“We just weren’t able to defend the Messi-Alba binomial ” – Juan Carlos Unzue (Manager of Celta Vigo)
The choice of word “binomial” caught my attention specifically — it showed Unzue’s awareness of the telepathy that exists between the duo but unfortunately for him, he couldn’t find a way to stop it. After another incredible performance by the duo (3 goals and 3 assists between the two of them vs. Celta Vigo), lots of attention has now been drawn to the partnership, which has been Valverde’s secret tool since he took over.
It’s not new for Messi to bring out the best in players through the amazing partnership he forms (Dani Alves and Neymar come to mind), but the connection between Alba and Messi has been so incredible this season that it’s unquestionably worth taking a deeper look to figure out why this relationship is so successful.
How did it all begin?
Before this season, the duo had no noteworthy connection or chemistry even though there were often times they did assist each other over the years. In years prioir, Messi was in deep romance with Neymar and Dani Alves such that no other tight connections were necessarily needed. And even as recently as last year, it could be argued that Alba had his poorest stint in a Barça shirt and many Barca fans were even labeling him as “brain dead.” There was even some speculation that he would be sold before this upcoming season as well. However, it seems that Neymar’s departure was a blessing for Alba as he now is tasked with manning the entire left flank. This has been key to Valverde’s set up as he prefers to play a 4-4-2 formation with no recognized wingers in order to allow the full backs to push forward. It’s possible that Valverde, while looking to revive the Barça team after the Spanish Supercup loss, watched clips of Alba for Spain where he generally has more space to push forward as Iniesta, David Silva, and Isco are not natural wingers and tend to tuck inside. He has always been a very good performer for Spain, and maybe Valverde wanted to replicate this for the Blaugrana.
How does it work?
Valverde’s 4-4-2 is structured in a unique and interesting way. Messi plays as a false nine, and Suarez plays as a striker, but slightly shifted to the left. On paper, Suarez is the left forward but in reality, that role belongs to Jordi Alba. He’s usually the farthest player forward on the left hand side and thanks to his blistering pace, he can easily track back to cover up in defense. Because of Jordi Alba’s ability, and Iniesta’s and Suarez’ tendancy to drift left, Barça generally attack down the left hand side. All of these guys, directly or not, are very important as they allow for a smooth Messi-Alba combination. There are three basic ways I see the Messi-Alba combination work and I have tried to say few things about them.
1) Alba’s cutbacks to Messi:
This is maybe the simplest part of the telepathy, but is arguably the most important. Alba makes runs in behind and whenever he gets the ball he always looks for Messi first. His understanding of everything Messi does helps him deliver inch perfect passes to Messi at the appropriate time with the appropriate velocity. Examples of such include the last minute winner at the Bernabeu last season and the assist for Messi’s goal against Celta earlier this month.
2) Messi’s one-two’s with Alba:
This connection is linked with the first method I talked about because the one-two’s often end with a Jordi Alba cut back and a Leo Messi goal. Since Messi is left footed, he tends to drive from right to left when he embarks on one of his trademark runs, which are when the problems start for opposition defenses. Because of Messi’s dribbling ability, the right back of the opposing team has to make a decision — step to Messi or track runners in behind. But, because Barcelona don’t have a recognized left winger, the full back thinks he’s free to step, which leaves Alba free as he starts his runs from deep. So, with the defense completely destabilized, Messi gives a pass to Alba who had already started his late run into the open space created. Alba receives it and returns the pass to Messi who finishes. Special credit in this process must go to Suarez, who always draws defenders to himself with his hard run into the box. He generally knows he won’t receive the ball (although on occasion he does like his goal vs. Celta Vigo in December), but his main purpose is to take defenders with him, which gives Messi space to shoot first time or to control, make a quick move, and then shoot.
3) Messi’s long diagonal passes to Alba:
These plays are Messi at his best. This time, Alba is the recipient. Messi drops in to the midfield, which is where (in theory) opposition defenses would like him to be. The farther away from goal Leo is, the better… right? Not always. As Messi is one of the best passers the game’s ever seen, and his trademark pass is a clipped pass over the top to an on-running Jordi Alba. Alba, smartly, anticipates Messi’s pass and takes off from about 40 yards to beat the set offside trap. Messi’s does the ridiculous (overheard pinpointed pass) and a touch from Alba is all that’s needed to be in the back of the net. Examples include the third goal against Celta as well as the equalizer against Valencia in the league earlier this season.
This new found connection has brought back memories of the Pep era where the infamous Dani Alves-Messi tandem wreaked havoc on defenses. This chemistry has given Messi more options in the final third, and while there are a few reasons as to why the 4-4-2 formation has been so successful, the Messi-Alba binomial is definitely one of the biggest.
Written by @Shinaspeaks