Dani Alves: Who dares wins
Barça's rampaging full-back Dani Alves tells Pete Jenson at the Nou Camp that attack is the best form of defence – and next best is hard work
Tuesday 17 April 2012
'The riskiest thing you can do in football is not take any risks." It's one of Pep Guardiola's favourite mantras and no one player embodies the philosophy behind it quite like Dani Alves.
The player for whom the description "full-back" just doesn't even come close, will tomorrow night return to Stamford Bridge where in 2009, in the infamous Champions League semi-final second leg, he was typically all over the place, for better and, occasionally, for worse.
He was caught out of position by Ashley Cole in the move that lead to Michael Essien scoring and he wrestled Florent Malouda to the ground for what should have been a Chelsea penalty. But he was also galloping up the right wing three minutes into injury time and it was his cross that eventually came to Leo Messi, who passed to Andres Iniesta, who scored the away goal that put Barcelona into the final.
He who dares wins; and he who dares lots wins 18 trophies in six years at club level. No one can match Alves' average of three pieces of silverware a season since 2006.
We are ensconced in the Barcelona office from where his new website danialves.com has been created and he is suited, booted and only missing the oversized glasses and pork pie hat he's taken to wearing recently at the Nou Camp for games when he has been injured or suspended – the nutty boy image is one of the reasons why his incredible record is so often overlooked.
"The worst thing that can happen to you as a professional is to be in the hotel after the game with a coffee or a beer, and to realise you could have done more," he says. And has that ever happened to him? "No, never," he adds, the cabinet full of his medals and trophies behind him a testament to his words.
Alves dismisses the argument that Chelsea's elimination in 2009 was down to the Norwegian psychologist and part-time referee, Tom Henning Ovrebo. "People say Chelsea could have won but for the referee but that is not our problem. We were there to play football, to compete and try to get to the final. Chelsea did not reach the final because of fear.
"There's no doubt that was the hardest game we've played but a team with a man advantage [Barça's Eric Abidal was sent off at Stamford Bridge] playing at home and winning should have attacked us more. But if you don't have that concept of football then you take a step back, and then another step back, until you end up out.
"It's the losers who take the step back; the winners are the ones who take the step forward. I think Chelsea were missing that step forward."
With so many penalty appeals to discuss post-match that night there was little time to dwell on the then Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink's decision to replace the injured Didier Drogba with the defender Juliano Belletti with 20 minutes to go, but Alves has not forgotten the message it sent out.
"We realised that they had renounced the game. We realised that at 1-0 they were satisfied. All they did is get the ball and then get rid of it. They gifted us possession. And the worst thing you can do with Barcelona is give us possession."
Alves could have been hurtling forward – or more likely being waved furiously back into position – in a Chelsea shirt that night. Roman Abramovich wanted to sign him from Sevilla in 2007 but they wanted to keep him in what was their first season in the Champions League. Chelsea had also balked at paying more than £20m for a "mere" defender – which, of course, Alves is not.
"I am a full-back with possibilities," he says descriptively. "I come from the Brazilian school where the emphasis is always on attack and where I was brought up to be able to play in all positions."
"Full-backs with possibilities" in England don't always get an easy ride. Would Alves risk being lambasted for deserting his post were he to play in the Premier League? "I would have to defend a little bit more but just as I adapted to being a full-back here in Spain, if one day I have to play over in England, then I will attempt to change and to change the concept of what a full-back does."
It's a myth that Alves can't defend, it is just that at Barcelona it sometimes isn't his primary job, or as he puts it – it's everybody's job.
"Everyone has to help attack and everyone has to help defend," he says. "At the start everyone has their position but when the ball starts rolling then everyone has to adapt according to how the game develops. It's not the monotony of saying 'you do this and I'll do that'. The success of Barcelona comes from us being able to adapt to each other's needs on the pitch. It's responding to the movements of your team-mates."
Barcelona and Alves were always the perfect fit. When he describes the team talk prior to last season's European Cup final win over Manchester United you can tell he speaks the same language as his manager. "The only thing that Guardiola asked us to do was attack," he says. "It's the only way to win against teams that are strong physically.
"You can't let them have the ball. If they have the ball you have to go and get it back. We knew it was an historic game. We were playing the final at Wembley... what more could we ask for?"
His enduring memory from that day is Nemanja Vidic taking time out to congratulate him personally. "He said that the team that we had was just spectacular. When you get that from another professional it matters so much more.
"When I'm sitting on the sofa at home I'm the best player in the world but when you have got to go out there and play under enormous pressure it's not so easy and fellow professionals understand that.
"People think that footballers go out for a kickaround and if they win, fine and if they don't then fine too. But when you play at our level you have the obligation to win. The pressure is huge and big teams and big players are scared too sometimes. It is overcoming that which makes you great."
There were doubts over Guardiola's ability to incorporate the anarchy of Alves when he first signed him. Most imagined he would curb the Brazilian's enthusiasm for charging forward. They imagined wrong. Perhaps that would have been necessary in Frank Rijkaard's more pedestrian team of 2003-08 but the high intensity Guardiola imposed demanded Alves be the player he had been at Sevilla. "Sometimes the most difficult thing about Barcelona is not the way they play but the way they understand the game," he says. "I have improved tactically under Pep. I have learnt that the most difficult thing is often the simplest and that the way in which we pressure the opposition is crucial to everything."
Many a defeated coach has been exasperated by Barcelona's unmatchable work rate. "I never thought that a team could pressure the ball for 95 minutes as we do here. That is the thing that most surprised me. That is the way that Pep makes Barcelona play. He convinces great players that they have to play with this high tempo. It's his greatest virtue.
"The first person to apply the pressure is our best player Leo Messi. That pressure is the starting point for an entire concept – to be a great team you need to have everybody willing to go hunting for the ball. And you do it for each other. Tomorrow you will do it for me and the day after I will do it for you.
"Pep manages to keep everybody in that right frame of mind. The idea that everything is very lovely and yeah we've won lots of titles doesn't hold. It is done now. It is history and we go back to work."
Alves smiles and gestures to the silverware behind him. "One thing I have learnt is that all this is just decoration," he says. "It fills the cabinet. But beyond the trophies, what remains for you is the feeling of 'Woah! What a great team we had; what great team-mates; what a great group.' That is what I want to take away at the end of it all."
Number of assists Made by Dani Alves in the league this season, more than any other full-back in any of Europe's major top-flight leagues.
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