Barcelona’s hero in Sunday night’s win over Atletico Madrid was, obviously, Lionel Messi, as the skipper struck a typically wonderful late goal to secure the points (Messi is also, equally obviously, the best player in the world. Congratulations to the Ballon d’Or awards for stating the bleeding obvious).
And the other hero for the Blaugrana this weekend was Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who won his personal duel with Jan Oblak by making a couple of magnificent first-half saves from Mario Hermoso and Alvaro Morata to keep his team on level terms.
Messi and ter Stegen. Yes, they were marvellous.
But so, too, was another player, one who hardly ever seems to attract much attention or earn much praise, and belongs firmly in the ‘unsung hero’ category: Sergi Roberto.
At times, it’s tempting to wonder how Sergi Roberto has managed to sustain a place in and around the Barca starting eleven for so long, because he often looks well below the necessary level to star for the Camp Nou club. His touch is average, his passing no better than adequate, he’s not quick or particularly strong, he’s mediocre in the air and he doesn’t score many goals.
But all these relative deficiencies are compensated by one crucial ingredient, which he possesses in greater abundance than perhaps any of his teammates: game intelligence. The 27 year-old (yes, he really is that old) just *gets it*, allowing him to play multiple positions with the minimum of fuss and always provide a positive, if unflashy, contribution.
A nice illustration of that ability came with Messi’s winner on Sunday night, when Sergi Roberto gave a perfect example of how to play a key role in the scoring of a goal without even touching the ball.
Watch the goal closely, perhaps pausing the action a couple of times to see exactly how it unfolds, and you will see that when Messi receives possession, around ten yards inside Atletico’s half, Sergi Roberto is sprinting forward in support, almost alongside him.
The obvious thing for a full-back to do in that situation was run towards the right wing, going on the overlap to stretch the pitch and give Messi a wide passing option. But that would have been ideal for the Atletico defence, who could have simply left him alone and been perfectly content to see Messi release the ball with a pass to the wing rather than continuing his route towards goal.
Knowing this, Sergi Roberto instead made a far less obvious run, charging through the inside right channel towards the edge of the area. Now the home team defence had to react, otherwise Messi could have simply slid a relatively simple ball into his teammate’s path for a clear shot on goal. So Mario Hermoso, just for a couple of paces, stepped backwards and to his left, following Sergi Roberto’s run to close him down.
This was exactly what Messi was hoping for, and he instantly took advantage of the space created by Hermoso’s movement by taking the ball the other way and playing a wall pass with Luis Suarez. Hermoso tries to react but it’s too late: he can’t get to Suarez quickly enough to make prevent the one-two, and can’t get to Messi quickly enough to block the shot. 1-0, game over.
Of course, there were other elements to the goal: Messi’s control as he cut inside had to be perfect, as did Suarez’s return pass, as did Messi’s finish, and you could argue that Felipe should have done more to block the shot. But without the intelligent run from Sergi Roberto, Hermoso would have been in a much better position and the goal might not have been scored.
And that is what this most understated of Barca superstars offers. His work isn’t always visible, but it is generally highly effective – although it should be noted that on Sunday night he did also produce a very obvious key moment in defence, again showing great awareness by clearing a cross-shot from inside the six-yard box to deny Vitolo a simple tap-in.
Although Sergi Roberto’s abilities are not always appreciated by fans and pundits – not many people would place him in their ideal Barca XI – his teammates and coaches certainly regard him highly.
That’s why he has overcome his obvious limitations to remain a regular in the team for the last five seasons, racking up 261 appearances in the process. That’s why Ernesto Valverde is keen to play him more regularly in midfield, to give a sense of order and control to his team’s approach play. And that’s why, perhaps, Sergi Roberto is currently the biggest unsung hero in football.
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