Sergi Roberto is by now a name well-known not just to all Barcelona fans but also to the general footballing public. And while that is mostly down to his historic goal that ended up knocking out Paris Saint-Germain from the Champions League and completing the famous “Remontada” a couple of years back, he is also known for his versatility and service to the club.
When one thinks about Barcelona’s right-backs, they often think back to Dani Alves, the legendary Brazilian who was a part of the Catalan squad from 2008 until 2016, at which point he made a switch to the French capital.
Barcelona struggled to find a player to fill his boots properly but eventually Roberto was the one chosen for the role despite him originally and naturally being a midfielder first and then everything else second.
He never complained, he kept his head down and ground out what ended up being one of the toughest transitions in his career. A defender who doesn’t really excel at defending is never really the best of options, is he?
Nonetheless, this make-shift solution had to work and to an extent, it did. Barcelona clinched many titles with Roberto as their designated right-back, even after the arrival of Nelson Semedo, who was supposed to take over the Spaniard as their new big right-back but failed to successfully do so. Until now, that is.
If Valverde’s decision and the first couple of games Barcelona have played in the new 2019/20 La Liga season are any indication, Roberto will be returning to his preferred midfield role and will be leaving the right-back position to Semedo.
And despite some hesitation from the 27-year-old midfielder-cum-right-back, he’s embraced the role wholeheartedly, starting all of Barcelona’s pre-season games back in the middle of the pitch and doing the same in their first two clashes in La Liga.
The Catalans ended up losing their curtain-raiser for the first time in a decade but they followed it up with an impressive victory over Real Betis in front of their own fans at the Camp Nou. The results were mixed, sure, but Roberto was never in question.
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Both of his performances were up to the expected standard and despite not being properly used as a midfielder in the last couple of seasons, the Spaniard showed what he could do when given a proper chance.
He tallied two assists in those two games but there was much more to his game than just the final product. He was moving around the pitch, supporting his teammates in all phases of the game, positioning himself properly and making great use of his versatility and dynamism in movement to enhance his team’s chances. Three tackles, three interceptions, two dribbles and two shots highlights the variety he’s brought to the engine room this term.
Needless to say, Barcelona have lacked that kind of spirit and energy for quite a long time. Last season, the starters in their midfield were mostly over 30 years old. The only refreshment was Arthur Melo as the youngest part of the midfield trident.
Both Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić, however, lack the legs Roberto offers mostly due to their age and this was visible even when the 26-year-old was playing as the team’s right-back. But now, finally, that energy can be used elsewhere and more importantly, it can be used to even greater effect as he starts his runs from midfield rather than from Barcelona’s defence.
But is he actually equipped to be a Barcelona midfielder? We know that the Catalans hold the middle of the pitch in high regard and being a La Masia graduate by name is no longer enough to get you that first-team spot and guarantee playing time.
Luckily for Roberto, he is more than skilled enough for this important role. Last season, playing from the right-back position, Roberto still managed 90.5% passing accuracy and deployed one key pass on average in La Liga.
And while it is far too early to say how much he’ll muster this season since we’ve only seen him perform in two games in 2019/20, he already has 1.5 key passes on average in those two stints.
The early signs are definitely positive and if Roberto continues developing like this, this decision to finally move him back to midfield might prove to be a stroke of genius by Valverde and something that finally helps Barcelona cross that finish line.
When we combine that with the arrival of Frenkie de Jong and the promotion of Carles Alena to the first-team, Barcelona suddenly look as lively as ever in the middle of the park. When that’s the case at the Camp Nou, good things usually follow.