Dani Alves might not have the pace he had when he first signed for the club in 2008 at 25 years of age, but he still remains a vital player for FC Barcelona. He has been criticized a lot this season, in part unfairly so, and blaming the defensive issues on him is unreasonable. Despite all the critics, I see Alves as one of the best Barça players this season. His ineffectiveness in attack at times or the space left open on his wing isn’t always his fault, yet in some people’s eyes, the blame is placed solely on him.
Let’s start by examining Alves’s offensive displays. This season he has provided six assists in La Liga and has yet to score a goal. Statistically, it’s far from his best season. In 2010-11 for example, he had 15 assists in La Liga and scored a total of four goals in all competitions. Looking at these statistics, one could say that Alves’s offensive contribution has decreased, and many have put this down to his lack of physical response.
Despite a few unlucky injuries, I would disagree that Alves’s physical response is somehow weaker than it used to be. He is still among the players who run the most on the pitch and when speaking of sheer speed, his ability is not noticeably weaker either. The truth is that he makes less forward runs though, but this is hardly his fault.
A lot of Barcelona’s struggles this season have something to do with the ineffective wing play; Alves’s trouble is partly caused by this too. Our wingers haven’t been active enough with their runs that drag the opponent’s defenders, which in an ideal situation would open the space for Alves’s overlapping. Alves rarely gets to use his biggest asset – speed – anymore. What’s also worth noticing is that for some reason, Barcelona has been far less eager to use the defense splitting passes after the very beginning of the season. Too often the runs forward go unnoticed, which leaves Alves in a rather static position. He still plays high up the pitch, but his runs are used a lot less than before, and due to the ineffective wing play, it’s sometimes hard for him to even make those runs.
Defensively speaking, Alves’s side has often been exposed and the same people who mock him for his offensive displays blame him for the defensive issues too. This to me is a bit absurd; if Alves is less effective in offense and makes less runs, how come his side is more exposed than before? Again, it can’t be fully blamed on Alves.
It’s fair to admit that Alves sometimes leaves his side of the pitch open and positions himself in a way that can leave Barça’s backline exposed. However, the individual mistakes alone don’t account for the more widespread issues.
The first thing that has left Alves exposed is the introduction of another offensive fullback, Jordi Alba. When Alba goes forward – which he often does – the system created to cover for Alves’s runs shatters. What is that system then? The system was built around Éric Abidal and Sergio Busquets. When Alves would push forward, Busquets would drop between the center backs to again form a defense line of four. With Abidal staying back, this worked beautifully. Now, with Jordi Alba often playing higher up the pitch, the system doesn’t work anymore and one of our wings is always open.
Another thing that has left Alves exposed and shattered this system even more is the lack of pressing by our forwards and midfielders. This has had many effects. Firstly, it forces Sergio Busquets to take more defensive responsibility in the midfield, which prevents him from dropping between the center backs to form the defense line of four. The lack of pressing also allows the opponent to get past our midfield quickly and thereby, Alves doesn’t have the time to run back in defense like he used to have. In fact, the same was seen under Pep Guardiola as well, when we started to lose the effective pressing game. With all these factors put together, it’s brutally unfair to say that Alves has suddenly forgotten how to defend.
If Barcelona is to continue playing with two offensive wingbacks, Alves and Alba, it’s obvious that something needs to change. To me, the question is between using only one offensive fullback or adding another defensive midfielder. With two offensive fullbacks and only one holding midfielder, especially now with the pressing game long gone, we’re simply outnumbered. The problem will probably balance out in a few years of time when Alves is bound to leave and a more defensive option, someone like Montoya perhaps, will take over the right flank. Until then, we’re going to have to adapt to the new situation as it seems unlikely that Éric Abidal will play a lot in the left back position anymore.
Alves himself has often had to cover up for others’ mistakes and the burden on him has also been heavier than before, due to the factors mentioned above. As easy as it might be to place the blame on an individual player, it’s also important to view the bigger picture and realize that Alves is not necessarily a worse player than he was in 2010, and that he hasn’t necessarily changed his style of play. Rather, Barcelona has moved in a direction that doesn’t support his strengths enough, and Alves has been made the scapegoat for the issues that are actually a lot larger when looked at closely.
Editor’s note: This post was guest written by Jen Evelyn. You can follow her on twitter @JenFCB.
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