At the start of the 2015-’16 La Liga season Barcelona suffered a huge setback as their first choice right-back Dani Alves suffered an early injury in the league opener against Athletic Bilbao and had to come off with barely 20 minutes on the clock.
There weren’t many options for Luis Enrique to call upon as the FIFA-imposed two-transfer window registration ban meant that the Catalans couldn’t field their summer signing Aleix Vidal before January of the following year.
Douglas, for all intents and purposes, was deadwood at the club. Bereft of options against the
Basque outfit that had defeated Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate in the two-legged Spanish Super Cup barely a week ago, Enrique brought on Sergi Roberto to replace the injured Brazilian.
Roberto hadn’t played as a right-back at the highest level and as such there wasn’t much expected of him in the role but he put in a decent shift as the Catalans claimed the three points with a 1-0 win.
Alves was to miss two more games, meaning Barcelona had to rely on Roberto for the two fixtures. The youngster rose to the challenge and held his own against the defensively solid Malaga at home and the formidable title contenders Atletico Madrid away at the Vicente Calderon to help the club secure two precious wins early in the league campaign.
As soon as Alves walked back to fitness and into the first team, Roberto was back on the bench. But Roberto’s performances had certainly given Enrique another option on the right side of the defence – a position that his team were really short of depth at, at least until Vidal became eligible to play.
Roberto went on to make regular first team appearances at right-back as well as in his preferred central midfield position through the course of the season and ultimately made 49 appearances in all competitions, contributing a goal and seven assists to the team’s cause. His adaptability saw him play in defensive midfield, central midfield, as a left-back and also as a right winger in the first Clasico of the season that finished 4-0 for his side and in which he assisted the first goal with a beautiful move.
The numbers at the end of the season were scarcely believable for the youngster who was
expected to leave the Camp Nou in the summer of 2015 either on loan or permanently. But he was persisted with not least because of the transfer ban that had forced Barcelona’s hands in the transfer market.
Roberto was born about a 100 kilometres away from Camp Nou in Reus and joined the famed La Masia academy in 2006. He went on to make his first team debut under Pep Guardiola in 2010 but chances in the first team were few and far in between for the young Catalan. He was never seen as an outstanding talent when compared some of his peers like the brothers Thiago and Rafinha Alcantara, Jonathan dos Santos or even his junior, Sergi Samper.
But what he had in spades was a workmanlike attitude and an understanding of his limitations which meant that he would be more open to play any position his managers demanded.
The 24-year old lacks the defensive nous of Sergio Busquets and therefore isn’t an ideal replacement for the unique role that the 28-year- old plays at the club. He doesn’t have the metronomic passing of Xavi Hernandez that would dictate the tempo of a game or the attacking range and movement of Andres Iniesta that would change the complexion of a game with a moment of genius. But he has some aspects of all those qualities and was seen as a centre-of-the-road midfielder who would be an option off the bench when the regulars needed a break.
However, even as a backup he wasn’t shown much faith in by his managers as they preferred the likes of Alex Song and Dos Santos over him. As players kept moving away from the Camp Nou: Cesc Fabregas in search of a system that suited his game; Thiago to get more playing time; Dos Santos not deemed good enough for the first team; and Song, surplus to the requirements; Roberto remained unmoved and eager to impress at every chance he got.
His story of perseverance is in stark contrast to those of Thiago and Pedro Rodriguez. The former clearly peeved at being a backup to Fabregas moved to Bayern Munich while the latter took the first chance of an exit when it became clear that he would be playing second fiddle to the forward pairing of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi from the 2015-’16 season onwards.
While Thiago has cemented his place in the Bayern Munich midfield, Pedro badly struggled in his first season in the English Premier League. Even in his second year at Chelsea, he has barely been convincing. Pedro’s move rankles the Barcelona faithful all the more as the club were short of any decent bench strength in his position when he left in the summer of 2015. At the time, he was also considered as a full-back option owing to Barcelona’s lack of depth in the wider defensive areas.
In the given circumstances, Roberto’s loyalty becomes even more praiseworthy. In the summer of 2016, Alves moved to Juventus and Barcelona preferred not to bring in a replacement, banking on Vidal and Roberto. Vidal doesn’t seem to rank too highly in the
manager’s plans as he has made just one league start amidst murmurs of his troubles with the coaching staff.
It has meant that Roberto, an unwanted midfielder to begin with, has become Barcelona’s first choice right-back. And he hasn’t just been filling a spot. In fact, he has been one of the best performers for the Catalan outfit this season so far.
It would be hard for anyone to match Alves’ foraging runs that made him indispensable to Barcelona’s game plan and that saw the Brazilian become an integral part of the team’s attack as well as defence, Roberto, to his credit, hasn’t done a bad impression of his former teammate. In fact, he has four assists in the league so far – only one behind Neymar and one more than Messi.
Barcelona have had their problems this season and most of them seem to emanate from a
dissonance in midfield with Busquets and Ivan Rakitic struggling for form and Andre Gomes still unsure of his role in the team following his transfer from Valencia in the summer.
The team that has been known to base their game on extraordinary control in midfield has
increasingly become reliant on getting the ball quickly to their forwards hoping for the trio of
Neymar, Messi and Suarez to work their magic. There is a growing sense that the presence of
someone like Roberto in midfield would help restore some of the control in the middle that is
the hallmark of Barcelona’s game.
But then a player can play only one position. Such has been the rise of Roberto that the once unwanted midfielder is now deemed good enough to play two entirely different roles in one of the best teams in the world.