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Football purist, realist and general sports fanatic. Interested in all aspects of the game, from all corners of the earth.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Dani Alves: The Essential Liability

Messi. Villa. Pedro. Iniesta. Xavi. The fearsome front five of Barcelona. Constantly lauded for their outrageous attacking play in a Blaugranes side which have revolutionised the way the game is played. Arguably the most influential trait of the greatest team of this generation however is the intense pressure exerted on opponents regardless of how innocuous their position on the pitch is. The perfect example of this is the opening half of the first leg of the Champions League first leg between Barcelona and Arsenal at The Emirates in 2010. Arsenal couldn’t control the Catalan compression, led by Messi et al (bar Ibrahimovic), The Gunners confined to their own half as Barcelona consistently won the ball back and bombarded shots at Manuel Almunia as if it was some cruel training field joke. The formula is pretty simple, press the opponents, patience in possession, pick the clinical pass, goal.

However to exclude the name of Dani Alves when discussing Barca’s unique and exciting attacking brand of football is criminal. Alves  is an integral part of the jigsaw, providing a unprecedented outlet from right back as a result of his pace and winger-like-trickery. Constantly marauding down the right flank Alves is a key component in Pep Guardiola’s side and his philosophy of the game. With either Pedro or Villa in front performing as an inverted winger, Barcelona rely on Alves for width on his side of the pitch. Luckily they have an overlapping full back with mighty lungs, allowing him to cover a substantial amount of ground for the whole ninety minutes.

Frequently Alves finds himself in the opposition penalty box after being detected by a delicious Xavi or Iniesta pass (for example his neat finish after a pinpoint ball over the defence from Iniesta against Shakhtar Donetsk). He regularly takes on the role as the true winger in the side, providing countless assists from wide areas particularly when the opposite full back tracks his man infield (see David Villa luring Patrice Evra infield at Wembley). While he has extraordinary technique previously unheard of in a full-back when it comes to both scoring and creating goals, his most influential and effective work comes when raiding into the final third out wide.  The Brazilian’s sublime offensive attributes have culminated in a direct involvement (goals or assists) in 62 Barcelona goals over the last three years, with countless other opportunities spurned by his Catalan colleagues. Undoubtedly Alves is the world’s primary attacking right back.

Paradoxically, defensively Dani Alves is a liability, protected from exposure by the sheer dominance of his Barcelona side. Guardiola’s side do not lose many games, big games especially, but when they do the goals regularly come as a result of their right back’s defensive flaws. Barcelona’s highest profile loss under their majestic manager came at the San Siro against arch-rival Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the Champions League semi-final. After the underrated Pedro struck Barcelona into an early lead Inter came firing back and equalised through Wesley Sneijder. As Samuel Eto’o’s low cross limped towards the penalty spot Alves was dragged centrally to pick up the diminutive Goran Pandev, completely unaware that Sneijder was drifting in behind at the back post. After the Dutch maestro’s ample finish from a slid Diego Milito pass Internazionale went on to subdue and defeat the team from Catalunya in a manner no team has managed to do since, or indeed during the Guardiola reign, and in the process ensuring that Barcelona’s obsession with reaching Europe’s pinnacle at the Bernabeu that year would remain unfulfilled.

A year later at the scene of the first half massacre in London (or miracle considering the score remained 0-0 at the break), Arsenal inflicted another rare European defeat on Barcelona aided by Alves’ lack of awareness and defensive effort. For the winning goal late in the game the former Seville full-back trotted back towards his goal during a textbook counter attack, not only allowing Robin van Persie to chase past him but also Andrei Arshavin, the goal-scorer. Absolutely atrocious defending and evidently a sheer reluctance to help out his defence, an uncharacteristic trait for a member of this Guardiola side.

In the painful defeat in the Copa del Rey final this year, again at the hands The Translator, against acrimonious rivals Real Madrid, the goal which secured Los Blancos only trophy of the season again transpired as a result of an attack down Madrid’s left flank against the vulnerable Alves. After Angel Di Maria played a simple one-two with Alves’ compatriot Marcelo, he accelerated over the first five yards like a Formula One racer, tearing past the world’s most expensive right-back caught on his heels before planting the perfect cross (under little pressure) onto the head of Cristiano Ronaldo. While this may only have been a dent in Barcelona’s procession towards a double winning season, it prevented them from winning an historic second treble in three years.

If Dani Alves is susceptible defensively on occasions where Barcelona are required to scrap for victory, how can he cope as an integral member of a Selecao side flaccidly attempting to prove they can cope with the extraordinary pressure of lifting the World Cup Trophy at The Maracana 2014, something their compatriots could not manage in 1950. The initial signs don’t look promising. Behind a now out of form Maicon in South Africa last Summer, Alves is now Brazil’s starting right-back at this year’s Copa America. At Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes last Saturday night Paraguay’s pacy winger Marcelo Estigarribia was an ever present threat to Brazil’s right side, constantly wreaking havoc and exposing Dani Alves’s frailties by galloping past him. Estigarribia, no matter how impressive he has looked during the tournament, is no world beater, yet he played a major role in Paraguay’s initial equaliser with Alves nowhere in sight after initially being turned by his predator. In the second half while dwelling on whether to guide the ball out or dribble his way to safety Alves was dispossessed by Cristian Riveros in his own box, leading to a crucial goal. Only Fred’s late equaliser spared his team-mate's blushes.

As a result of his incredible attacking attributes Daniel Alves is a fixture in Barcelona’s first eleven. Regardless of how weak he is defensively, it does not negate the fact that Alves is one of the most influential full backs in the world. However while Barcelona’s tiki-taka, relentless pressing and utter dominance protects Alves more often than not, these luxuries are non-existent in Mano Menezes’ struggling Brazil side. Menezes, despite a barrage of criticism in his homeland, surely cannot be oblivious to this, especially as Maicon is a much more astute defender. If only Dani had his fearsome front five in front of him to press and gain the ascendancy.

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