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.