Lionel Messi has a new assistant. For so many years, the Argentine’s association with Dani Alves was a big feature of Barcelona’s play. This season, however, he has found an ally on the other side: Jordi Alba.
The Spanish left-back has struck up a great understanding with the Argentine in 2017-18 which is reminiscent of the forward’s link-up with the Brazilian.
Alves left Barca in the summer of 2016 after eight seasons at Camp Nou, but the Brazilian (who is now at Paris Saint-Germain) remains the player with the most assists for Messi at the Catalan club (42).
For much of that time, Messi operated down the right and it was on that flank where he and Alves built up a memorable rapport, which carried on even when the Argentine moved into a central role. And the two men would warm up together before games in a routine which became a favourite for fans arriving early.
Over on the other wing, Alba’s role has always been to attack as well as defend. The Spain full-back was signed by Barca (where he had come through the youth system years earlier) from Valencia and his forays down the left are a weapon for both club and country.
This season, though, Alba is more of a protagonist than usual. The 28-year-old has more assists than any other Barca player in La Liga (five) and four of those have been for Messi. The other one was against Celta on Saturday, when the two men combined to set up Luis Suarez for their side’s second in the 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo.
In the previous round of the Primera Division, Messi also picked out Alba’s advanced run down the left and the Catalan produced a fine finish on the volley to secure a point for Ernesto Valverde’s side at Mestalla.
Prior to that goal, Alba had only been assisted twice previously by Messi: against Elche in the Copa del Rey in 2015 and versus Sevilla in the final of the cup competition at the Vicente Calderon in 2016.
In the meantime, the left-back had provided only six assists for the Argentine before the current campaign, all of those in La Liga. And the last of those was a very significant one indeed as it led to Messi’s last-gasp winner at the Santiago Bernabeu in a memorable 3-2 victory over Real Madrid last April.
Neymar missed that match through suspension and the Brazilian left Barca over the summer to join Paris Saint-Germain. In his absence, Alba is afforded extra space to attack down the left – especially with Barca playing 4-4-2 much of the time this season and summer signing Ousmane Dembele currently sidelined.
“Neymar is a great player, but due to circumstances or feelings, he decided to leave in the end,” Alba said last month. “But I am thrilled with the players we have here. I have more of the wing to attack [now]. Honestly, for me it is much better.”
Alba is also happy to be working with Valverde following friction with Luis Enrique when he was left out of the team for a run of games last season and he said: “I am delighted with him. His communication with the players is excellent and that helps us to all play together as one.”
However, part of collective success includes individual brilliance and also little link-ups and partnerships all over the pitch, like his with Messi.
“To build an understanding with the best player in the world is easy,” Alba said. “His profile with his left foot is good for me. Ever since I arrived, we have looked for each other [on the pitch]. It’s a privilege to play with him and let’s hope there are many more passes and connections.”
For his part, Valverde said of the pair’s link-up: “Jordi is a player who reads the space and Messi has a peripheral vision that is out of the ordinary, to be able to find him with the ball when he gets into position. We are taking advantage of them and it is one of our strengths.”
He is right about that and Alba’s attacking qualities have helped Messi and the team to create and also score goals this season. So while Neymar and Alves may both be at Paris Saint-Germain, Messi has another main man these days – and Barcelona, leading La Liga and unbeaten in the Champions League, are doing just fine.