not being wasteful. Balde has done a great job choosing his moments, and has been equally good with the ball at his feet and with runs off the ball as well.
He has also been a very good defender who has shown exemplary field awareness, and that could be the biggest reason why he has beaten out Jordi Alba for the job this season. Alba hasn’t stopped being productive in the final third, but he is also good for a significant defensive error every few games. So far, Balde has been perfectly reliable as a defender, and is helping Barcelona become a much improved defensive team overall.
For a neutral fan, Balde is also just a lot of fun to watch. He’s capable of breaking ankles while making a spectacular run up the field, which provides a nice balance on the left flank when Ousmane Dembele is playing on the right side. It allows for Barca to play with less vertical wingers like Ansu Fati and Memphis Depay, who are happy to play inside as pseudo strikers.
Barcelona has spent a lot of money over the past two transfer windows, and it looks like many of those signings could prove to be good investments.
But you can’t rely on spending big money alone. Barcelona is what it is because of its identity, and ability to cultivate talent through its academy.
Alejandro Balde is a feel good story, and is evidence that La Masia continues to be influential.
Barcelona needs to win now with the gambles it has made financially.
But they also need a road map to the future, knowing that players like Lewandowski won’t be around forever.
With Pedri, Ansu, Gavi, and now Balde, a true foundation is set.
Barca is showing they can win now, while rebuilding for the long term at the same time.
Beautiful things can happen when you combine the pedigree of Lewandowski with the promise of players like Balde.
And it’s a lot of fun to watch.