Ross Eaton looks at some of the alternatives facing Barcelona as they search for a new right back to replace Dani Alves.
After nearly a decade of quality and assurance in the right-back position, Barcelona are left with a qualm. With Dani Alves departing for Juventus on a free transfer, and Aleix Vidal showing serious doubts about his ability to be starting for a club of this size, it is most likely that a new signing will be necessary at the Nou Camp, to take over the right-back position. Candidates have been discussed widely with many names being thrown into the hat. Throughout this piece I will look at a number of options, perhaps some ‘different’ names not so widely spoken of.
On 2nd June, Barcelona technical secretary Roberto Fernandez announced that Alves will depart the club this summer. Almost a month later this was confirmed as Alves joined European rivals Juventus on a free transfer. It was a sad moment for some Cules as Alves has been one of Barca’s most underrated players in their history, winning 23 trophies in his eight seasons at the club, Alves’ ability to remain first choice all throughout his time at the club highlights his quality. The Brazilian’s marauding runs down the right wing from his normal right-back position have been just as exciting as any other full-back from the last few generations while his defending has improved in more recent times and shown that even moving into the last years of his career, he is still willing to learn in order to improve.
With Alves departing the club this will be the first time in a while where a guaranteed Barcelona starter transferred to another club without a strong replacement ready for the departure. Some would argue Aleix Vidal showed glimpses of form which suggest that he could take over from Alves next season. Sergi Roberto is another option for the spot, as also he played in the right-back position with relative success at times last term. Both players have serious question marks about being capable of taking over as a starter at such a competitive team, mostly defensively. It is important that any signing would be capable defensively, as they will need to be on top-form in Champions League knockout matches, facing some of the world’s best wingers. Attacking-wise, they must be athletic and capable of working well on the touchline, with Lionel Messi moving into right halfspace quite often, the wing will need to occupied by the full-back, a task Alves was extremely good at. Having a bit of pace would be an added bonus as being able to move into advanced positions quickly is very important for a team with an emphasis on quick attacks. Technical qualities must be considered, as with Barça traditionally playing a relatively possession-based game they must be able to make short passes on the ground to aid in circulation. Another technical quality which would be a bonus is good crossing technique, as Luis Suarez would really thrive on good service from wide areas. This isn’t necessary right away though, as crossing can be practiced and mastered in not too much time.
The task for finding the perfect right-back for the club is a difficult one, which has been widely discussed with many opinions. Players such as Cesar Azpilicueta and Marquinhos have been linked with the role, though I don’t believe this player profile is ideal. The players I have chosen are players I believe have the correct attribute sets to take over in the position.
The first player of the five I’ve chosen is one who has been heavily linked with Barca for a few months now, with the ante being upped even more so since Alves’ departure was confirmed. Hector Bellerin was a La Masia student from the age of eight till the age of sixteen, following this he joined Arsenal, where he has begun to shine at right-back in the last two seasons. Bellerin is extremely quick, one of the fastest players in world football, which is a large part of his game. He isn’t the most intelligent right-back in terms of positioning defensively, though his pace often allows him to recover from poor positions. In attack his pace is again important, where he will often go on the outside towards the byline rather than whipping in an accurate cross from deep, which is often the better option with Olivier Giroud in the penalty area.
Next up is an interesting candidate whom I would never have even thought of if @ReneMaric hand’t mentioned him on Twitter. Corentin Tolisso is a central-midfielder who currently plays for Lyon. Tolisso is a box-to-box type midfielder though he does possess a few good technical qualities that can easily be developed while he is still 22. Alongside this he is pretty intelligent defensively for a player of his age which is always an added bonus.
Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi has been thrown into the mix by some but very rarely and without any real intent. He’s an unlikely signing though arguably one of the strongest possible candidates. Florenzi is a very versatile footballer who can play as a full or wing-back on either flank, in the centre of midfield in almost any role or as a winger or wide playmaker. Florenzi wouldn’t be cheap though he would undoubtedly be a useful asset to cover in many positions for Barca. The Italian is the epitome of the modern complete footballer. He is physically excellent, possesses a good degree of intelligence and as he ironically showed against Barcelona with his halfway line goal in the Champions League last year, is wonderful when it comes to technical qualities.
Another candidate from Ligue 1 is Fabinho. Though this time an actual full-back, Fabinho is capable of playing a midfield role. He is a technically excellent right-back who would perfectly suit the role of an inverted full-back, but this isn’t what Barca are looking for. Fabinho, though, of average speed, isn’t so quick for a modern full-back and can struggle to move quickly into advanced positions when needed. He is quite sound defensively, with his positional awareness being a strong attribute which makes him a far better defender.
Last but not least is Elseid Hysaj of Napoli. The Albanian right-back who shone during Albania’s three group matches at the Euros enjoyed a terrific season under Maurizio Sarri and as we saw, continued the same form into the summer. Hysaj is perhaps more of a traditional full-back than most we see in today’s game. He is technically brilliant with great quality in small spaces, an extremely sound passer of the ball and able to whip in an accurate cross. Despite these many attacking qualities, defensively is where Hysaj is strongest. Very intelligent for a 22-year old with just two years of top flight experience, Hysaj is a great interceptor. This can make up for his lack of pace where he will position himself smartly to limit the influence of an opponent’s pace against his slight lack of it. He isn’t slow but for a modern full-back Hysaj hasn’t got outstanding pace. This may be a slight issue in terms of overlapping to quickly provide width, as his lack of speed may mean rushing up the line is done too slowly for the speed of Barca’s attacks.
After looking at the options it is clear that all players have both pros and cons to taking over the right-back position for Barca. Small, picky things have been pointed out though these small factors do have to be fully considered as a potential hindrance. With Barcelona rumoured to be struggling financially at the moment, it is important that he who signs is the correct man. A harsh lesson will have been learned with Aleix Vidal. One thing all the players above have in common is that they are all still young and yet to reach their peak. This gives plenty of time for learning, allowing Luis Enrique to nurture them into the right-back he is looking for.
A Statistical Look at The Options
Using data from Squawka and Football Manager 2016 I have analysed the areas which would be considered key for Barcelona’s new right-backs.
Before I begin using this data from both Squawka and FM16, I would like to share my opinion and reasons on using it; Firstly, I do not believe FM16 is a powerful enough tool to scout a player on. I believe video/live evidence of watching the player is needed before any sort of decisions can be made on a player. FM16 may be a useful tool for opening upend making scout known to different players from a wider scope, as these players may never be heard of without FM. Despite having knowledgable and reliable researchers I don’t believe it is accurate enough to perfectly adjudge a player’s ability. My reason for using Squawka and FM16 data within this is simply to open a different way of looking at the players, rather than just my eye watching them on videos. By using this, this doesn’t mean I fully agree with the use of data for scouting. I am simply using it to open a wider angle of looking at things.
Below are the stats and reasons for using them:
- Key Passes- Can gauge whether or not the player is capable of assisting.
- Successful Takeons- Shows players ability in 1v1 situations, key on the wing, where they will be positioned.
- Forward Passes- Gives an idea whether or not player attempts positive, attacking passes. Needed to play Barca’s attacking game.
- Pass Accuracy- Indication of whether or not they can successfully help circulate by playing accurate passes.
- Defensive Duels Won- Won’t receive much defensive support on the wing so must be capable of defending 1v1s.
- Tackles Won- Same as above.
- Pace- Must be fast in order to be able to quickly move up the wing to provide width.
- Attack and Defence Rating- Algorithms created by myself using data from above. Meant to give an indication to their overall attacking and defensive ability.
The data above gives us pretty much the expected answer. Due to it not taking into account any sort of intelligence or positional awareness in either phase of the game, Hector Bellerin seems to be the best option out of the five by a landslide.
His pace and attacking qualities have shown in the data. Due to playing in the centre of midfield for the majority/all of their game time, their data is kind of inconsistent compared with the other players. With not all factors being possible to being taken into consideration, this is a reason why data within football scouting isn’t 100% viable.
With Barcelona having blown a fair chunk of their budget already this summer (£24m on Umtiti, £16m on Digne and at the beginning, a small fee on Denis Suarez) it is necessary that the Catalonians spend their remaining pennies wisely…that is if they are spent. In the past the board haven’t been keen to spend big in order to replace leaving starters. A recent example would be the departure of Carles Puyol, due to retirement. Rather than replace Puyol by spending big money on a centre-back such as Hummels or Sakho, or any other top-class centre-back available on the market at that time, Javier Mascherano was deployed as Pique’s new partner in central defence. Although this was a successful experiment, there would no doubt have been better options, though the price seemed to deter Barca.
With Aleix Vidal being bought for £17m last summer, Barcelona aren’t likely to give up on him so quickly. They will possibly look to give him a full season to prove himself before reluctantly spending big…a year too late. A second option also lies in possession of Barcelona. Sergi Roberto. A La Masia graduate, Roberto is blessed with the technical attributes and footballing intelligence you would expect of a student of the wonderful Barca academy, even at the raw age of 24. Making the transition to a full-back role last season from CM, Luis Enrique was perhaps preparing his student for a full-time role in the coming seasons.
In terms of a new signing, the best option out the aforementioned is in my opinion Elseid Hysaj. With experience in the right-back position in two strong competitions in Serie A and Europa League as well as the sort of balance which is rare to find in a modern full-back, Hysaj has serious potential to become one of the best right back’s in the world, if not already.
As touched upon earlier, a key component in the role of a Barcelona right-back is now their relationship with Lionel Messi on the wing and halfspace. Due to the relationship of these two zones being as close as possible, this will mean a lot of combination play in tight areas. Due to his quality and experience in these situations, Dani Alves thrived here, which was a big part in his increase in form following Messi’s move to the right. Hysaj again, is strong in this area. Napoli have been coached well by Maurizio Sarri in possession, they create strong structures around the ball which results in many quick combinations. Due to obvious training time, Napoli excel in these situations and are excellent at drawing the opponent into a press then escaping into a now free area. Hysaj, like many of his teammates, has grown wonderfully in this area. Due to him already very solid foundations at least, for some good wide combinations, this is just another reason why I believe Hysaj is the best option if Barcelona are to sign a new right-back.
Written by Ross Eaton
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