Hair, ambition and versatility. Sergi Roberto steps out

Sergi Roberto. It was always Sergi Roberto.

“Sergi Roberto was the best player of the first half,” said football announcer Andres Cordero during a broadcast of a BeIN Sports post-match show. And he was right, even as it feels a little weird that he was so right.

In the wake of a Messi display for the ages atop a glittering Barça beatdown of Betis, the thorn-turned-patsy, it took a sharp observer to notice that guy, No. 20, skittering around on the right side of the pitch, raising hell and laying in cross after cross to the tune of two assists. For the second match in a row, no joy came for an opponent on the right side, or nothing at all, really.

The complexity was that it was a different kind of RB display. We’re used to Sir Dani of the Bounding Main, whipping up and down the touchline like an ear-bobbed Energizer Bunny, flicking and fighting, passing and moving.

But Sergi Roberto is more like an accountant at a disco, leaving the flair to others and working in straight lines, reading angles and diagonals, reducing a magical game to a series of logical steps as he shuts down attacks, always plays the right pass and puts crosses on the ground, where his wee teammates can get at them. He also creates a quandary for culers, because Dani Alves.

Alves is a certified Club Legend. His interplay with Messi and indefatigable approach to the game made him an icon. And now, it’s like when you have had a longtime something — barber, hairdresser, butcher, mechanic — and by accident you have to use someone else. And they’re just as good, maybe even better in some ways, and you feel weird. It’s a lot like cheating, and you don’t know what to do with those feelings. You skulk around furtively, you tell yourself that the new person isn’t as good as the old person, but it’s the necessity of exigency, and you keep going. And it never stops feeling weird.

Sergi Roberto is a remarkable story. He came to the Barça academy at age 14, and got his first-team debut under Pep Guardiola who, like Luis Enrique, hailed his intelligence. The problem with Sergi Roberto was that he’s like luggage in many ways. Think about the last time you bought luggage. Probably never, right? The luggage that you have works fine, and even if you aren’t using it and aren’t completely satisfied with it, you don’t want to get rid of it because … well … it works fine.

Luis Enrique used Sergi Roberto pretty much everywhere except keeper last season, and in every instance he played really, really well. It’s hard to recall that there was a time when he was on the way out of the club, but chose to stay and fight for a place. He has now, seven times over. His ascendancy is a triumph of persistence and hard work, but many aren’t as quick to cite talent. Sergi Roberto displays his innate footballing intelligence in many ways but most notably, watch him move to deal with an opposing player. Like Busquets, he understands his physical limitations and works to overcome them. He starts running earlier, and positions his body in a way that makes him unavoidable. He doesn’t need to make a dazzling play or an interception. His defensive focus is on stopping the ball. Once the ball is stopped, his teammates can recover.

When he gets called for a foul, he doesn’t protest, gesticulate or scream to the high heavens at the injustice of it all. Rather he seems to be replaying the incident in his head, with an eye toward never doing it again. This current team is a savage beast of a side, in which a player has to be extraodrinary to make an impression much less grab a spot. Sergi Roberto didn’t just do it by being adequate. He did it by being really good, wherever he played. He’s done it so well that the Aleix Vidal transfer, which was supposed to yield a starting RB has instead yielded yet another dude who is impressed by how good Sergi Roberto is.

His low crosses were lauded on Twitter, and some scoffed, saying things such as, “Opponents will figure that tactic out,” etc. It’s like Sergi Roberto can’t be as good as he is, because Dani Alves. He can’t be the starting right back, because Dani Alves. People went into the season saying that the only question about the squad is at right back, because Dani Alves. But to have that worldview, it’s necessary to ignore Sergi Roberto playing RB last season and kicking ass. It’s necessary to ignore the fact that a coach who has a treble and double to his credit, who has built the best Barça team ever, prefers Sergi Roberto and had remade him into this elegant, versatile, inescapable player. Sergi Roberto didn’t happen by magic. Another coach would be hailed as a genius for what he has done to round such a player into shape, taking a midfielder and crafting a right back, for having the presence to understand that essentially, the only position that canNOT be played by a midfielder at Barça, is keeper.

Sergi Roberto is also a Masia success story that proves an essential point about the quality and versatility required to grab a spot on this team. He has learned football, rather than a position. He understands the game in a way that makes him work anywhere. This season, it’s RB but probably won’t be that same position for every match that he plays.

Is he the starting RB? Interesting question. When Aleix Vidal is fit and doesn’t start the first match of the season, when Sergi Roberto plays it in the wake of Vidal and that side of the pitch is suddenly locked down and productive, and the player doesn’t have to use his pace to solve problems because there really aren’t problems, the answer to that starting RB question becomes just a little bit easier to answer.

And what about Dani Alves? It’s okay to revere him for what he did and brought to Barça. But the team isn’t going to retire the RB position because he isn’t there playing it any longer. Like him, the position has moved on. As Messi has moved back, the capricious interplay between he and Alves, banter between geniuses that resulted in crazy latticeworks that drove defenders insane, was reduced. The Alves position morphed into something like a midfielder with defensive duties rather than a traditional RB. And that is where Sergi Roberto enters the frame. No need to find fault with him, because Alves, or compare him to his predecessor and find him wanting in the context of the departed incumbent. The Dani Alves of two seasons ago was essential, irreplaceable. The current edition? Not so much. That’s what time does to us.

Time doesn’t just diminish us, but life makes different demands upon the jobs that we do. If you’re a supporter of a team, and that change happens in a way that makes an academy player suddenly a starter who has blossomed into calm, effective life before your very eyes, not much to do except hoist a couple of drinks — one for the brothas who ain’t here, the other for the success of the system in the form of the new — potentially — incumbent. And you can do both. It’s okay.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

8 Comments

  1. Jason
    August 22, 2016

    Great article, Kxevin! Roberto has easily been one of my favorite players to watch throughout last season. His adaptability and willingness to be played out of position struck me as a man full of character and hard work. I’d bet to say he trusts his coach a heck of a lot.

  2. Davour
    August 22, 2016

    Very nice feature on SR – it is certainly true that it has taken – still is taking – time to adjust to the fact that this former passenger has taken the reins for real. If he plays like this, no one will miss Dani (football-wise…), and Vidal will be 2nd choice. No doubt. It is interesting that, to my mind, SR is at his weakest playing his old position as CM (still pretty good) – RB and DM suits him better, like he is quicker to read the play defensively an needs a little more time on the ball in attack. Perfect match.

    Recently a teammate, Busi or Alba I think, hailed his intelligence as his greatest quality, which is reflected in “When he gets called for a foul, he doesn’t protest, gesticulate or scream to the high heavens at the injustice of it all. Rather he seems to be replaying the incident in his head, with an eye toward never doing it again.” Reminds me of Messi when he has missed a play or shot. He has the look of someone trying to pinpoint what went wrong so he can recalibrate, precisely like this.

    He has talent, SR, plenty of it. But the fairy tale is still his persistence and patience, while being such a likeable fellow.

  3. Jim
    August 22, 2016

    A great display against an admittedly poor Betis who didn’t really press us as they might have, although to be fair when we play like this it takes a top team just to live with us.

    In particular there was evidence of the ball moving quickly again which is good to see and there really wasn’t anyone who didn’t play well.

    I’m gonna hold fire on SR until I see him tested defensively, although I love his honest effort, the fact he’s from our youth setup, the way he just gets on with the game, the fact he continuously looks across at Pique for line holding etc. I reckon he’ll be a quick learner but he still does have a good bit to learn. It’s stretching it a bit to credit him for Messi’s goal as he passed it backwards to a Messi who had nine opposition players in front of him (!) but I loved his ball to Suarez. That had to be played at just the right time in just the right way. For me, he looks up before passing the ball from wide and that puts him one up on Dani every day of the week. Like Kxevin says the low ball has to be our choice.

    For me, Messi was the top player, first half, second half and if he could put this much in every week the treble would be just about assured. He was unplayable. For me, if you’re not gonna go with Messi first half then I reckon Alba was my top man . He created four good chances in that half and was flawless defensively. It may be that competition does exercise the mind after all although to my mind he has nothing to prove . However, everyone deserves praise for that display. It will doubtless get much more difficult pretty quickly so let’s enjoy that start.

    It did, however, bring home to me how much we are kidding ourselves if we think MSN is gonna come off regularly, even with the game clearly won. You just know they’re not because Messi won’t , and that means the other two will feel slighted if they are hauled off. LE has to establish this early on, imo, and that means taking Messi aside soon and explaining that he wants to arrive at the business end with the energy he had in this match.

    • August 22, 2016

      Sergi Roberto was pressed defensively last season at RB when subbing for Alves. He did very, very well. Looks even smarter and stronger this year. He’s a player who will almost certainly never get the appreciation he deserves. He’s probably okay with that, as long as he keeps playing.

      I agree with Cordero on the first half. Sergi Roberto just killed it. More consistent than Messi, who certainly earned MOTM with his display. Alba played well, but I will withhold judgment until I see him at full fitness. Right now, I prefer Digne.

    • Davour
      August 23, 2016

      It will take masterful diplomacy to negotiate a change in MSN’s approach, no doubt. On the upside, LE has the example of last year to point to. Do you want to win? Well… On the other hand, we don’t have a trip to Japan this year. Who knows, perhaps Iniesta can act the neutral as a captain, as Xavi did last time around?

      • August 23, 2016

        Messi’s key and this is where his quality as a leader will be most tested.

        Messi hustles on pressing / defense and the team follows suit.
        Messi reports to training camp early from his holidays and the team follows suit.
        Messi accepts being subbed and rotated, Neymar and Suarez follow suit.

  4. ciaran
    August 23, 2016

    Sergi was phenomenal especially in the first half. He created loads of chances and had to fill the entire wing as Messi had moved very far in field.
    He had more touches than anyone else in the game which is saying something.

    My favourite thing about Sergi is that he has learned so much in La Masia that it seems like every micro decision that he makes on the pitch is Barcelona through and through. His movements, his touches, his passes; when to go forward and when to hold the line. It’s like every piece of advice that he’s ever gotten has stuck with him so no matter where he is asked to play he’ll do the right thing. He is such a different profile of a player in each and every position he plays.

    It’s easy to forget that he started last season’s first Clasico at right wing and we annihilated Madrid. His workrate is second to none and he regularly covers more ground than anyone on our team regardless of role.

    He’s the ultimate professional and the perfect role model for the entire youth team.
    I hope he continues his growth at the same level as he has done as he thoroughly deserves his starting position.

    • August 23, 2016

      Great comment, Ciaran. He was also dead quiet, just waited and took his chance when it came. More talented players have come and gone, it should also be noted.

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