On the very same day that he reported to his first ever Spain training camp for La Roja’s games against Costa Rica and Belarus, Aleix Vidal put pen-to-paper on a five-year-deal with Barcelona. Because of an on-going transfer embargo, Vidal won’t be able to register and play for the club until January. Nevertheless, Barcelona paid Sevilla €18 million to attain the the 25-year-old’s services. For Vidal, it’s more than a transfer.
Hailing from Alt Camp, a southern county in Catalunya, Vidal isn’t lying when he describes signing for Barcelona as “a dream move.” Formerly a Barcelona youth player, Vidal has managed to somehow find his way back to the Blaugrana after an exhausting journey that saw him feature for ten clubs in the past decade. Monday’s Camp Nou presentation of Vidal may not have equalled the turnout that Luis Suarez or even former Sevilla teammate Ivan Rakitic had last summer, but that can largely be blamed on the on-going treble celebrations being held throughout Catalunya following Barca’s historic treble victory last weekend. In no way does the mild reception subdue the importance of Vidal’s role for the Blaugrana going forward.
But before going into Vidal’s rapsheet, it’s pertinent to get the Dani Alves stuff out of the way; there’s been a lot of it. Though Alves’s future has been front-and-center for the past year, things really came to a head this past week when the teary-eyed Brazilian delivered a heartfelt speech following Barcelona’s Champions League victory parade. Now, while the moment was certainly aided by emotion, stress relief, and probably booze, the message seemed clear: this was the end for Alves at Barca. With the right-back’s Barcelona contract coming to a close, this was his last chance to voice his love and admiration to the Blaugrana faithful. This was definitely the end.
Until it wasn’t.
On Tuesday, to everyone’s surprise except for maybe him and his Lollipop Guild hair-top, Alves signed a two-year contract extension with Barca, tying him to the club until 2017. The news added a new measure of uncertainty to Luis Enrique’s right-side of defense that had just added one of La Liga’s most exciting talents in Vidal.
This now creates a peculiar position for both Alves and Vidal (and on a lesser scale, Martin Montoya). With Barcelona’s current transfer ban intact until January, this summer was always going to be a pay-it-by-ear stretch of time for the club. Even without the uneasiness surrounding the 32-year-old Alves, rightback has undoubtedly been the shallowest position in Barcelona’s squad. As Real Madrid announced the signing of Danilo from Porto in March, it appeared that the most viable option on the market had gone. Resigning Alves looked to be really the best and most appropriate course of action. But then the prospect of Vidal emerged, which seemed godsent, a match made in Tarragona.
A longtime journeyman of Spanish football, Vidal improbably became a prime cog in Sevilla’s 2015 Europa League title run, as well as their enthralling La Liga campaign. Over his 31 appearances for the Rojiblancos, he helped Sevilla secure a 35-game unbeaten home streak at the Sanchez Pizjuan, before losing to Real Madrid in May (a game highlighted by a Vidal-induced late Sevilla comeback that was ultimately unsuccessful). His two-goal-and-an-assist performance in the semifinal against Fiorentina stands out as his most special in red-and-white.
But despite being pipped as Dani Alves’s successor, Vidal is hardly a fullback. The 25-year-old can be best described as a right-sided player. I know how rudimentary that may sound, but it’s true. Like Alves, Vidal’s overlapping, attacking prowess down the right flank is his chief attribute. His defensive skills are moderate, similar to Alves when he moved to Barca from Sevilla in 2008. We soon came to learn that Alves didn’t need to know how to defend in a traditional sense, just in a Barca sense. While a high defensive line set atop a possession-based machine like Barcelona requires its own type of defensive acumen, it prioritizes fullbacks engaging in attack. Vidal fits into that mold perfectly. For Sevilla in 2014/15, Vidal started 21 times at right wing, eight times at rightback, and even two times on the left-side of midfield (stats according to WhoScored). He’s as versatile as he is tenacious; and dammit, he’s tenacious.
Looking past simple role-fitting, Vidal is a gamer, the kind of player whose industry and desire never ceases. In this way more than any other, he and Alves are very similar beings. You could even argue that, being Catalan, Vidal is naturally a better fit for Barca’s defense than Alves, but that might be taking it too far. The right-sided link-up play with Lionel Messi that has gone on to define an era of elite football was started and perfected by Alves. He’s been as integral to Barca’s recent success as Guardiola, Puyol, or Xavi. For that reason, to be sure, the spot isn’t Vidal’s until Alves concedes it. Still, the cases for both players are strong, even more so than normally. If anything, it’s just another sign that the best team in the world are somehow getting stronger.