By Alan Feehely l @azulfeehely
“He’s one of those players that we say has Barça DNA,” Xavi Hernandez told Sport in the summer of 2018 about Barcelona’s new Brazilian midfielder, Arthur Melo. “He has all the qualities needed to be a success and if he’s given games, I think we’re looking at a player that can mark an era at Barcelona.”
No pressure, then. Barcelona are one of the most intriguing clubs in world football for myriad reasons, but two especially. Firstly, it is not enough to just win for them – they must do it in a style that resonates with their culture. Secondly, their captain is the 33-year-old Lionel Messi, who has not won the Champions League title in five years. This has inspired a degree of panic amongst the Barcelona hierarchy – they have scrambled to assemble a team worthy of their star player, reaching for quick fixes that has diluted the club’s essence. Indeed, the club may miss out on the league title to Real Madrid and you can check out all the reviews here.
Both reasons have conflated to create a difficult environment for Arthur, the man Xavi tipped to mark an era at Barcelona, to succeed at the club. Last Tuesday he started against Athletic Club Bilbao in a crucial game in Barça’s bid to keep pace with Madrid in a close title race. Earlier that day, reports emerged that Juventus had agreed a deal to bring Arthur to Italy, with coach Maurizio Sarri looking to build a team around the Brazilian in the same manner he did at Napoli with Jorginho. The player himself, however, said to those close to him that he was determined to stay and fight for his place at Camp Nou. In what is a constantly evolving situation – reports on Friday claimed he would be allowed to travel to Turin this weekend to undergo a medical at Juventus, following the Blaugrana’s meeting with Celta Vigo.
He looked short on confidence against Athletic Club. As always, he had all the trappings of a top player – excellent first touch, enviable close control, and that certain way of moving that only the elite have. He did not, however, contribute an end product. Especially with Frenkie de Jong out injured, his job was to progress their play and make adventurous passes in the final third, but whenever he tried either his accuracy was off or the pass was mistimed.
As a result, Messi had to constantly drop deep to single-handedly carry forward attacks, far away from the area of the pitch he can do the most damage. Arthur was hooked mid-way through the second-half in favour of Riqui Puig, a 20 year-old from the Catalan village of Matadepera. He was a clear improvement on his expensive colleague, operating with a fearlessness reminiscent of the greatest Barcelona teams, while Arthur trudged off the field dejected.
Born in Goiânia on 12 August 1996, Arthur began his career with local side Goiás Esporte Clube in 2008 before moving to Porto Alegre to join Grêmio two years later. He made his debut in 2015 under Luiz Felipe Scolari, gradually developing to become a key member of the side that won the club’s first Copa Libertadores title since 1995 in 2017. Arthur was man of the match in the final against Argentine side Lanús despite coming off injured, and would go on to win the Copa do Brasil, the Recopa Sudamericana, and the Campeonato Gaúcho with Grêmio before signing for Barcelona on a six-year contract in a deal potentially worth up to €40m in 2018.
“He came to the Brazilian media’s attention during Grêmio’s run in the 2017 Copa Libertadores,” recalled Brazilian journalist Bruno Freitas. “It’s a consensus that his performances in the knockout stage raised the team’s level. Fans and the press deeply regretted his injury in the final against Lanús which prevented him from facing Real Madrid in the Club World Cup, when they were easily dominated in midfield.
“I don’t think he has shown the best of his game in European football and with the Brazilian national team,” continued Freitas. “In Spain, there was a lot of talk about his physical condition, and his inability to stay on the pitch for 90 minutes. I think this aspect will be a challenge for him to establish himself as a top international player. There were reports that Arthur has gone to work with a personal physio this season to try to improve his condition.
“There was a lot of expectation when he left Brazil. The local football analysts understood that Barcelona’s culture would be ideal for developing Arthur’s game, but that has not really happened yet. I do, however, still believe in his potential. Perhaps the Italian style will suit him better, as has happened with Emerson, for instance.”
His time at Barcelona has not been an unmitigated failure by any means. Statistically, he is one of the most valuable players in Europe, ranking highly in terms of ball retention, the ability to win ground duels while in possession, and link-up passing. In 70 appearances for Barcelona, however, he has scored just four times and recorded just six assists. Arthur has not stamped his authority on the team and hasn’t convinced with his creative ability, leaving an open spot beside Sergio Busquets and De Jong in the middle three.
“When Barça sign Brazilian players who aren’t very well known here in Europe, the outcome can be disappointing,” said Barcelona-based journalist Román de Arquer. “There are many examples – Douglas, [Fábio] Rochemback, Henrique, Keirrison, Geovanni, and the many others that start at Barça B and never even make it to the first team.
“Arthur has had plenty of ups and down at Barcelona, and now he’s definitely going through one of his lowest points, but he’s an extremely talented player and definitely has that Xavi-esque feel to his football. His passing is top notch, and he can set the tempo of a match if he feels like it. On the downside, he hasn’t got the physical condition to play 90 minutes at a high rate and he lacks verticality, the ability to take risks with long balls, and shots from distance. To be fair, that’s something many Barça players seem to be struggling with lately.”
“Arthur has got so much raw talent for a 23-year-old, and he’s probably the closest Barça will get to finding a similar player to Xavi. He needs to be properly trained and motivated to fulfil his potential at Camp Nou, so a trade, or anything similar, for a 30 year-old [Miralem] Pjanić just doesn’t seem right to me. But Barça are desperate to sell and make money, so his prospects of staying don’t look too good.”
The deal does indeed seem to be close to becoming reality. Marcelo Bechler, a well-respected Brazilian journalist who was one of the first to call Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain, reported on Wednesday that Arthur has given in and is willing to negotiate with Juventus, expecting an “irrefutable proposal”. The clubs, he said, are sure that the deal will happen.
Swiss Ramble, a popular Twitter account that analyses the business of football, explained the mechanics of the deal. On the face of it, it appeared that Barcelona were selling Arthur to Juventus for €80m only to take their Bosnian midfielder Pjanić for €70m, making it seem that Barcelona were only making a €10m profit. The complex accounting mechanisations, however, will allow both clubs to report a €60m profit from the transaction.
Arthur is a footballer with vast potential. He’s still just 23 and should his move to Juventus happen he could well prove to be a key member of a fierce team. Last summer, he provided the crucial assist that enabled Gabriel Jesus to score the winning goal in the 2019 Copa América final for Brazil against Peru. He does, however, seem to have fallen foul of the Camp Nou pressure-cooker, a spotlight that has deemed too bright for many otherwise elite stars in recent years.