How can Aleix Vidal help Barcelona midway through the season?
It should be of no surprise to anyone that Aleix Vidal’s and Luis Enrique’s roads have crossed. Aleix is defined by his vertical and offensive momentum, and he stands out with a versatility that fits perfectly with his new coach. He can work in different ways in different positions, he’s adaptable and willing to do what needs to be done. Emery received in Sevilla a winger with pace, good reading of spaces and a gift for going into the field’s bottom line. That player was turned into a man who could play in the sides with more participation in the wings as Unai requires and then, he was turned into a right-back, to the point that he was considered as the right substitute of the best Barca player on his position. Aleix’s polyvalence allows us to see him as a footballer able to accomplish the various roles that Luis Enrique might have in store for him. Starting as a right-back, and, after Dani Alves’s renewal, able to be in many places on the field (up to three different positions) and performing in any that the coach may require from him, Aleix Vidal will have to work in for the culés in ways that he may have not worked before.
Before Alves’s situation in Barcelona took an unexpected turn, it seemed like Vidal’s signing was done to cover for the Brazilian’s departure. That’s how it looked during his presentation and with it, the first doubts appeared. Even though it was said that the months of inactivity would help him to learn and polish his right-back playing style, truth be told, even though he did it with success, he just played some matches at Sevilla in that position. Besides, he did in a position different to the one that he’s expected to play in his new team. This is quite logical, given the fact that the right-back position at Barca has not just been a normal role but one of the most important at the team, for the role that Luis Enrique gave to Dani Alves wasn’t a classic right-back role. The Brazilian was a key player and a cornerstone in Barca’s success playing from a similar position to a full-back with Leo Messi, that let Rakitic free and allowed the “pseudo-right back” to generate spaces next to Sergio Busquets’ right side with and without the ball. His implication and creativity was more similar to a midfielder than to a defender, and a perfect linking with Messi (his best partner alongside Neymar) made him the best partner of the Argentinian for the pass. Without the ball, he was almost a second defensive midfielder, helping to push when it was needed, and fighting for every ball, becoming a buzzkill for the rival counterattacks while watching his own back for possible threats.
Compared to this, Aleix Vidal’s tasks at Sevilla were very different. The andalusians have the need for the forwards to come closer to the wings (as Barça does), but the difference resides in the fact that, while Barca did not play like this in most of the season, Sevilla’s RBs were responsible for playing in the empty flanks. That’s when Unai used Aleix Vidal as the right man to play as a fullback, to hold the position in the flanks while Reyes, Deulofeu or Denis Suárez moved to more central positions. His powerful physical condition allows him to move from here to there through the field, and lets him hold the tempo while running without wasting any time, playing the RB position as Lucho meant Alves to play before Barça readjusted their playing style with Messi starting from the right position. But Emery could play like that with success. For example, when Sevilla plays Banega as a creative midfielder with constant participation, two defensive midfielders (with more talent for defending than creating) are required, one of them covering Vidal’s back. It was usually M’Bia and sometimes Vicente Iborra, as Christian Poulsen and Dani Alves at Juande Ramos’ Sevilla used to play.
And while Aleix’s presence in attack was important for his team when it was needed, it was necessary to compensate that in defense. He’s not very used to that position, and his abilities there are not something noticeable at first sight. It’s because of his attacking predisposition that it’s not hard to play on his back, and even though he works hard to regain the lost space, he’s somewhat messy when defending in his own field, that’s why he relied in some help at Sevilla, and we’re still to see if he will have that help at Barcelona as well. When it comes to defending, while we hope that he can improve in mastering a defender’s basic skills (he’s not a very reliable defender of the far post when playing inside the box), his strong point is defending upwards the field. He gives his best, he’s intense and he possesses the intuition to gain the lost balls before his rivals do.
We must insist that the right back that Aleix has been is quite different to the one that Barcelona has been using during the second half of the last season. While playing upward, when the former Sevilla player had a very advanced and beam-ended position, he left space for a midfielder, a centre back and created an option for a pass to the wing. With that in mind, the blaugranas should rethink and reformulate some of the mechanisms that they used last season, and they may have to reform some of their player’s roles. From Rakitic, to whom Alves relies for taking part on many of the tasks required from a fullback, to Piqué, who tends to avoid all those plays on the sides while trying to protect the box and who may have to spend more time there to cover his back, to Messi, who counts on Alves to do one-two plays and run free with the ball. Aleix has a very good technique and a very good first pass, but his one-two plays are very different to Alves’ ones. Given his very vertical play style, Vidal is more of a “pass and run” in order to receive a second pass, the combinations with other players are for him nothing but a way to advance with the ball. It seems that with Messi, he’ll need to adapt to a new playing style.
But this is not impossible. This article started pointing out the fact that Aleix is very versatile, something that Unai made use of last season. That happened most of the times he played in the front, because that was the common playstyle of the hispalenses, when Aleix was needed in the centerfield and looking for the ball. It’s not his best version, for his strong suit consists in the free spaces and the sides, but he also has other capabilities.
It seems, though, that with Dani Alves in the squad, Aleix’s addition will help to increase the squad’s depth (in the right back and right wing positions) and give the coach more options to play. He can play as a man in the wings, changing the pace, giving the surprise in the free spaces, and helping to defend in the bottom line as long as it may be needed throughout the whole match. With this in mind, we can say that he helps to create new dynamics on the field, and we can therefore conclude that he can help to elaborate an attacking play with a diagonal pass from the left side to his position, or an alley-oop that, coming from Messi, Neymar or Alba that takes advantage of his ability in free spaces. Taking this possibilities into account, it must be said that, as right back in Sevilla he kept his position in his side even when the ball was on the other flank, and he knows when to appear out of nowhere in direction to the second post, even helping with the counterattack (which he plays perfectly and without the ball).
He can go fast with the ball at his feet, he can win meters in the field with one-twos as described before, and he can go past defenders in a way that is more related to the change of pace and the slalom than with dribbling. He is a very deep forward, and while he can play as a fullback, he tends to keep his eyes fixed on the opponent’s box. He keeps attacking constantly and tends to win the possession in the rival’s last meters, throwing a ball to their penalty box or to their box. It’s his trademark play when he starts going to the center, and given the fact that he knows how to play with his head up, he knows to stay calm in the last meters, and just needs a few seconds to read his teammates positions, he tends to cross very well. When he starts going to the center, which happened a lot in Sevilla to let the flanks to the players oriented to the bands, Aleix knows how to appear in the center midfield and even in the area. He even played in the left side while playing for Almería, where given his natural play style, he used to do more diagonal plays while looking for the rival’s goal.
In any case and at any position, Aleix is a new color for Luis Enrique’s palette, a resource to change matches, whether coming from the player own skills or to changing the match with the differences between him and his other teammates. Messi, Neymar, Suárez, Pedro, Munir, Sandro or any of the alternatives that the coach can count with are players that come from the outside looking from the heart of the rival’s area, but Aleix is the only one that can develop a play sticking to his wing in a natural way, helping to change Barca’s physiognomy, and therefore the type of defense required to stop him. From the usual 4-3-3 to the occasional 4-2-3-1 that team used sometimes with Pedro playing as a full-back, Aleix will help to add a new profile that Barca’s attack did not have before.
Barça needs a replacement when Suárez was not available. Aleix’s chances to be that replacement were somehow remote, but considering how Sandro and Munir have played it’s an open possibility. It’s undeniable that there’s a need for it, and besides the youngsters, Barça does not have a replacement to fill that gap in the attack. Aleix has a good rhythm, he’s a hard worker, he knows how to fill the gaps, he’s good with second plays, knows how to stay calm with the ball in the last meters of the field and can help with his diagonal plays. All of this can play in his favor. Against him, anyways, are his lack of experience in this position, he doesn’t know how to play with his back turned against the goal with success and there’s doubts about how good he can play struggling against the rival centre backs in the area. It’s a very controverted yet interesting idea.
In the end, we must shortly analyze the possibilities of Aleix playing in the midfield, or at least Dani Alves playing in there with Aleix’s arrival. If we are to talk about the first point, we already mentioned in this article the fact that in the system of the Barça that won the treble, Alves and Messi helped with the functions of a fullback while Rakitic was taking care of other tasks. These tasks were, in some points of the season, to help to compensate the spaces in the flanks or helping to attack while coming from the second line, and this is something that Aleix knows how to do. He’s not a classic midfielder, but when Messi at your side, everything is possible. In regards to the second point, the presence of a full-back as Aleix helps to elaborate on the idea of the reconfiguration of the roles of the players of the right side according to the situation, with Aleix taking the space that Messi leaves free and Alves banishing the false fullback that he used to be in order to become a proper midfielder. This may not happen in the end, but these are nothing but two options of the many that Aleix Vidal provides to the Barca squad with his arrival.
Translator: Marcos González