Dani Alves a Pioneer of Right Side Defensive Football
15th June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Brazilian full-back Dani Alves will leave FC Barcelona this summer to join Juventus. After eight years at the Camp Nou, Alves will depart with the respect and appreciation of Barça fans. But do they, and indeed the wider footballing audience, really appreciate Alves for what he truly is, and has been? Alves should be recognised as the greatest full-back of the last two decades.
The 2003 FIFA under-20 World Cup was held in the United Arab Emirates during winter. While England – with a side that included James Milner, Steven Taylor and Michael Chopra — finished bottom of their group without scoring a single goal, many of the established football nations fielded strong squads, packed with potential future stars.
Andrés Iniesta turned out for Spain, along with future Atlético Madrid stars Juanfran and Gabi. There was River Plate striker Fernando Cavenaghi top-scoring for Argentina, with Javier Mascherano anchoring the midfield. Robert Huth lined up for Germany, Kevin Doyle led the line for the Republic of Ireland, and Clint Dempsey represented the USA.
Of the 24 teams to enter, it was Brazil who triumphed, edging out Spain 1-0 in the final.
Although the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player was rather dubiously presented to the UAE’s Ismail Matar, it was the Brazilian players who stood out. Nilmar, the nippy striker, looked a real prospect, and would go on to sign for Olympique Lyonnais; Dudu Carense earned plaudits as a goal-scoring midfielder and would later to play for Stade Rennais; and Daniel Carvalho looked a class act in the playmaker role, he would sign for CSKA Moscow.
But there was one Brazilian in particular who caught the eye more than anyone else. The curly-haired flying wing-back, then known simply as Daniel, was a constant menace as he paraded up and down the right-touchline. Daniel’s ceaseless energy and obvious passing and dribbling skills marked him out as the most notable prospect of the entire tournament.
The mop-haired Daniel was, of course, the man now known around the world as Dani Alves. Having spent the 2002-03 season on loan at Sevilla from Brazilian club Bahia and, impressed by his performances in the UAE, the Andalusians decided to make Alves’s switch to Spain permanent.
The 20-year-old immediately became a key player for Sevilla, making 35 appearances for the club during the 2003-04 campaign.
Utilized as either a right-back or right-winger during his stay at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium, Alves was vital to the club’s back-to-back UEFA Cup wins in 2006 and 2007, as well as the Copa del Rey triumph of ’07.
Middlesborough fans will recall Alves, sporting the number 4 jersey, rampaging up and down the right as Sevilla tore apart the Teessiders in the 2006 UEFA cup final.
In the summer of 2007, Sevilla turned down a substantial offer for Alves’s services, opting to hold on to the player rather than cash in. But, a year later, Pep Guardiola and Barcelona came knocking, tabling a £30 million bid for the Brazilian.
It was an offer than neither Sevilla, nor the player himself, could refuse. Barça were coming off the back of a drab couple of seasons under Frank Rijkaard, with the Dutch manager’s reign going steeply downhill after the Champions League victory over Arsenal in 2006.
A rebuilding process was underway as Deco and Ronaldihno were among the big names to be shipped out – the former signed for Chelsea and the latter joined AC Milan – and in came some new faces to add a fresh coat of paint to the Camp Nou décor.
Guardiola saw how complacency had set in during Rijkaard’s final years, and he set about lancing the problem at its root. The statement of dumping Ronaldinho and Deco was about more than simply moving on under-performing players; in disposing of established stars, the new coach was sending the message that getting too comfortable would not be accepted. He wanted hunger, and in Alves, he saw a player who would bring drive and desire to his new team.
In his debut season in Catalonia, Alves played 54 times and chipped in with 5 goals.
But his contribution to the team stretched far beyond blocking crosses and getting forward to support the attack, such as you’d typically expect of a full-back. With Messi deployed on the right-side of the front three, Alves formed an almost telepathic understanding with the Argentinian superstar.
Being left-footed, Messi tended to move inside to affect the play centrally, making use of his stronger foot. By bombing forward with over-lapping runs, Alves presented a conundrum for opposing full-backs; do they follow Messi inside and leave space for Alves to exploit, or do they track the Brazilian in the hope that a colleague will take the responsibility of picking up Barça’s number 10?
As the 2008-09 season progressed, so too did the Barcelona players’ understanding of what their new manager required of them. The “tiki-taka” possession-based approach of Guardiola became mesmerising and enthralling to watch, as his side moved forward by creating efficient and effective passing combinations with one another.
Regularly camped inside their opponent’s third of the pitch, Barça would circulate the ball rapidly, yet patiently, as they sought to pull defenders out of position and create space to exploit.
This is where Alves really began to redefine the role of a modern attacking full-back. If Messi – or latterly Pedro, as the Argentinian was switched into a central “false 9” role – was holding his position out wide, Alves would move forward and take up a more central station.
Where most full-backs would hold back if an over-lapping run is not possible, Alves would attack. By taking up an area usually occupied by an attacking midfielder when his side had possession, Alves effective pioneered the role of the inverted wing-back — a role that Guardiola would mould Bayern Munich left-back David Alaba to replicate during the Catalan coach’s stay in Bavaria.
Still more than content to hug the touchline if the space there was available, the new string he added to his bow, allowed the Brazilian to act as an auxiliary playmaker, often receiving as many touches of the ball as the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, when moving inside. And, as such, Alves became not only a key component of the Blaugrana’s defensive set-up, but also absolutely vital to how they attack.
At the end of his first season at the Camp Nou, Alves had helped his new side secure a historic treble of La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.
A period of dominance of domestic and European football had begun. The Barça style became de rigueur within elite-level football; often imitated, yet seldom duplicated. And Alves, in his dual role as wing-back-cum-playmaker, was integral.
Another five La Liga trophies, three Cop del Reys and two Champions Leagues have been added to the trophy cabinet since that first season with Barça.
Alves’s incredible career trophy-haul makes him the second most decorated player in terms of European competition history, behind only AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini. And last season’s Copa del Rey victory against his former club Sevilla, puts him third on the all competitions list, level with former Manchester United player Gary Neville on 31 titles, and trailing only Portuguese goalkeeper Vitor Baia and Neville’s old United teammate Ryan Giggs.
The 90-cap Selecão player is seldom spoken of in the same regard as his compatriots Nilton Santos, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, but Alves deserves to be heralded as not only one of the best full-backs around, but also a pioneer of the position, and an influence on any young player lining up on the right-side of defence in the future.
So as Alves departs Barcelona to join Juventus on a free transfer this summer, the 33-year-old will be missed. But it seems unlikely that he will receive the recognition he truly deserves, and Barça will find him harder to replace than perhaps they anticipate.