Amidst the euphoria of Spain’s record-breaking Euro 2012 success, the transfer of Jordi Alba from Valencia to Barcelona has gone under the radar. A new left-back usually doesn’t attract much attention or fanfare, but we suspect that will all change with Alba’s arrival. Comfortably the most adventurous player for Spain in the Euros, Alba has cemented his place in Spanish folklore with a devastating run from deep and a clinical finish that saw off the Italian challenge.
At 14 million Euros, it will be tempting to say that Alba is an expensive buy since he had only 12 months left on his contract. But the more one looks around, the realization dawns that Alba is a player tailor-made for Barcelona and that there aren’t even a handful of players in his mould in current-day football.
The THT microscope is ready and primed for yet another analysis.
A Catalan by birth, Jordi Alba joined Barcelona’s youth team at age 9 in 1998. But the stiff competition for places meant that in 2005, Alba was released as a 16-year prospect deemed not good enough to break into the Barcelona first team. He did not need to look further for his next team and was quickly snapped up by UE Cornella, another Catalan outfit. Two years of footballing education later, Valencia came calling and signed him up in a deal worth 6000 euros. The year was 2007 and it was to be the start of a successful 5 year spell with Los Che for Jordi Alba.
Alba started out as a left-midfielder and going by his attacking prowess, it is not too hard to believe. He was slotted in to the reserves straightaway where he helped his team achieve promotion to the 3rd rung of Spanish Football. After signing professional forms with Valencia at age 18, Alba was sent out on loan to second division side Gimnastic de Tarragona for the 2008-09 season. 4 goals in 35 appearances may not seem an earth-shattering return from a left midfielder, but it was his consistency and work ethic that impressed the most.
It was enough for the big bosses at the Mestalla, and once his year-long loan at Terragona had completed, Alba was handed his debut for the senior team in a 4-2 win at Real Valladolid at the start of the 2009-10 La Liga campaign. Injuries to key defenders like Asier Del Horno and Miguel resulted in manager Unai Emery drafting in the young midfielder in a makeshift defense. Till date, he hasn’t looked out-of-place and credits his manager for instilling in him the defensive part of his game.
For some players, it is difficult to pass judgement on what they are good at and what are their key attributes. With Alba, there is no such problem because you get what you see. Searing pace and excellent close-control in tight areas are the key parts of his game. Having spent enough time as a left midfielder and defender, Alba has derived heavily from both roles and is a modern-day wing-back.
A naturally attacking player, Alba is more likely to be seen scampering down the opponent’s right flank than cooped up in his own defensive third. Spain has produced a golden generation of players lately, and if there is one thing common amongst them all – their ball-retention skills. Never afraid to dribble out of trouble and equally likely to whip in a cross, Alba is a constant menace down the left flank.
In the 2011-12 season, he forged a strong partnership with fellow left-back Jeremy Mathieu. Emery saw the opportunity to exploit the characteristics of 2 similar players, and used it to the team’s advantage. 2 full-backs on the same flank, playing one ahead of the other can be a very defensive tactic, but when used practically, can be devastating and secure at the same time. Emery gave them both the freedom to interchange and roam, thereby not restraining the attack-minded Alba.
At 5’7, Jordi Alba is hardly a menacing presence. But football has moved on from the days of big, bulky defenders and has embraced the philosophy of not clearing the ball at the first sign of trouble and instead, playing out of trouble with fleet-footed players. This is where Alba is head and shoulders above contemporary left-backs. Even from a retreated position of left-back, Alba was able to score 5 and assist 5 other goals for Valencia in the 2011-12 campaign.
Alba can be out in to that special category of “high intensity” players that provide explosive bursts of energy from time to time. Carlos Tevez is the first that comes to mind, because for 90 minutes he is always on the go. Alba’s run for Spain’s second goal in the final was a lung-bursting 60 yard dash, yet he had enough composure to take the ball in his stride and finish it. Alba’s acceleration over the first 10 meters could possibly rival that of Ronaldo and Messi, such is the power hidden inside the slight 170 cm, 69 kilo frame of his.
All too often we have seen players relying on one or two key attributes of their game to bail themselves out of trouble. For defenders, the problem seems over-emphasized because it’s an occupational hazard. Alba uses all the skills at his disposal – Acceleration, ball-control, dribbling, positional awareness and stamina to take up the best positions and offer himself as an outlet, both defensively and offensively. He has the confidence to take a short pass near the corner-flag, the ability to turn his marker and set off on a run, and the composure to carry the ball over a distance and pass it on to the attackers.
It seems odd to talk about the weaknesses of a player who we have just witnessed score a tremendous goal for his national team en route to winning a Euro Championship. But Alba has moved on to a team that is scrutinized incessantly, and his weaknesses will be exploited by opposition teams.
The only real criticism one can label against Alba is that he tries to do too much. There seems to be a conscious effort on his part to contribute more to his team’s attacks, and this could lead to a side losing its shape and becoming lopsided. There is a thin line between being an exciting wing-back and a loose cannon, so the move to Barcelona could not have come at a better time. He still has a lot to learn and at 23, is not a finished article.
For Barcelona, the left-back position has been a headache for the last 3 years. Abidal, Maxwell and Adriano have all been tried, and to a certain extent, successfully, but none has set the world alight. They needed someone to mimic the Dani Alves role on the left flank, and having flirted with Gareth Bale, Barcelona has settled on one of their own. Left-back was the only real weakness for Barcelona, not necessarily in terms of defensive stability, but also as an attacking outlet. With Alba, the left flank is secure and available for initiating attacks.
There is always a danger of over-optimism with new signings, but having watched Alba pair up with Iniesta with consummate ease at the Euros, it is only natural to be excited. Not all transfers seem to be a natural fit for both parties concerned, but in this case, it seems to be true.
So get used to watching those darting runs from deep and the sophisticated one-twos with Iniesta down the left flank. Jordi Alba is a Barcelona natural, and he seems to be there for the long haul. 14 million euros for a 23-year old superstar-in-the-making? Money well spent!
Spare a thought for the opposition defenders, though. Dani Alves was bad enough, now there’s another younger, fresher dynamo to handle! What did they ever do to invite such double-trouble?