The next Abidal, aka “Get me an eraser!”

Eric Abidal is in the news this week, having returned in an ambassador’s role to the club that unceremoniously, sleazily kicked him to the curb.

The memories came flooding back. In the midst of this crazy transfer season, and all the talk of club needs, and all the weeping and garment rending over Dani Alves at Juventus, and Verratti as the “next Xavi,” the thing nobody ever talks about is a player who was almost as crucial as Xavi during the beginning of Barça’s dominance period: Eric Abidal.

The French left back, after a first season that he himself described as not up to his standard, became massive for Barça, even as it’s still trendy in some circles to say that he wasn’t all that good because he didn’t attack “like a Barça fullback.” Hogwash, even as he later upgraded the attacking side of his game. Abidal made so much that those great Barça teams did possible. There is a wonderful video of him owning Levante, a match that Barça won 5-0.

The common reaction might be, “But it’s Levante,” but Abidal did that to every team, hanging out a “closed” sign on the left side of the pitch. He was a defensive LB on a team that attacked and defended with eleven, even as this wasn’t entirely true all the time. There is always talk of formations, but with sprites scurrying hither and yon, formation becomes little more than a notion. This Villarreal match video shows Abidal at his fullest. He was a legit monster.

That Levante video is a typical Abidal performance. He makes plays on the right, functions as a de facto CB and holds down the left. He reads play in a way that hasn’t been seen on that side of the pitch at Barça for a great while, even as Umtiti shows signs of that potential. Pique could be Piquenbauer because Abidal had his back. Compare this to now where Pique’s pace is often exposed on opponent breaks because Jordi Alba works in a fairly narrow corridor, and doesn’t have the lateral range necessary to allow flights of fancy.

Puyol could be a fireman and temporary DM as Busquets went headlong into attack because Abidal had his back, steaming over to quell danger. Valdes loved Abidal, Pinto loved Abidal because he was a proactive defender on a team of attackers, who stopped a great many attacks before they even troubled the keeper. His pace and true sideline-to-sideline range often had him operating as a right back as well, while Alves flitted away to wreak havoc in attack.

Abidal was also physical, won aerial challenges and was like ice on the ball — never distressed, always ready to play the correct pass to a waiting midfielder. He would intercept passes in midfield as the back line was pressed up, immediately feeding Xavi or Messi to make sure the attack continued.

In many ways, the roots of Hlebuary could be traced to the gazelle-like fullback’s almost-annual injury in that month, as the absence of the kind of player who made so much possible was felt. In the here and now, Barça have a left winger who defends in Jordi Alba, and a left back who isn’t all that great at attacking OR defending in Lucas Digne. The space that those who attack Barça seem to always be able to find to create passing angles and danger was mostly absent when Abidal wes present because of his physicality and willingness to remove playing space from an attacker. He was the perfect complementary player for Alves.

We’re talking a lot about Xavi types, but it would be fun if an “Abidal type” was included in the conversation. His game reached its fullest flower under Guardiola because of the way that team played. He became the ultimate enabler, whether for mids, attacking defenders or even forwards who wanted the ball more quickly. Without that profile, the result is that Neymar has to become almost as much defender as attacker, running up and down the left channel as Alves used to (and as Thierry Henry used to). It affects Neymar’s offense just as it affected Henry’s offense. At some point, the tean will need to find a solution to this dilemma, assuming they don’t want to keep running Neymar into the ground.

Three at the back with Umtiti on the left? Possible. How Valverde solves that problem will be interesting to watch. But at present, the flanks of Barça have become a place where opponents can always find playing space. This creates danger because the Barça CB profile isn’t that of a traditional CB. And then silly goals are conceded, or goals that wouldn’t have been conceded by, say, an Atleti or a Chelsea. The Barça Way comes with risk. Abidal eliminated a lot of that risk. If people really want Barça to go back to the future, so to speak, an eraser is needed as much as anything else.

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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.

17 Comments

  1. *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
    June 14, 2017

    //

    I just want to say this though.
    But before I do, let me say that I am a huge fan of Abidal and re iterate that he and Puyol gave the much needed balance that made that attack minded team successful and effective, lest I be misunderstood in what iam about to say.

    When you have a great TEAM with every player knowing his role and executing well, then every player looks like a world beater. Pedro looked like the best finisher in the world on THAT TEAM. Valdes looked like the world’s best keeper. But in reality the whole team was attacking and defending as one. So when Valdes had to make a one on one save, it stood out and appeared magnificent. In the fifpro XI there used to be some 8 Barca players. The point I’m trying to make is you could place my grandmother on THAT TEAM and even if she was half decent she would have looked like the world’s best grandmother. Hell, Cuenca looked like the best winger.

    This writer, more than anyone knows that we tend to look back at a winning time with fondness and rose tinted lenses. When the whole machine was working like a charm, then the individual parts appear world class. This is why Marcelo is looking so hot right now.

    A winning system comes now and then that allows a player to flourish and appear brilliant.

    • June 14, 2017

      “A winning system comes now and then that allows a player to flourish and appear brilliant.”

      Who else did that “winning system” prop up? Xavi? Pique? Valdes? Iniesta? Take your pick. If Abidal is a merely good player propped up by a winning system, where does it stop? Who else? We should assume that his identical performances for Les Bleus were also propped up by Domenech’s genius tactical system, yes? Or that Pedro, who is doing at Chelsea what he did for Barça when given time and space, just like at Barça, is benefitting from the genius of Conte’s system.

      Got it. I assume that you watched Barça at that time, and saw the differences in the overall play when Abidal was out of the lineup. Or not. Dunno. But those differences are clear, and not just to a know-nothing such as I. Tactical blogs such as Paradigma Guardiola, EUMD and others discussed Abidal and the difference he made to Barça and the way that the team played.

      You assert that “the writer,” i.e me, views a situation through rose-colored glasses? My ass. If you peruse my writings, you will find no bigger proponent of moving on, no more vociferous advocate of the belief that football has moved on from that time and Barça should as well.

      If you don’t think Abidal was that good of a player, that’s fine. But don’t put words into my mouth or thoughts into my head. If you want to make your own suppositions, make them. You can do that on your own, in your own way, without insinuating that I don’t know what I am talking about because I am blinded by love for a time gone by.

      Hogwash.

      • Ron
        June 15, 2017

        “You can do that on your own, in your own way, without insinuating that I don’t know what I am talking about ” I don’t know where you are getting that from.. The Original poster clearly was attacking the idea rather than the person,

        On a side note, since the departure of Abidal and Alves, our focal point has shifted from the right wing towards more of the left wing in terms of creativity and since we got something of a left sided Alves in the form of Alba maybe what we really need is a tall, fast and strong on the ball ,DEFENSIVE RB to replace what we lost with Abidal rather than just an Alves replacement. which would be easier said than done though!

        • *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
          June 15, 2017

          Thanks Ron for that.
          In fact I even said that the writer knows more than anybody else, implying that we the common folk know less than him.

          I dont know what trip he is on which makes him think that I insinuated that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

          Some insecurities surfacing I guess.. anyway nice article, nice discussions here, too bad it ll have to end here for me.

      • Mishti
        June 15, 2017

        Hi Kevin, hope I am not butting my nose where it is not quite wanted, but when I read

        “This writer, more than anyone knows that we tend to look back at a winning time with fondness and rose tinted lenses.”

        I thought he was actually giving you credit for pointing out our tendencies to look back at the past with rose tinted glasses? It didn’t seem like he was claiming you did the same. I could very well be wrong, just thought there might be a bit of miscommunication happening here.

    • CentreBackJockey
      June 14, 2017

      I remember considering Abidal not good enough during the 08/09 preseason. But as the season progressed he was clearly one of the most improved players in our squad. He certainly proved myself and many others wrong at that time.

      There were plenty of players during our sextuple season that didn’t “look” good either.

  2. *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
    June 14, 2017

    //

    As for what the title of this article is calling for, I think we already have that eraser in our team right now as Abidals compatriot. He along with Dani and Ter stegen might well be Barca’s shrewdest transfers over the past decade.

  3. *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
    June 15, 2017

    Wow, wow, wow!!
    Just wow!

    What does one have to do to not get shouted down? how careful does one have to be? I start my comment with a DISCLAIMER acknowledging and even praising Abidals role in the team adding balance and effectiveness, but Mr. “he-who-owns-the-house” is definitely guilty here of what he accuses most people of. Which is to ignore everything else and use one line to scold people.

    you ignore everything i say, then latch on to one line and then proceed to base that to direct all the rage towards a commenter who only wanted to ask some questions in how we view and evaluate a player.

    I said “this writer KNOWS that we tend to…”. But the man sees the word “the writer” then proceeds to assume that I insinuate and put words in his mouth and thoughts in his head. Well, isn’t that what we wanted this space to be? To be thought provoking? where there can be healthy debate? I only wanted to ask a question. How can anyone voice a thought here if you are filled with the fear that you’ll be rained down with words that simply put you off from voicing any idea, even if it may be a little unconventional?

    unbelievable.
    I am definitely going to refrain from commenting here. I can here you think, “perfect, no one cares, F*** off, my house, my rules”.
    I really wish you all peace of mind my friend.
    Adieu.

  4. June 15, 2017

    Great post. Abidal was a hugely underrated player in my view and like Alves, impossible to replace.

    P.S Anyone heard of this Italian kid Bernardeschi that we are being linked with?

    • Mishti
      June 15, 2017

      We are being linked with Bernardeschi? Hmmm,, didn’t know that. I thought he was Juve bound. The kid is great. One of my favorite young Italian players. Skillful, creative, dynamic right winger.

  5. untoxgsd
    June 15, 2017

    Bad news out of Italy, Donarumma didnt renew for Milan and it seems he’s strongly linked with Real. I dont like it one bit!!

  6. Mishti
    June 15, 2017

    I am not sure Donnarumma’s move to Real Madrid, if that’s were he is headed eventually, has much relevance for us. They were going to get de Gea otherwise. Or some other young hot shot goalkeeper. He is a goalkeeper more in the classic Italian mould, Barca seems to look for ‘ball playing’ goalkeepers, so those are different profiles.

    In any case, I just got reminded of how unusual a guy Buffon is. In 2006, freshly minted WC winner, at the peak of his career, widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world, and his team gets relegated to the second division, and the future wasn’t looking very bright. He could have moved to pretty much anywhere he wanted, and by now could have probably had one of those UCL winner’s medals. He didn’t. When asked why, he said “I was taught that’s not what you do”. What a strange thing to say in today’s world.

    • Ron
      June 16, 2017

      That’s an interesting thought Mishti!

      I’d wonder if Ronaldo would be willing to do the same and risk one or two of his precious ballon d’ors in order to help Madrid do the same, something i have no doubt Messi would do in a heartbeat! For me thats one of the many things that seperate Messi from CR7.

      Buffon seems like a gem of a guy and, in my mind, has his place among the legendary goalkeepers of all time along side Yashin and his ilk.. It would seem to be so tragic if he goes out without a CL winners medal though I don’t believe that will have any impact on his legendary status even if he doesn’t win it.

      Interestingly. a spanish publication claiming to have the inside scoop on Valverde’s transfer choices saying he wants Dembele as a first choice with Douglas Costa, Maharez and Deulefeu as backup choices should we not get Dembele.

      I haven’t followed Dortmund much apart from their CL run but doesn’t seem that he is worth the money that they are asking for him..

      Hope this is all a smokescreen and the board already have their transfer choices in place and we don’t get slaughtered in this transfer market where Veratti is valued at Suarez+change…

      • Mishti
        June 16, 2017

        I’ll admit I am more on the cautious side when it comes to Dembele. The kid is very talented, and looks to have a high ceiling, On the other hand, his traits are more of a pure winger than an all-round goal scoring wide attacker (like Messi or Neymar, both of whom usually play as inverted wingers, but could play as traditional wingers, or central strikers/playmakers). I also have some questions about his technique and final product, both seem a bit uneven to me.

        So, as a young prospect at a reasonable price, he’d be a good acquisition, if we are looking for a pure right winger. I haven’t seen enough for a 90-100 million price tag if you ask me. Veratti on the other hand, yes, there is no doubting how good that guy is. But PSG ain’t selling him.

        • Yaredinho
          June 17, 2017

          You said it here…”…more of a pure winger than an all-round goal scoring wide attacker (like Messi or Neymar, both of whom usually play as inverted wingers, but could play as traditional wingers, or central strikers/playmakers)…” YES he is more of a winger comparing to Messi and Ney. However, he is much more than pure winger, very good dribbler with tight space, great passing skills with room to improve, demonstrated he can easily integrate with different team mates both for club and country. While I agree his finishing is an issue, and some of his techniques need to be refined, play making skill is not an issue right now(and I believe he is good at it again if Messi and Ney aren’t in the equation).

          The biggest advantage of having Dembele is, if we are going to use 3-4-3 more frequently, we need Dembele type player (who can provide width, a little bit play making, and energy in the flank) than Messi for the right side. And if we can’t come back to the control level we had with PPP, I strongly believe 3-4-3 (according to some it can be Valverde’s 4-2-3-1) has to be preferred more.

          As a result, I think if we couldn’t secure Veratti (I don’t like the report which links Conte to PSG) reasonably in the near future, we better spend our resources on Dembele and Semedo for back 3 and 4 depending on how the season plays and working on our MDs and some form of tactical adjustments rather than signing an unknown. This would entirely improve and empower our right side. And have CD who can play to the right of Pique. Yerry Mina can join Masche and Marlon, I would like the club to work on De Ligt tho. I’ll say this; If the plan is Ney to replace Messi in a way, Dembele can replace Ney.

  7. Dar_vincy
    June 17, 2017

    The article resonates accurately with my thoughts on the need to have reliably conservative players in our squad. One of the reasons we concede cheap goals is the absence of almost everyone in the backline when opponents launch an attack on us. From the defensive ranks, everyone there loves to attack. The ones that seem to be defensively conscious in the midfield and attack is Busquets and Rakitic. The kind of obsession with purchasing purely offensive-minded players is one that I’d consider a self-destructive one. When Abidal left, rather than get a similar kind of player to ensure balance, they got an attacking one. And so far, our defence has never been the same. Now, there is talk of Bellerin (another offensive-minded player). One would expect they would have learnt their lessons and go for a conservative fullback to compliment Alba. But that doesn’t look likely. A player like Azpilicueta would be suitable for us, almost similar to Abidal in style. Don’t know much about Semedo to give an opinion.

  8. georgjorge
    June 20, 2017

    Just a bit off-topic, I stumbled upon the video linked at the bottom of Top 50 Messi Assists That Weren’t during the 2016/17 season. Amazing really, these things add up over the season in an attack-minded team of course but many of those are incredible passes serving the ball on a silver plate.

    Makes one wonder what would have been if only…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRFiOWgiVx4

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