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.