Barcelona enjoyed a fruitful summer this year, foraying into the transfer market to sign a number of talented young players to supplement the core of the first XI and provide competition. These signings included Samuel Umtiti, Andre Gomez and Paco Alcacer, all 22-23 years-olds with a huge upside, reflected in their transfer fees. One position Barcelona were expected to strengthen in was at right-back. The departure of Dani Alves – a huge part of Barcelona’s right-flank for the past decade – to Juventus left a hole that couldn’t be replaced immediately. And definitely not from within the club – at least that’s what Cules thought.
Instead, the club secured the signature another 22-year-old in the form of Lucas Digne from PSG. A full-back, yes, but a left-back. Solid competition for Jordi Alba, but not the new starting right-back everyone wanted. With the departures of Martin Montoya, Adriano and Douglas, this seemed all the more required. But Enrique decided to keep his purse closed in this instance and keep faith with the two options he had at the club. More specifically, Sergi Roberto.
Many La Masia graduates tend to leave by the age of 22 or 23 these days (unless you’re Jordi Masip or Lionel Messi) as the club look elsewhere to purchase the crème of the crop. That’s no surprise; competition with rivals Real and Atletico Madrid have intensified in recent years and La Masia, for all its success, is not a machine. Pique, Denis Suarez, Alba and Vidal were all part of the youth system, before leaving and returning home a few years later. How has Sergi Roberto survived the cut then? The Catalan only broke through last year, which means he was on the periphery from a long time. Barcelona’s transfer ban in 2014 and 2015 may have helped his cause, but with little to no game time, it is a surprise the club kept him on. It’s even more of a surprise he stayed on. After all, training with Messi and Iniesta can only improve a footballer so much.
Pep Guardiola, 2011: “Sergi Roberto is a player to follow in the coming years. When he explodes, you will be really surprised by him.”
That is high praise indeed, from one of the best coaches in the world. Guardiola handed Roberto his debut in 2011, but game time was rare under Guardiola, Vilanova and Martino. The Argentine for one was an admirer of Roberto and could see his potential when most Cules couldn’t. And the appointment of Enrique was the real catalyst for Roberto at Barcelona. The Asturian saw Roberto as the player that could plug in gaps anywhere on the pitch. That’s how he was used – at left-back, at right-back, midfield, right-wing, even as a striker. He was a manager’s dream, the back-up for Alba, Alves, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi – not the perfect replacement, but a competent one, and a much better one than Adriano or Douglas, for instance. This season, he’s the starting right-back, the clear starter ahead of the out-of-favour Vidal, filling in the shoes of the great Dani Alves with aplomb. The jack of all trades has become a master of one.
Bellerin to Barcelona?
The club’s vice president, Jordi Mestre, brought up the possibility of bringing back Arsenal’s rapid right-back Hector Bellerin to the club à la Fabregas. It is something that makes sense on a lot of levels but one: Sergi Roberto. Sure, Bellerin has blaugrana blood in his heart but so does Roberto. Barcelona would naturally want to bring back one of their own to add to the La Masia flavour of the team that has gone stale in recent times, but would the money be worth it? The Arsenal man would cost upwards of €35million, arguably more considering the current state of the market; the Londoners would not back down over a player who they have developed. Bellerin’s English is testament to that. Would he decline a move back home though? Unlikely.
A right-flank of Bellerin and Messi would be excellent to watch; Bellerin is closer to the energetic Alves than Roberto. But at least in Spain, Barcelona have the ball for the majority of the game. Bellerin can sprint to make a goalline clearance or to cross the ball, but his style may be more suited for a counter-attacking side, or at least an end-to-end type of game. La Liga isn’t that. What Roberto lacks in pace he gains in his intelligence, positional awareness and his passing ability. He’s being raised in the Barca Way of playing football unlike Bellerin. And he’s still improving. Bellerin is three years younger, but people forget Roberto is only 24.
All homecomings aren’t successful. For every Pique there is a Fabregas. Cesc and Bellerin have similarities in their career paths, and like Cesc, Bellerin is being given the feelers from Catalonia. The pressure and hype was too much for Fabregas to deal with though, and while solid, he wasn’t the overwhelming success he was expected to be. Similarly, Bellerin would do well to think twice about moving to Camp Nou. It could be a poisoned chalice.
It is important to have competition in every position, something Aleix Vidal has not provided. Bellerin and Roberto competing for the starting spot would recreate the Bravo / Ter Stegen situation. It would be more logical for Barcelona to move on Vidal and bring in another right-back who will be cheaper and provide competition – someone like Elseid Hysaj of Napoli (though he signed a new contract recently).
Luis Enrique, 2016: “I’ve seen a lot of games and I don’t see any better on the right side than Sergi Roberto – at least for Barcelona.”
Roberto’s exploits at El Molinon has done his situation a huge world of good. He was solid defensively and was crucial in attack. He bagged two assists and got Sporting’s captain Alberto Lora sent off through his nimbleness. He has four assists in the La Liga this season, more than anyone else, and is growing to enjoy his position. Once a midfielder, now a right-back reconverted by Enrique. His understanding of Barcelona has helped him immensely. So has his attitude, which cannot be said about Vidal. Complaining about his game time (or lack of) is a big no-no and has not gone down well with Enrique. Vidal’s Barca career started off being unable to play till January and therein saw the emergence of Roberto. His time at Barcelona looks to be drawing to a close, but he’ll do well to learn a thing or two from his younger rival. He’s played everywhere for the manager, he’s battled against many rivals to make it this far. Every team could do with a selfless player or two, and Barcelona are lucky to have Roberto. Once a fringe player, now a crucial team player.
According to Transfermarkt, the third most valuable right-back in the world is none other than Roberto, whose market value currently stands at €21million. The number 1 is his Spanish competitor, Dani Carvajal. Where does Bellerin rank? Just behind Roberto. Statistics and values don’t reveal too much, but for a converted midfielder to be ranked ahead of most right-backs in the world, that is indicative enough.
If Barcelona move in for Hector Bellerin next summer, all won’t be lost for Roberto. He could expect a call from a certain Catalan manager in England; if so, don’t be surprised if he picks the call up and continues his meteoric progress in the Premier League. If not, don’t be surprised if he continues his meteoric progress in La Liga. A star born out of stardust, Sergi Roberto’s story is set to become more intriguing than ever. Hopefully he has won Cules over permanently.