It has been a long week of speculation about Barcelona’s right-back position. About Aleix Vidal wanting to leave Barcelona, about whether he has fallen out with coach Luis Enrique, why he has been dropped from four consecutive squad lists.
Speculation over whether Bellerin would be the right man to replace Vidal in the Barcelona squad, whether €35 million is too high a price to pay for a right-back, especially if he isn’t even guaranteed to be the first choice.
That he wouldn’t automatically swan into Barcelona’s side as Dani Alves’ replacement, when the club have no players who naturally play in that position, is thanks to two men.
One is Sergi Roberto, the midfielder who has proven a revelation at right-back, the midfielder who didn’t even seem good enough to play for the club on a regular basis little more than a year ago, who is now holding down a position that isn’t even his own.
The other is Luis Enrique, the man who had the vision and belief in both himself and Roberto to convince the player to try to adapt to the position and had the gumption to go through with it.
This season Barcelona have started the season with Roberto as the right full-back, and with each game he improves, understanding the role more. Arguably his finest performance in Blaugrana came against Sporting Gijon in Barcelona’s 5-0 win at El Molinon on Saturday afternoon.
It was a display that had everything. Full-back tends to be the position in a side that people tend to view as the least important. At grassroots level the weaker players are usually shunted into that position, as it's where they can cause the least damage to their team.
Even at the top level, there aren’t many brilliant full-backs. And fewer still who can genuinely run a game.
There have been two notable players in recent years who have been able to do that. Ashley Cole at Chelsea, specifically in the period between 2009-12, and Dani Alves at Barcelona, between 2008-13. That’s not to say those players and other players weren’t good outside those periods, but to watch them during these specific times was something special.
Roberto showed against Sporting Gijon that he could be the next. Completely doubtless in defence, essential in attack. He was good on the ball, creating twice as many chances (four) as any other player on the pitch, according to FourFourTwo’s Stats Zone app.
That manifested itself in two of Barcelona’s five goals. Neymar span a ball down the right for Roberto, who was already making the type of instinctive run that Alves would make for a Xavi Hernandez pass—which also speaks about the way the Brazilian was playing in the absence of the injured Lionel Messi.
Roberto fired in a low cross to the near post and Rafinha dived in to head it home, Barcelona’s second goal of the game, putting an end to what had been a difficult spell for the team.
Sporting came out flying and it took Barcelona a while to get back into the game, although Arda Turan’s remarkable through ball enabled Luis Suarez to open the scoring in the 29th, before Rafinha added No. 2 in the 32nd minute.
This brutal efficiency in front of goal showcases what is different from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona to Luis Enrique’s. Less control but more edge. Back then Barcelona may have struggled to kill a game despite throttling the play and staying ensconced in the opposition half, now they can cede possession and territory but glide downfield like a rapier blade through soft flesh and find the net.
Barcelona’s display against Sporting was overall, not an impressive one. But that four-minute spell in the first half, along with an eight-minute period in the second half, was enough time to score all five of their goals.
In the 74th minute, Roberto got Sporting’s captain Alberto Lora sent off for his second yellow card. It wasn’t malevolent from the Barcelona man; quite the opposite, he was simply too quick for his opponent.
Roberto raced onto a pass and got there before Lora, who couldn’t help but fly into the Barcelona man, knocking him to the turf.
The Barcelona defender—at some point the transition from being labelled a midfielder must take place, why not now?—played a big part in the fourth goal, with his shot wrapped off the crossbar by Paco Alcacer, for Neymar to score on the rebound.
Notably, that goal was sprung from Neymar, playing deep, feeding Roberto on the right. That Xavi-Alves connection again.
Roberto then did lay on the fifth, with another sumptuous cross for Arda to gleefully head home, finishing Barcelona’s rout of coach Luis Enrique’s beloved former team. His current side have no mercy. Roberto has four assists in La Liga, more than any other player this season.
With Neymar, who added the fifth, roaming farther off the left flank and coming deeper to cover for the absence of Messi and Roberto unleashing to attack with more impunity, Barcelona didn’t miss the Argentine maestro too much.
Roberto spoke after the game, saying he was happy with life at the club and increasingly enjoying playing as a right-back, per Sport.
He said: “Each time I find myself enjoying it more playing in this position. Bit by bit I am growing accustomed to it and learning, as much in the attacking aspect as the defensive. I’m happy, definitely.”
Sport’s Ivan San Antonio waxed lyrical about Roberto after the game, particularly commending his tactical ability.
“Sergi Roberto understands Barcelona's football like only an academy graduate could,” he wrote.
“He’s read the complete A to Z. He knows where to be at any moment to make sure that play continues to flow. He knows what positions to occupy at any given time.”
And, of course, Enrique himself was delighted with his man. “I watch a lot of games and I don’t see any better right-back than Sergio Roberto,” he explained in his post-match press conference.
“At least for Barcelona, who always have the ball. I’m delighted that he feels good in that position.”
Watching on, Vidal will see the gap between what he offers and what Roberto does. A player with a strong mentality would learn from that and see it as a marker to try to reach.
Bellerin, meanwhile, knows if he wants to return home to Catalonia, that is the level he must emulate to secure a place in Barcelona’s team. Making it into the squad won’t be a problem for him. But the team? Speak to Sergi.