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Making the case for Aleix Vidal as Barcelona's first choice right back.

Wednesday 25th January 2017
It's been a strange old season for Barcelona in this 2016-17 campaign. The defending La Liga champions found themselves, somewhat surprisingly, in third place in the table at the halfway point of the Liga season.

Barcelona have 41 points from 19 games, behind Real Madrid and the year's surprise package, Jorge Sampaoli's swashbuckling Sevilla side, who sit in first and second position in the table respectively.

Despite only two points separating the three teams at the top, it can certainly be argued that Barcelona's season to date has been a decidedly underwhelming one. On several occasions this year, Luis Enrique's side have delivered unconvincing, disjointed performances, often lacking the magic present during the first two years under their head coach.

Many reasons have been mooted for their apparent drop off in performance levels and cohesiveness on the field: Frustrated Barca supporters have spoken out against Luis Enrique's suitability to continue as head coach, who they believe is starting to be found out tactically. Some have pointed to a lack of form at varying form from the likes of Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, and Neymar (in terms of goalscoring in the Brazilian's case).  It is probably down to a combination of the two, and while either Enrique or the other stars are to blame to depending on your viewpoint, what cannot be questioned, is that Lionel Messi- still the best player on the planet by an absolute mile that he is- has had to almost single-handedly drag his Barca team to stay within touching distance of their title rivals at this stage.
What has become more notable as the season as wore on, is just how much Barcelona are noticing the gaping void left by Dani Alves in the right back position. A void that the club should have certainly had the foresight to have predicted, given Alves's importance to the way this Barcelona team has played for the last eight years or so during the most successful period in the club's history.

The best right back the club has ever had, and one of the greatest in that position to ever grace the game, Alves' influence on this Barcelona team was colossal: The energy, the skill, the telepathic understanding with Messi, the ability to single-handedly dominate the right-hand side of a football pitch, these are all things which have been absent this season for Barcelona, and it has had a massive knock-on effect on the football the team have produced this season.

Letting Dani Alves leave was a mistake, that much is clear. Trying to find a solution to this, has been tricky. Sergi Roberto, it must be said, is a fine footballer, who has attempted admirably to try and replace Alves, but despite promising signs as a deputy last season, and a good start to this campaign, the La Masia product is now starting to get found out in a role that is not natural for him.

Sergi Roberto after all, is a centre midfield player, filling in at right back. Except he isn't just filling in at right back. He's filling in, whilst learning a new position on the job. Trying to replace one of the best to ever play in the position. For a club the size of Barcelona. His efforts have been more than commendable, but was he ever going to be the long-term answer to the problem? Probably not.
This brings us to Aleix Vidal, Sergi Roberto's understudy for the right back position in the Barcelona squad. Like Dani Alves, Vidal's career began as a winger, before being converted to a right back after moving to Barcelona's current title rivals, Sevilla, like Dani Alves.

The parallels between Alves and Vidal have been well documented, as the two both had both had rather indifferent careers as wide men before being converted into brilliantly effective attacking full backs at Sevilla, where their form in the position led to big moves to Barcelona.

Vidal's career at Barcelona to date has been curious to date. Signed during the club's transfer ban, the former Almeria man had to wait six months to be registered to play for the Catalan side. Many thought his arrival was to gradually ease Alves out of the side as the time winded down on his final season at the Camp Nou.

However, due to Vidal's lack of eligibility during the first half of the 15-16 season, it was Sergi Roberto who was surprisingly, at first, given the opportunity to deputise for Alves in certain games, and Roberto really did perform very well initially in the right back slot.

Interestingly, even after Alves had left for Juventus, and the pecking order for the right back position was less crowded, Vidal has found chances in the first team limited by Luis Enrique, who seemingly does not rate Vidal all that highly.

This has been peculiar, as in the eyes of many frequent observers of Barcelona this season, have been impressed by Vidal when he has had a rare opportunity to show what he can do.

Many have pointed out how Vidal's blistering pace on the overlap and superior attacking threat to Sergi Roberto appear to make him a better fit for this Barcelona side, given the way the attacking philosophy at Barcelona is so deeply ingrained in the club's DNA.

Despite not possessing the technical ability or quality of passing of Alves, Vidal has a directness which has proved very effective in his recent cameo appearances, as it appears that whenever Vidal is given a chance to play, he is able to score a goal or provide an assist to a teammate every time he features, something which is pretty hard to find for a player who nominally plays as a defender. Vidal also seems to possess the pace and engine necessary to dominate the right flank in the manner Alves did for years, which would add a balance to the team missing at times this season, especially given that Messi has been taking up a position more centrally due to the collective underperformance of the team, and Rakitic- who dovetailed with Alves and Messi down the Barcelona right-hand side so beautifully in the first two seasons under Luis Enrique- suffering a dramatic loss of form this year.

With this in mind, it seems harsh that Vidal has not been given an extended run in the side to show his worth. Given some of Sergi Roberto's recent struggles at right back, Luis Enrique really should let Vidal spread his wings and prove what he has to offer to this Barca side, as based on the little we have seen from him this season, he looks a more suitable replacement for the legendary Dani Alves than the current incumbent of the position.

Luis Enrique is keenly aware that the performances from his team haven't always been great this season anyway, so why not risk giving Aleix Vidal a go?
Michael Soloman
Journalist. Long-suffering Derby County fan, Lionel Messi and Barca bandwagon-er.

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