Jordi Alba: Sprinting to success

When Johan Cruyff recognises your talent, it usually means you’re doing something right, “He has been the revelation of the tournament”. The praise was the latest in a long line of achievements for Jordi Alba – days after the words from the iconic Dutchman the full-back was to reach the highest point of his career yet.

A trademark burst down the left side, Alba exchanged passes with Xavi and received a return ball before showing an injection of pace to get clear of Italy’s trailing defence, then finally offering the composure to slot home. Alba had just scored the second of Spain’s four goals in the Euro 2012 final, a moment which capped an incredible season for a player who this time last year was on his holidays with his future unclear.

Adaptation and explosion at Valencia

When he returned, Alba attacked pre-season like he would everything else in 2011-2012 – with ferocity.  Coaching staff at Valencia were immediately impressed with his new-found attitude, and words filtered through to the local press Unai Emery had been testing him as a left-back. This move was not uncommon in Spain with the likes of José Ángel all playing higher up the field at Juvenil level. Alba had been a bit part player in a left-wing role, never really securing a place in the side and offered seldom more than impact when featuring at Valencia. His attributes were clear though; confident, intelligent, extremely quick and aggressive. He’d apply all these to his new-found left-back role, and did so with aplomb.

Alba’s improvement at first was a slow process, as he forgot the basics like tracking his runner and holding his defensive line. The rawness was expected, as he hadn’t shaped his own game in the left-wing role yet alone become quickly accustomed to a defensive one. He acknowledged so in El País “It wasn’t easy, but Unai gave me the confidence and the minutes so that I could adapt”. After the first quarter of the season Alba’s development became rapid, just like the player himself, and we saw a player learning very quickly. The one-on-one sessions with various members of Emery’s coaching staff were paying off, with the coach situating cones around zones Alba should focus upon to retain defensive responsibility and pushing clipboards full of notes in his face. On the field as Valencia stuttered it was Alba who stood out from the other players, offering consistency that few could ascertain. He competed furiously, unwilling to let anyone get past him be it at pace or standstill, tackling clean and hard each time breaking up moves, he added in El País; “In defence you must be vigilant at all times, the concentration must be priority”. He still pursued the attacking side of his game despite the move back, working in tandem with Jérémy Mathieu to offer an attacking point to Valencia’s system. Alba had the ability to link up with the Frenchman, or others in more attacking areas such as Jonas and Roberto Soldado, while he was also able to cut inside and drive into the penalty area at speed and with dangerous intent. His delivery wasn’t the best, but his combination play was excellent hence the frequency of his cutting in. At times, Emery even asked Alba to ghost into central attacking areas on the shoulder of the last defender such was the versatility of the player.

Spain and taking the left-back crown

The phrase ‘one-man wing’ came to mind, such was the tenacity the 21 year-old offered on a weekly basis pacing up and down the flank life his life depended upon it. The real acknowledgement of his achievements came when he was called up by Spain. The left-back slot had been the source of much debate, and in the upcoming months across various friendlies Alba solely settled any debate. Nacho Monreal and José Enrique could only watch on as he rampaged forward and defended with similar nous, securing his place as the heir to Joan Capdevila’s throne. Not only did he prove a worthy replacement but he raised the bar enough to bring added fuel to the Spain attacking fire. When things would become narrow, and congested centrally it would be Alba who would overlap and cause chaos as an alternative outlet.

The exposure of Euro 2012

Before Euro 2012 he had only made three appearances – Vicente del Bosque never doubted that it would be an issue given the incredible self belief of the player. Alba ended up participating in 5 of the 12 goals that Spain scored throughout the tournament, alas remaining an integral part of the system. Along with Andrés Iniesta he was the “electric” in Spain’s regular starting XI, providing the fusion between the midfield and attacking lines. Against Italy in the final he was third to only Xavi and Xabi Alonso in regards to passing, when he completed 78 of his 88. Many of the common predictions before the tournament went out the window, but a popular one was Alba’s impact on this tournament and he did not disappoint. A revelation as Cruyff says, certainly.

Returning home to Barcelona and the future…

Not only did Spain notice, but so did Barcelona. The Catalans previously had Alba in their clutches when he was a youngster but let him slip away – incredibly stating he was physically thwarted against larger competitors. His €14m return is more money handed over for their own produce (Cesc Fàbregas, Gerard Piqué…) but it is certainly well spent. At Barça we’ll see no doubt see him improve further, and what makes Alba so special is that he has the natural talent but also the desire to continue learning more – his return to an education from La Masia will only further him as a player. “I learned the philosophy of football: quick play, think before you receive the ball, the technical concepts… I learned everything” he continued in El País. The glimpses of understanding with Iniesta and Xavi were shown in Poland and Ukraine, and it will be interesting to see the development of a relationship with David Villa – no doubt Tito Vilanova already has plans afoot for Alba and his many possible functions.

Not that anyone can, there really is no holding Jordi Alba back.