Built like a brick outhouse, mistaking Barcelona’s breakthrough star, Ronald Araújo, for an NFL linebacker at first glance would be merely considered an honest mistake. With his tall, sturdy and strapping physique, the Uruguayan crowd-puller has only seen his trajectory move upwards since the beginning of the campaign. Although, Araújo may typically be perceived as an impulsive and no-nonsense defender — which he, by all means, is —, the 22-year old couples his brawn with brains, timing his tackles to perfection, while lunging into challenges like a raging bull.
In a season full of turmoil, the ubiquitous Uruguayan has proven to be a ray of hope for the feeble future that lies ahead. So, as we finally part ways with the 20/21 season, allow Barça Universal to accompany you on a rather recallable trip down memory lane with Ronald Araújo’s season thoroughly summarized and reviewed.
With deadline day seeing Barça bid farewell to the likes of Jean-Clair Todibo and Rafinha, Barcelona’s stacked squad had slowly started dwindling, and reinforcements from the B team seemed inevitable. One of the few players to gain a first-team promotion after the first few matchdays was the promising young centre-back, Ronald Araújo.
Having produced several encouraging displays in the previous term, with one of his most notable exhibitions against Mallorca at the San Moix, his patience gradually bore fruit, proving he had everything it takes to cement himself as a dependable figure in the starting XI.
The number 4 jersey, famously once donned by two historical figures at Barcelona — Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola. Now, the number had been entrusted to the upcoming star, with pressure mounting like never before. However, despite murmurs in the background regarding a potential promotion overwhelming any young player in the early stages of the season, possessing nerves of steel, the former River Boston sensation rose to the occasion valiantly in his first-ever start against Sevilla.
Given Lenglet was unavailable for the match due to picking up a red card suspension in his previous outing, the ideal opportunity for Araújo to express his talents in front of Ronald Koeman had arrived. As foreseen, the prodigy made hay exceptionally while the sun shone, despite a 1-1 draw not the best outcome at the time. The 21-year old kept Sevilla’s nifty forwards at bay for most of the game, complementing Gerard Piqué with extreme efficiency.
A facet of his gameplay, which was quite frequently frowned upon, was his ability on the ball and overall distribution. Still, on this occasion, he seemed to have shown tremendous improvement in that regard, showing a great deal of confidence against a well-reputed opposition. Thus, albeit a contrasting display was likely not going to change a predestined outcome, Araújo’s stellar outing was rewarded with a much-awaited advancement to the first team.
Ever since that incredibly uplifting performance from the burly centre-back, opportunities came rather sporadically for him, particularly since Clement Lenglet had returned to the line-up and was unequivocally regarded as a starter. Finally, however, lady luck laureled Araújo in the all-important encounter against Juventus, with Gerard Piqué picking up a suspension for an immensely controversial call against Ferencvarós.
Losing out on Barcelona’s cornerstone in defense, Araújo bided time anxiously for his opportunity and did not fail to relish the occasion. Regrettably, a solid first 45 minutes was woefully marred with a concerning substitution at halftime. Then, having sustained a thigh injury, his night was cut short.
Gerard Piqué also suffered a career-threatening injury against Atlético Madrid in his brief hiatus, depleting centre-back options even further. The lack of replacements at the back paved the way for Oscar Mingueza to fill in, another talented young defender who shared the same field with Araújo for one year in the B team. Despite showcasing some promising performances, Araújo was invariably going to be prioritized on his return.
Ironically, he regained his fitness levels just in time for the second fixture against Juventus, which was to be played at the Camp Nou. Expectations were high once Araújo’s name was inscribed on the team sheet as he paired up with Lenglet at the heart of defense. However, the aspiring centre-back’s return was quite dissatisfactory and unlucky, to say the least. Responsible for conceding a penalty in the early stages of the game and paying the price for Ronaldo’s killer instinct from the spot, he enabled Juve to take the lead. Still, in all fairness, it was simply the slightest of contact.
The fact that Lenglet produced arguably one of his worst displays as a Blaugrana was not doing his partner any favours. Aside from the penalty, Araújo was fairly solid and even covered for Lenglet and Umtiti’s errors on countless occasions.
Moving on swiftly from the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Pirlo’s men, Araújo came up clutch against Levante as it was yet another sublime showing from the Uruguayan. Using his sheer physical presence to win the ball back and committing inch-perfect challenges, the defense remained well-grounded under his supervision.
As the Catalans secured a marginal victory, they then locked horns against league leaders, Real Sociedad, at home soil. Koeman’s incredibly ballsy move to sit out Lenglet saw Araújo pair up with a new partner in Mingueza. Starting an inexperienced duo raised some concerns, but their partnership blossomed like a flower on the night, with Araújo proving to be the yin to Mingueza’s yang.
The South American, especially, dealt oh-so-well against Real Sociedad’s barraging front-line and somehow managed to not concede any goals in the second half, even though Barça’s aggression was marred with a drastic decline. From his excellent anticipation of strikers to his positional maturity, Araújo flaunted his aerial and defensive prowess.
The youngster’s progression was unbelievably not halted as he built on that foundation in the next game against Valencia. Both teams concluded the first half with a goal on the scoreboard. Araújo then managed to elevate an already impressive display to something special, scoring a sizzling scissor kick in the 52nd minute of the game. Standing tall at 6ft 3′, his acrobatics allowed the hosts to put their noses in front — a moment to savour even though they eventually dropped points.
Barcelona’s next clash against Real Valladolid was Araújo’s least demanding game with the team setting up in a 3 at the back formation, but he was reliable nonetheless. However, a strong string of performances came to an abrupt end against Eibar, where the gleaming star masked his hard-earned efforts by a schoolboy error at the back. Despite winning 12 of his 14 aerial duels and tackling immaculately, Araújo’s abhorrent error through a misplaced pass led to Eibar salvaging a draw.
After a couple of respectable exhibitions against Huesca and Athletic Bilbao, despite being named in the XI for the clash against Granada, he was replaced minutes before the game commenced, picking up an injury during training. Since the Blaugranas sealed a 4-0 victory, his absence was not particularly felt, but to many’s relief, Araújo was back in time for the Supercup semi-final against Real Sociedad. A cagey affair forced the game into extra time and eventually to penalties.
Although the likes of Ter Stegen and Riqui Puig stole the limelight initially, Araújo enjoyed yet another flawless game against La Real. Without him neutralizing Isak and Oyarzabal for large portions, it’s safe to say Barça would have been done and dusted in normal time. The prodigious defender dismantled the opposition’s attacks seamlessly, brimming in confidence in a high magnitude fixture.
The Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao was highly reminiscent of the semi-final against Sociedad, yet again, stretching out to extra time. However, on this occasion, tiring legs and fatigue got the better of Barça and Araújo was simply unable to prevent his side from leaking goals in like a sieve. While the result did not go in Barça’s favour, it would only be fair to claim that Araújo was the only defender in the back-line executing sensible plays – winning 5 out of 6 aerial duels and asserting physical dominance, albeit his distribution was rather mediocre.
Continuing to establish his role in the side, the centre-back was once more crucial for Koeman against Barça’s next opponent, Cornella. Although this was his third game in a row heading into extra time, Araújo looked immensely fit and up for the challenge, winning all 9 of his ground duels and 9 out of 11 aerial duels. The following three games against Elche, Rayo Vallecano and Athletic Bilbao were no different as they encapsulated the defensive juggernaut’s innate abilities at the back.
Although his contribution in build-up plays proceeded to be a minor facet, all three games saw him produce exceptionally reliable displays, given he as usual reigned supreme in duels. The costly error that saw him sulk in shame against Eibar only proved that his setback was simply a setup for his comeback.
Though, heading into the Copa Del Rey quarter finals, a somewhat mediocre performance from the Uruguayan was a testament that his road to the top is still a long one, albeit he may often remain in the guise of a seasoned veteran. Leaving acres of space behind, Araújo rushed forward frequently to join the attack, while his poor positioning also allowed for Soldado to score a troublefree goal.
Pairing up with Umtiti, a major culprit for Granada’s goals, undeniably impacted him too, but it was no excuse for his subpar display. Fortunately, the Blaugranas managed to seal victory through a valiant comeback, conceding two goals before the hour mark.
If Araújo’s campaign thus far proved one thing, he never allowed underwhelming exhibitions to bring him down or tamper his form, simply recovering with the mentality of a champion. However, as they say, there’s a first time for everything, and woefully, the man in red hot form was forced to retreat due to an injury in the first half against Real Betis.
However, Barça’s backbone in defense departing immediately led to Manuel Pelligrini’s men having a field day in the final third, even grasping a 1-0 lead. Luckily for Barça, Messi magic saved the day, but defensive vulnerabilities became increasingly concerning as Araújo departed the field with head in hands.
Cracks in an already exposed back-line became difficult to conceal as the absence of Araújo led to a few disdainful defeats, with the defense, unsurprisingly, a thorn in the side. Taking on Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, Barça were beaten 2-0 in the first leg. Shortly after, the hammering at the hands of PSG made it crystal clear that Barça had many deficiencies at the back, which the omnipresent South American seamlessly enshrouded. Without his commanding attendance, Barça suffered gravely, most notably against the two aforementioned heavyweights and Cádiz.
Nevertheless, Koeman quickly made amends in the league game against Sevilla, where a refreshing three-at-the-back system brought a completely new dimension to the Catalans’ gameplay. A huge bonus proved to be the substitution of the man himself, Ronald Araújo, after proceedings. Nevertheless, Koeman almost immediately paid the price for seemingly rushing him as the 22-year old was taken off due to his left ankle giving up on him.
While the 2-0 victory was a positive to behold, witnessing Barça’s star centre-back go through additional trials was far from an encouraging sight. From that game onwards, though, the newfound 3-5-2/3-4-3 system became a mainstay for Barcelona and gradually removed most doubts in the defense. Vibrant displays against PSG, Sevilla in the Copa del Rey second leg and Real Sociedad paid testimony to the surge in performances.
There’s no denying Araújo’s inclusion in these games may have elevated those zestful exhibitions, but after missing 5 fixtures, the international break aided the youngster to recover fully and make his comeback in the colossal Clásico.
Woefully, that’s where Barça’s purple patch came to an abrupt end. Albeit playing a high line against a team that tend to brutalize sides in transition was a gamble on Koeman’s part, Araújo certainly was a pale shadow of himself too, failing to form a rigid defensive line and frequently getting beat in 1v1 situations against Vinicius. He utilized his pace to halt a few threatening counterattacks to his credit, but in a game of such stature, Araújo’s recent minimal game time cost him severely.
Koeman consequently resorted to relying on Mingueza, Piqué and Lenglet in the upcoming fixtures, with the three musketeers yielding significant results, especially against Athletic Bilbao in the cup final. That solid form was to remain shortlived, however. With a terrific goal off the bench against Getafe as well as blunderous performance from the likes of Umtiti and Mingueza against Granada, Araújo was brought back into the XI against Valencia, where he played a similar role to Mingueza with his ball distribution and a superior level of aerial assertion.
Heading into what potentially appeared to be the title decider against Atlético Madrid, Araújo surprisingly started from the bench, while Mingueza retained his spot; a decision that turned out to be a huge misjudgment considering the born and bred La Masia graduate exposed spaces behind him frequently and troubled to contain the likes of Suárez and Carrasco. The coaching staff, realizing they were fortunate to be drawing, brought on Araújo at halftime as they atoned for their error.
The Uruguayan was imposing at the back and dismantled innumerable plays from the Los Rojiblancos when they were on the charge. He even came close to scoring the opener. As Barça’s dreams of lifting La Liga now hung by a thread, their hopes were completely crushed against Levante in the penultimate game. Araújo featured in the first half, where the Blaugranas maintained a clean sheet and even scored twice.
At the break, though, it appeared that the centre-back had been taken off due to some discomfort. Unsurprisingly, Levante went haywire after his exclusion, scoring three goals and snatching a point. The right-hand side was exploited the moment Roberto came on for Araújo.
Concluding the campaign, Barcelona’s final face off against Eibar was one of their most lacklustre exhibitions of the term. To nobody’s surprise, though, Araujo was once again the only individual working his socks off and gluing a completely disorganized back-line comprising of unfamilar faces.
Rating Araujo’s season
Claiming Ronald Araújo to be one of the most encouraging young centre-backs in Europe this season would not be a far fetch. Although his ball-playing abilities are arguably his weakest, capable of finetuning and improvement, Barcelona have lacked an imposing figure at the back who not only possesses awe-inspiring aerial dominance; but also has the legs to cover for his teammates in transition and hardly ever lets an opponent blitz past him. Despite starting in one of Barça’s most leaky defense in years, the Uruguayan somehow managed to obscure several flaws at the back.
On that account, Barça Universal rates the prodigy an 8 out of 10. Barcelona have certainly struck gold with this boy, and his tendency to step up in various big encounters proves he has the skills to pay the bills. Of course, he was never the ideal Barca centre-back who would stand out through his abilities on the ball, but pairing him with one would undeniably help him and the team advance. More competition, expectations and experience next season are bound to bring the best out of the fascinating Araujo.