Jordi Alba’s having a dream summer for his country, but questions remain over his future role at Barcelona
Collecting the ball 30 yards from goal, Xavi turns and releases a perfect diagonal pass into the path of the onrushing fullback Jordi Alba, whose crisp strike extends Spain’s lead to 2-0 over Italy, and sets them up for a comprehensive victory in the Euro 2012 final. Alba’s part in Spain’s victory is undisputed, with the 23 year old providing seemingly inexhaustible stamina from the left throughout the tournament. Last week saw Barcelona announce that they were signing Alba from Valencia for 14 million Euros. A few days after the Euro final, Alba was named as a member of Spain's Olympic squad. So far, a pretty good week for Alba. But what will Alba bring to Barcelona, and are there any potential problems for the move?
Alba began his career in Barca’s youth setup, but was released in 2005. He moved to UE Cornelia and then Valencia, where he established himself in the first team by 2009. Under Valencia manager Unai Emery, he developed into an attacking left back as part of Emery’s preference for interchanging fullbacks and wingbacks. Alba also formed part of Spanish squads from Under-19 level onwards, and played in the Under-20 World Cup, before breaking into the senior squad in late 2011. After quickly settling into the side, Alba’s performances have led him to be widely viewed as the natural successor to Capdevila as Spain’s first choice left back. So what makes Alba a great international and club player, and how will he fit in at Barcelona next season?
Primarily, Alba comes from the La Masia tradition at Barca of being a nominal defender who is just as comfortable marauding up the left flank to link up with attacks. He has excellent ball control, and levels of stamina that allow him to cover significant ground over 90 minutes. Against Portugal in the Euro 2012 semis, Alba was still going strong in the dying moments of extra time. Like many other Barca stars, Alba appears to be physically slight at 5’7, but isn’t easy to push off the ball. He can also cross from deep, and as his strike against Italy proved, can break through to shoot on goal. All these qualities, and the ways in which he linked up with Pique, Iniesta and Xavi at Euro 2012 make him a logical choice for Barcelona. The only real surprise in the transfer announcement was the relatively low fee. Manchester United were also reportedly interested, but Alba’s return to Barcelona makes sense in terms of their style of play and defensive weaknesses last season.
In theory, Alba should provide Barca with a solid left back after years of problems with that position, and could act as a natural complement to Dani Alves on the right. Guardiola tried everyone from Maxwell to Adriano, Abidal, Puyol and Pique on the left last season, but no one’s really dominated in that role for Barca since Van Bronckhorst retired. Alba will ideally play a more adventurous version of his Spain role, breaking forward whenever possible to support the midfield, and leaving Pique, Puyol or Abidal to shore up a high line in defence. He will also link up with Afellay, Iniesta and Villa down the left.
The only danger, as I see it, is that a combination of Alba and Alves will provide Barca with more attacking options in league games, but could reproduce some of the gaps at the back that cost them goals in major La Liga and Champions League fixtures last season. It’s likely, though, that Alba will be somewhat more restrained than Alves, and may be asked by Vilanova to sit slightly deeper and support Pique and Puyol, or Busquets in a holding role. Until Alba’s had a few months of working with the squad, it’s hard to tell how well he’ll click into Barca’s style, despite his education at La Masia and his experience with Spain.
The best recent comparison to Alba’s move is Fabregas in 2011-12. However, while arguably a success, Fabregas was still rotated, and often asked to play a more advanced role than he was used to at Arsenal. In this way, Alba may not be a guaranteed starter for all games, with Vilanova possibly opting for a more conservative back three or four in big games. There’s also a possibility that Alba could fill in as a left winger if needed. His performances with Spain have proved his quality, but few players can live up to the ridiculous week to week standards demanded by a Barcelona that will be determined to win back the league title and the Champions League. It’s fair to say, then, that Barca have the potential to enjoy one of the best bargains of the summer, but that there’s no guarantee that Alba will slot straight into Barca’s finely tuned machine.