Let’s get one thing clear from the get-go: Ousmane Dembele is one of the most talented players in world football, and this writer’s first-choice signing to replace Neymar when the Brazilian announced his departure. The young Frenchman playing alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez is a tantalizing prospect, one which, when Dembele adapts to his new teammates, will bear great fruit for Ernesto Valverde.
The fact is, though, that against Juventus FC there was another player, also signed this summer, who impressed in a position where Barca have had a lot of trouble over the past couple of seasons. Nelson Semedo was bought and presented at Barcelona without too much fanfare and early rumours surrounding the Portuguese full-back stated that he was ‘worse than Douglas’. It’s safe to say that the Juve game put such rumours firmly into the metaphorical trash can, where they belong, as Semedo was a key component in a comprehensive performance by Valverde’s men. To put into context just how impressive Semedo has been, and how much Barca have needed a player like him, there’s a need to understand exactly why the right-back role has been such a problem for the club. A big part of that problem, ironically, was Dani Alves, and just how good he was at doing exactly what was needed of him at the right time.
Pep Guardiola made Alves the most expensive defensive player at the time when he arrived from Sevilla, primarily due to Alves’ ability to make the right-flank completely his own. Only Guardiola knows whether he always envisioned Messi in that false 9 role, but with Messi eventually moving into the role he’s rediscovered recently under Valverde, Alves had a huge task on his hand. The entire right-wing was his to do with as he pleased, but this also meant that if things weren’t working out, either offensively or defensively, on the right, the blame fell on him entirely.
He had to juggle 3 main jobs:
- Providing width on the right to stretch opposition defences while putting in the occasional dangerous cross.
- Forming triangles with Messi, Xavi and Busquets in midfield and playing quick one-twos to disrupt the opposition and set Leo on his way.
- Track back whenever the opposition countered and stop them from threatening the Barca goal
These were just his ‘primary’ responsibilities, gargantuan as they already were, as Dani Alves also found some spare time to score goals, produce wonderful through balls and make goal-saving tackles throughout his time at Barca, both under Pep and Luis Enrique.
Speaking of the Asturian coach, Alves, in all his glory, was able to adapt from Pep’s strict passing and possession system to Lucho’s more vertical game effortlessly. Under Luis Enrique, Xavi was reduced to a role from the bench, Messi returned to his position on the right and Ivan Rakitic took Xavi’s place, trying to implement Lucho’s more vertical ideas. None of this fazed the Brazilian right-back though, as although he wasn’t required to dominate the right to the same extent in an attacking sense, a lot more combination play and tracking back was required from him to both give Messi a little bit of freedom and allow Rakitic to integrate into the system effectively. The rest is history, as Lucho’s team managed a treble that season, a big chunk of credit for which goes to the Messi-Alves-Rakitic trio.
Nelson Semedo hasn’t had an extended period of time to prove himself and we, as a fanbase, need to be cautious and try not to jump to too many conclusions this early in the season. The game against Juventus FC, which was important for so many reasons, was an excellent stage for Semedo to show the Blaugrana what they’ve been missing since Dani Alves moved to Juventus.
He’s shown in league games that him and Gerard Deulofeu are starting to form a good understanding and will cause problems for defenders, but in the Champions League, on Dembele’s first start, it was clear that a very dangerous partnership could be on the cards once both players are more settled into their respective roles. Semedo also happened to be tasked with keeping Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa quiet. Just how well he fared there was typified by an instance in the first half, where Dybala, racing through on goal, was forced to send a weak shot straight into the arms of Ter Stegen as Nelson was steaming in behind him, breathing down his neck and applying the necessary pressure. As much as I love Sergi Roberto, he wouldn’t have had the pace to do that and Juve may have had a goal had Barca not had the Portuguese to count on. The thing which most excited this writer, however, was just how skillful the new right-back really is. One turn, where he left two players for dead and nearly burst into the box, exemplified that he has it in his locker to be a real attacking outlet for Barca, and will only gain confidence to be just that with time. Against Juve he was more focused on his defensive responsibilities due to Alba’s marauding runs down the left, but as he gets more comfortable alongside his new teammates the two will learn to share the attacking responsibilities, and Semedo looks like he may even have the edge over Alba in that field.
Ever since Dani Alves left, Barca have had a struggle replacing him, even if Mr. Remontada has filled in admirably for the Brazilian. In Semedo, Barca have someone who has the potential to be just as valuable as their greatest ever right-back. He will make mistakes and needs time to integrate fully into the team, but his progress so far is Umtiti-esque, which is the biggest compliment I can give him 4 games into the season. Yes, Ousmane Dembele has the potential to be a world-beater, but against Juve he was firmly the second-best new signing on the pitch. Here’s to hoping from more of the same from Nelson Semedo.