Aleix Vidal and Dani Alves in battle to become Barcelona first choice
At first glance, Barcelona's starting line-up for Sunday's 6-0 win against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou looked like business as usual, but there was a small alteration that deserved extra attention.
In all but one of the names chosen, Luis Enrique opted for the treble-winning first choice XI he settled on at this time last year. Barca's "Gala 11" as it is known colloquially in Catalonia.
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar led the line, while in the midfield, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta are the nailed-on starters. At centre-back, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano always partner up in the toughest games.
The left-back's position is Jordi Alba's, and in the league, Claudio Bravo is the undisputed first choice goalkeeper. It's an experienced, balanced group of players that the coach trusts to resolve the trickiest of games.
At right-back, however, the Barcelona manager decided to throw a surprise into the mix. In round 20 of La Liga, usual starter Dani Alves was told to sit on the bench and watch the younger aspirant to his spot, Aleix Vidal, play 90 minutes.
The decision can be perceived as a loaded one and the coach will be well aware of that. Aleix only made his debut for Barcelona on Jan. 6 and has since chalked up three appearances at right-back in the space of 11 days. First making a 23-minute cameo from the bench against Espanyol, then starting against weaker opposition in the form of Granada, the most significant of those games was clearly the starting spot against Athletic. By picking the newcomer against the Basques, Barcelona's coach sent out a message to Alves -- he not only has competition in the long-term, but also serious competition for the present.
The Catalan has hit the ground running spectacularly well, no doubt helped by spending six months training with his new side before kicking a competitive ball. In his league bow against Granada, he showed signs that he has fully absorbed the movements required in his position. Surging forward down the flank and tracking back well when required in that game, he played a part in the move for Messi's opening goal.
Aleix only lasted an hour in the Granada match but in his full 90 minutes against Athletic he provided a more conclusive appraisal of what he can offer Barca in the second half of the season. Most obvious was the injection of pace he added down the right flank, with the 26-year-old making the kind of surging runs behind the Athletic back four that have only been seen intermittently at Barcelona since their usual right-back lost his legs with age.
The new signing had more than just endless energy, though -- there was also clear tactical intelligence displayed. Athletic going down to 10 men meant there was little doubt that Ernesto Valverde would look to shut up shop, and Aleix quickly adapted in an effort to stretch the game. When the build-up play was concentrated on the left side of the pitch, he would pull out wide on the right, offering the option to switch play. When that was taken, he would bring the high diagonal pass down with a solid touch, placing the ball in front of him to get off the mark as quickly as possible and make a meaningful run.
Unsurprisingly for a player who spent time in Barcelona's academy, he seems to fully grasp the need to not be in the same channel as the player in front of him, a key part of the club's positional play. When Messi cut inside, Aleix would pull wide. When Ivan Rakitic moved over to the wing, the right-back became a temporary right midfielder.
The movements were all spot on, and the use of the ball wasn't bad either. Swinging in a few teasing crosses, the newcomer also varied his output well, playing a handful of the Alves-esque through balls that few right-backs would attempt. One such curving pass in the fourth minute led to Gorka Iraizoz bringing down Suarez in the Athletic area. The goalkeeper was sent off, Barca went on to play against 10 men for the vast majority of the game and Messi dispatched the resulting penalty to break the deadlock just minutes after kick-off.
Alves must have watched those parts of his competitor's performance with some concern, as they were spotlessly executed. There were, however, other performance areas that will give the veteran assurance he isn't quite ready to be written out of Luis Enrique's script just yet. Most notably, Aleix lacks the same understanding with Messi as his older counterpart. On numerous occasions against Athletic, the Catalan would make a run on the overlap into the opposition area, only for Messi to ignore it and instead pass to someone else.
That's a calculated move: Messi is all about efficiency and very rarely takes the wrong option. The No. 10 won't trust Aleix with possession in congested areas as much as he does Alves, who he knows will rarely lose it. It's no coincidence that the Brazilian and the Ballon d'Or winner always do their prematch warm-up together, away from other teammates. That kind of relationship can only be built with time and for the moment, it's an advantage the older defender has over his challenger.
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It won't last forever, though, and the early signs are that Luis Enrique is deliberately setting the stage for a battle to tie down a key place in his Gala 11. If the coach can play that game the right way, it should benefit his team. With real competition in his spot for the first time since signing for Barcelona in 2008, Alves will need to maintain consistently high performance levels to keep playing, as dropping him for mistakes is now a feasible response.
Aleix, for his part, will need to analyse his fellow right-back's game in great detail then replicate his positive traits as well as possible, so that not only his coach but also Messi are left with a feeling of seamless transition from the old to the new. The power struggle should be fascinating to watch.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter @LeeRoden89.