It’s almost rather unfortunate that this still needs reiteration, but it certainly does: Sergi Roberto is good at football. Really good.
So good, in fact, that Pep Guardiola once noted that Roberto was good enough to ‘play wherever he wants’. And it appears that either current Coach Luis Enrique took his predecessor’s words literally, or that Lucho sees similarities between the youngster’s style of play and his own.
It’s hard to think, though, that the natural midfielder was, at one stage, close to being lured away to a Stoke City side in search for creative players. Bojan Krkic, once labeled as La Masia’s most promising talent, had gone down that very path and there was little stopping Roberto from following suit.
But patience isn’t a virtue the 23-year-old lacks. The Tarragona native has been featuring in Barcelona’s pre-season tours since 2010, and yet his impressions have all been in vain. The man touted at the Catalans’ next big midfield star had faded and so a contract extension in 2014 came as a surprise.
Barcelona’s transfer ban and Enrique’s influence are possible explanations as the club wanted all bases covered. But with Xavi Hernandez departing during summer 2015, it seemed logical to give Roberto yet another chance. And with the window of opportunity open, the starlet left his mark in emphatic fashion.
Prior to this season, Roberto had managed just 14 League starts since debuting in 2010. Midway through this term, the 23-year-old has already made 16 appearances in the League, starting in 12 of them.
"Getting more playing time has really boosted my confidence," he confessed. "In the past I might have to wait a month between matches, and regular game time has made a huge difference to me – psychologically as much as anything else.
"If you're only getting the odd game and you have one bad day, then you might never be picked again. Now I can allow myself to take a few risks because I'm playing regularly."
Roberto’s versatility became apparent during the pre-season when he deputized for Dani Alves, who was on holiday after the Copa America. Since then, his rise has, arguably, been a result of injury misfortunes.
The cantera graduate was called once again to cover at right-back 19 minutes into the Primera season when the Brazilian went down injured at San Mames. Sergi would go on to retain his position in crucial matches against Atletico Madrid and Malaga.
Then, with Andres Iniesta and Rafinha injured, Roberto was drafted back into midfield initially covering for the veteran before featuring while Ivan Rakitic was injured before the international break.
It was Roberto’s starring performance against Real Madrid that was indicative of his ability. Having dominated the opening 10 minutes of the fixture, Roberto, who featured on the right wing at the expense of not-yet-fit Lionel Messi, had the foresight to drag Sergio Ramos out of position with an emphatic first-touch off Sergio Busquet’s through ball into space before laying off a pass for Luis Suarez to open the scoring.
86% pass accuracy, 14 chances created, 69% dribble success rate and 50% tackle success rate are just some of the numbers which sum up a rather impressive half-season. Only Messi and Neymar have completed more dribbles than Roberto, while only Busquets and Javier Mascherano have managed more tackles, all four of them world-class in their own right.
To be named in the same breath as such illustrious talent can only mean one thing – an international debut is calling. “Sergi could well go to the European Championship with Spain next summer; he's well within our thoughts and plans," admitted Spain’s assistant manager, Toni Grande while Luis Enrique added: "It's difficult to play for any national team, especially the Spanish team, but I think he's more than ready."
For a player who can break up play and make last-ditch tackles with the same ease as controlling the midfield and playing incisive passes is completely out of the ordinary. And so, it’s rather poetic that the player that has had such a crucial role in keeping Enrique’s side afloat this season is being fashioned in the same mould as the Coach himself.
Still, it seems unfortunate that Roberto isn’t considered a star of the show. But having featured in seven positions already this season, you get the feeling that, without him, the whole production could just as well have already fallen apart.