Daniel Alves: more than a right-back

January 21, 2011

Daniel Alves

Out for two weeks with a calf injury and locked in contract negotiations with Barcelona, now seems like a good time to assess the value of Daniel Alves.

It’s long been a standard joke – or cliche, if you like – to say that an attacking full-back is “more of a winger than a full-back.” That’s particularly been true of Brazilian full-backs down the years – in recent times, most notably the combination of Cafu and Roberto Carlos, who started the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups in the full-back positions for Brazil.

Occasionally the  mentality of these players has been exaggerated. In the 2002 tournament, for example, Cafu and Roberto Carlos were frequently cast as full-backs, when in fact they were wing-backs. A small difference, granted, but the role of a wing-back in a 3-5-2 is significantly different from a full-back in a 4-4-2. Whilst speeding forward to join the attack in that tournament, which Brazil won, they had not just the comfort of three centre-backs to keep things tight at the back, but also two holding midfielders.

What looked a gung ho attitude was in actual fact not particularly attacking – five defensive-minded players were making sure Brazil weren’t caught out on the counter – in basic numerical terms, no different to leaving a back four with one holding midfielder protecting them. Therefore, the wing-backs playing so high up the pitch was natural. They were literally more wingers than they were full-backs, because of the 3-4-1-2 formation. At club level, Cafu’s best season came when playing as a wing-back in a 3-4-1-2, Roberto Carlos’ best spell came first when Real Madrid played that same formation.

Alves’ role

Alves is slightly different. With the exception of when Sergio Busquets drops into the backline and Barcelona become a 3-4-3, as against Atletico earlier in the season, Alves is the right-back in a four-man defence. Even so, he plays ludicrously high up the pitch in some matches. The most obvious example was Barcelona’s 5-0 destruction of Sevilla, where he spent most of the game ahead of Barcelona’s midfielders, even when Barcelona lost the ball. The side was set up differently to accommodate Alves’ change in positioning – Lionel Messi and David Villa both played centrally, whilst Pedro was stationed wide on the left. There was no attacking player on the right, indicating that it was a deliberate move from Pep Guardiola, asking Alves to cover the entire right flank. It was the key feature of the game – he pushed Diego Capel so far back, practically forcing Sevilla into a back five, and Barcelona ran riot. The same thing happened against Espanyol.

The passes Alves received against Panathinaikos in the first Champions League match this season (Chalkboard from TotalFootball iPhone App)

Alves’s presence in the attack can be backed up by statistics. In the group stage of the Champions League this season, he completed more passes in the attacking third of the pitch than any other player in the tournament, 276. To make it a fair comparison, breaking the numbers down into a ‘passes in the attacking third per game‘ stat still leaves Alves top, with 55.2 per match. Clearly, it’s helped by the fact he plays in the best passing side in Europe, but it’s still astonishing that he tops that table considering his position on the pitch, rather than any of Barcelona’s actual forwards. That illustrates how much of the ball he sees in attacking positions, and how crucial he is to his side’s moves.

His work rate is the main factor here, and there are those who believe that Alves is simply physically brilliant, with minimal technical ability. Even if that was the case, Alves’ combination of speed and stamina mean he is almost impossible for any opposition player to track for 90 minutes, which is what makes him so dangerous, and so difficult to play against. It’s becoming increasingly common to see sides playing left-backs on the left of midfield to try and stop him – see Valencia’s use of Jeremy Mathieu, or Inter’s use of Cristian Chivu.

Late runs

Alves’ particular attacking threat is his late sprints in behind the opposition defence, to meet a pass from a centre-left position in midfield, generally from Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta. Here, he almost offers the threat a fast centre-forward would, with pace in behind running onto balls over the top. For all their attacking endeavours, it was rare to see Cafu or Roberto Carlos do this kind of thing – generally they’d simply run down the touchline to stretch the play before crossing the ball (or shooting from a ridiculous angle) – Alves offers a more direct threat.

Compared to the traditional pacey centre-forward run to meet a ball over the top, Alves’ darts in from the right are more favourable for five separate reasons.

1. It means the man playing the pass is hitting a diagonal ball, rather than a straight ball – there’s more margin for error, a greater area the pass can be played into to reach the player. Misplaced straight balls will simply run through to the goalkeeper.

Alves' classic run around the back of the defence, usually from a Xavi or Iniesta pass

2. It means Alves can be at top speed whilst breaking past the defence. Alves often has twenty metres to build up speed before reaching the offside line, making it difficult for defenders to turn and catch up with him before he reaches the ball. Strikers in a central position, on the other hand, have to either bend their runs to stay onside, or start in a very deep position to be able to run full pelt.

3. Alves can see the player making the pass and the flight of the ball in his natural run, and therefore doesn’t have to break his stride to look over his shoulder to see where the ball is.

4. Controlling the ball in midair is easier when it is arriving slightly from the side than when it’s coming directly over your head and you’re running onto it.

5. It’s on the blind side of the defence. They’re all looking towards their right where the ball is coming from, whilst Alves is sneaking in behind on their left.

For a classic example, try this pass from Xavi to Alves, finished by Messi:

Defensive qualities

What Alves also offers Barcelona – frequently overlooked by many – is a good defensive presence on the right. As with all attacking full-backs, there’s a natural assumption that the player is not good defensively, but Alves’ game has improved immeasurably in this respect in recent years.

One could put forward the old argument that a top-class defender should not be sliding around and performing last-ditch blocks – a top-class defender should anticipate danger and pre-emptively stop it. That misses the point, though – as Alves is often told to play very high up the pitch on the right, he’s inevitably going to be dashing back and arriving just in time to get a block in. His incredible pace means he often gets in challenges other defenders would have been too sluggish to attempt, whilst he’s actually very good at anticipating opposition attacks when he’s in a position to do so. The video below shows his defensive skills well.

Before watching that, though, consider that the most important thing Alves gives Barcelona in a defensive sense is his brilliant ability to press for the entire game. Look out for him charging 40 yards up the pitch to close Joan Capdevilla down on 0:42 – it may be on the edge of the opponent’s penalty area, but that is still defending.

In terms of pressing, Alves’ combination of speed and stamina makes him possibly the best player in the world for that style of football. Individually he’s fantastic, but there’s also a case for saying it sets the tone for the entire side. Just as Xavi is even more important to Barca than his basic individual contribution (because he sets an example with his short, neat passing) Alves does the same when Barcelona lose the ball, charging up the pitch to pressure opponents.

“Without the ball we are a disastrous team, a horrible team, so we need the ball”, Guardiola says. That’s an exaggeration, but it’s that attitude that results in Barca’s intent to win the ball high up the pitch. Alves should be part of the last line of defence, so his ability to cover the entire flank by himself and press from the front is amazing.

Conclusion

Two years ago, Sid Lowe described Alves as the second best footballer in the world. That was quite a statement, but it’s certainly closer to the truth than the figures for the 2010 Ballon D’Or would have you believe – Alves got just 0.05% of the votes, the lowest of any candidate who received any votes at all.

With a fairly gentle fixture list over the next couple of weeks, Alves’ injury shouldn’t be too much of a problem. His ongoing contract negotiations are more of worry for Barcelona. Alves supposedly wants to be the second-highest paid player after Messi, and a summer departure is not unthinkable. It’s difficult to imagine who Barcelona could bring in to replace him, though, and that’s what makes this such a problem for them.

The one thing we can be sure of is that Alves and Barcelona are a perfect match. No other club could accommodate such an attacking right-back as naturally as Barcelona. If Alves’ goal is to play the best football possible, he should sit tight at a club which utilises his ability perfectly – with and without the ball.

Daniel Alves: more than a right-back

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