Why Barcelona full-back Aleix Vidal has fallen out of favour with Luis Enrique
It has been 45 days since Aleix Vidal was last seen in a Barcelona shirt. It has been 26 days since he gave a news conference at the club's San Joan Despi training ground ahead of the Clasico against Real Madrid, conceding that it is "difficult to adapt to the best club in the world and even more difficult if you are competing with the best full-back [Dani Alves]." However, it turns out the Brazilian full-back isn't the only player causing him problems -- Sergi Roberto and Douglas are, too.
Vidal's career has taken the scenic route. After failing to make the grade at Barca, Real Madrid and Espanyol as a teenager, he fought his way back through the lower leagues, eventually establishing himself at Almeria. From there, he made the move to Sevilla, where Unai Emery converted him from a forward into a full-back.
The result was a resounding success and -- partly due to his Blaugrana DNA (born in Catalonia, he was released from La Masia when he was younger) -- Luis Enrique identified him as a potential Alves replacement. Alves would eventually sign a new deal with the Catalan club, but Vidal was still seen as the perfect addition to the squad: someone who could rotate with the 32-year-old and, eventually, take his place as a right-winger masquerading as a right-back. That was the plan, anyway. It may still be the plan, too, but Vidal is going through a difficult time at the moment. Alves is no longer his only obstacle. Midfielder Sergi Roberto, who has emerged as a player for all occasions this season, has been regularly preferred at right-back over the past month. Even Douglas, whose label as a Barca player has been cause of amusement for the club's fans, was named in the squad for the 8-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna last week. Vidal was left at home in Barcelona.
One of two reinforcements last summer -- along with Atletico Madrid's Arda Turan -- the 26-year-old had to wait until January to make his debut. Barca were allowed to sign players, but weren't allowed to register them until January due to their FIFA ban. It was a long seven months away from competitive action for Vidal, but he never saw that as a problem. "It was an easy decision," he said at his presentation last June. "What better place [than this] to improve?"
Turan and Vidal's big day eventually arrived in January. Over the next three months, Vidal would rotate in and out of the team with Alves. Everything was going to plan. He had ups and downs, but he looked relatively at home in the side. He took part in nine out of 12 league games, starting six of them, and was involved in five out of six Copa del Rey matches as Barca set up a final showdown with his former club, Sevilla.
The last of those 14 appearances came on Mar. 12. He played 90 minutes in a 6-0 win over Getafe and has not been seen since. No one noticed at first, but as the days have dragged on -- 45 and counting -- it's become more of a talking point, especially among the Catalan press.
Being left out of the squad for the Real Madrid game -- when he had been the nominated player to speak to the media two days prior to the match -- was the first surprise. An injury then set him back a week, but it has been in the weeks that have followed that people have begun to ask questions about his ostracism. At present he has not featured in Barca's last six La Liga games and was not been in the squad for their recent hammerings of Depor and Sporting.
"The squads that I name and the teams that I pick say enough. I don't tend to publicly comment on my decisions," the Barcelona manager said in a typically evasive manner when asked about Vidal's disappearance.
It's left Barcelona dailies El Mundo Deportivo and SPORT scrambling for answers. Both seem to agree on one line of thought: Vidal is not competing or training to the level expected of him by the coaching staff at the club. He supposedly understands his situation and is prepared to work hard to come out the other side, while Luis Enrique and his staff have confidence that he will become the signing they thought they made last summer for nearly 20 million euros.
Another answer, which is pure speculation, is that Luis Enrique is punishing him for his appearance in Gerard Pique's Periscope after the win at Eibar. Vidal, who was an unused substitute that day, joked about his role in the side: "The best thing about today has been the parchis [a game the Barca players play on away trips] and not much else. The Eibar bench? It was great, with Jeremy [Mathieu] by my side, like many other times." Vidal did feature in the very next game, against Getafe, but since then just been a handful of appearances on the bench as an unused substitute.
Vidal is not the first player to see their Barca future become fuzzy under Luis Enrique. Pique is one of the other players to have been though a similar phase since the 45-year-old took over in 2014. At a time when he made headlines for clashing with the police, the defender found himself AWOL from several squads as his performances on the pitch suffered. Pique, though, rectified the situation with hard work and has not only won back his place in the team, but has arguably been at his best since doing so.
The answer for Vidal is likely to lie in hard work, too. "I have had a lot of clubs, but I hope this will be my last," he said at his presentation. Now's the time to prove it.