It is to Sergi Roberto’s ever-growing credit that I am not entirely sure what his most effective position on the pitch is. Roberto has co-authored some of the greatest moments in Barcelona’s recent history, from scoring the winning goal in the La Remontada against PSG to providing the powerful run that was the root of Lionel Messi’s winner at the Bernabeu in May.
And yet, where he is best suited to play remains a delightful mystery.
Roberto, a 25-year-old La Masia product who has been a culé his entire life, was bred to be Barcelona’s next great midfielder, made spot appearances at RW early in his career, started an entire season at right back, played in all three midfield positions this preseason, was a right wingback in the second leg of the Spanish Super Copa against Real Madrid and started the season opener against Real Betis as something of an attacking midfielder/center forward hybrid.
It is obvious Roberto’s preferred position is in midfield, and that is where a player with his combination of football intelligence, rigorous work rate, power with the ball and accurate passing belongs.
Indeed, ‘midfielder’, while quite a broad brush stroke, might be the best way to sum up Roberto’s amalgamation of talent. He seems best suited as a box-to-box player, perhaps filling the place of Ivan Rakitic more and more as the Croatian ages, but has the astute positional awareness befitting of a defensive midfielder and the desire to push forward, if not the glittery creativity, of an attacking midfielder.
Roberto has a complex footballing DNA; he’s not a heir to Xavi, Iniesta or Busquets, but he has taken an element or two from each of their games and combined it with his own unique abilities, and that makes for a dynamic player, one La Masia should be proud to call a graduate.
The beauty of Sergi Roberto is that his position on the pitch has little bearing on his performance, no influence on his intentions. He lives and breathes to bolster the Blaugrana no matter the method nor the burden. He was at right back when he started the move that ended with Madristas staring at the back of Messi’s jersey and he was just another body on the edge of the box praying a chance would fall to him in the final minute against PSG just he made the split-second decision to change the course of the season.
And it isn’t just contributing to memorable goals that makes Roberto special. Far from it.
Although he scored Barcelona’s only goal in their La Liga opener against Betis, it was everything else he offered throughout the game that made him the man of the match. In possession, Roberto played the part of Iniesta, linking the midfield and attack with good combination play and smart movements. In defense, Roberto was placed at the top of the 4-4-2 alongside Messi, where he offset the Argentine’s relatively low work rate by continually pestering the Betis backline and helping win the ball back in key areas.
Roberto possesses a certain special quickness, not exactly in step, but rather in thought. He bounces from space to space around the pitch, presses and defends and presses more, all on a barely fallible whim. He works tirelessly for the team, and offers quality and precision once the ball is turned over. His instincts, implanted at La Masia and refined all over the pitch for Barça’s first team, breed impact.
Not many players with enough quality to start in their preferred position for a Champions League-caliber side would take on the responsibility and challenge of reinventing themselves in a position so dissimilar to what they are familiar with. Yet when Luis Enrique decided to shoehorn him into the right back spot, Roberto complied with the appointment without a moan or a hiss; he put his head down, adapted to the position, filled an important gap for the team and performed above expectations given the circumstances.
Has Barcelona always looked like a team in need of a new right back since Dani Alves left? Yes. But Roberto fought for the club and kept the position above water while no other reasonable options existed, as if converting a center mid to right back was reasonable in the first place.
Enrique deserves a lot of credit for shaping the player Roberto is today, not only as a footballer in the technical sense, but also mentally. Roberto was a 22-year-old struggling for game time after the treble season, but instead of sending him out on loan like he did with Sergi Samper, Enrique entrusted Roberto to help solve one of the team’s most complicated and obvious problems. At first he rivaled Aleix Vidal as a backup for Alves and last season he became the unquestioned starter because of Vidal’s ankle injury.
Roberto’s 55 appearances at right back gave him great experience and familiarity with the position, but more so than that they gave him confidence and a sense of involvement and importance at Barça, which is what every kid at La Masia dreams of.
When Barcelona signed Nelson Semedo this summer, a hole in the team had been addressed and the squad had been strengthened. Above all else, Sergi Roberto was finally able to set his sights on a permanent midfield place. But despite the positional clarity that Semedo’s arrival offered him, Roberto has been the subject of transfer rumors this summer because of his ridiculously low release clause of €40 million, though Barcelona’s board might argue that lofty sum can barely get you Paulinho nowadays.
Even though Roberto has been a culé since birth, after the Neymar saga, nothing seems impossible as far as departures go, and from Roberto’s point-of-view, signing Paulinho is the kind of move that can force a player to make a tough decision like leaving his boyhood club. Sergi’s love for the club knows no bounds, but there is a limit to the amount of insulting behavior players can take.
Thankfully, the supposed interest from Chelsea and Manchester United hasn’t seemed to phase Roberto. After the Betis game, Sergi said he wants to “be important” at Barça and “to continue here and continue like this.”
“In pre-season I wasn’t starting, but now in the official matches I am playing more,” he said.
The only worry from this side of the fence is that Roberto’s sparkling opening weekend display was only possible because of Iniesta’s injury. Even though the Illusionista is in the twilight of his career, you would expect him to have priority on any attacking midfield role this season. At the other two midfield spots, the arrival of Paulinho, potential addition of Jean-Michael Seri and Andre Gomes being retained makes Roberto’s path to minutes backing up Busquets or Rakitic even more crowded.
In an odd way, Roberto is both the greatest and the least of Barcelona’s concerns.
He will always fight for the team no matter what version of himself the manager asks him to be or invent. He has contorted his game, his aspirations, even his growth in order to complement the team however and whenever he is asked to. In that sense, there seems to be little reason to worry about Roberto failing to make an impact or kicking up a fuss about playing time.
But Sergi is also the player I most want to get the opportunity to enhance his status at the club and move up the manager’s hierarchy. Because if Roberto’s contributions and skillset go unrecognized, unappreciated or, worst of all, underused during Ernesto Valverde’s first season, you have to wonder whether Roberto’s Blaugrana blood will reach a boiling point.