With growing rumours of a potential transfer, Barcelona should protect and develop a midfielder that has all the conditions to succeed at the Camp Nou in Arthur Melo.
Announced in March 2018, and brought in in July of that same year, it wasn’t until 3 October that Barcelona fans fully got to know who Arthur Melo was. Still, that date came much earlier than first anticipated. While excelling at Brazil’s Grêmio, making the leap from South American to European football – not to mention Barça – was never going to be easy. Nonetheless, there he was: Arthur started and delivered an exhibition at Wembley against Tottenham, in the Champions League. His introduction letter came nothing less than in one of football’s temples and biggest stages. The blaugranas beat Spurs by 4–2 that day, and the expectations regarding their new tiny yet influential midfielder started to grow.
With his low centre of gravity, superb passing range, extraordinary ability to shield the ball and turn around, and even the feint and move known as the pelopina, comparisons were often drawn between Arthur and Xavi. And that’s where problems began. The Brazilian has by no means lowered his level – in fact, he has possibly increased it –, but perhaps the lack of continuity on and off pitch problems have prevented him from reaching the heights he was expected to reach. So much so that the board may even be considering including him in one of their much-desired swap deals.
❛ Arthur reminds me of Xavi. When you give him the ball, you feel that he has the ability to retain it ❜
But it must not be forgotten that Arthur is only 23 and, despite it is very tough to find someone with the raw material required to play at Barcelona, Melo certainly has it. His first season was supposed to be of adaptation, of playing little minutes and getting used to Spanish football. Yet he greatly improved those predictions, as he established himself as a regular starter when fit. Now, in his second campaign, he has been supposed to make another step forward. And he has clearly made it. As one of the breakthrough youngsters of the 2018/19 campaign, in the 2019/20 he has been one of the few positive news of this unstable season for Barça.
After a summer in which all eyes turned to the culés‘ new wonderkid Frenkie de Jong, Arthur has perhaps been the most relevant of the interiors when on the field. Many times criticised for his risk aversion, the 23-year-old has been much more forward-thinking and determined this term. If last year he was a joy to watch but did not yet have much hierarchy in the side, this course he has become much more decisive and impactful. While ensuring safe passes in low areas, his vision in the opposing half has been significant as well. Arthur, like De Jong or Busquets, is considered a player to act deep in midfield, but he may well be the most complete and global of them all. Yes, Arthur thrives in deep zones, but also in higher and more congested areas. The number 8 has been much more determined and aggressive towards the opposing goal than before. This campaign he has registered 4 goals and 4 assists in 1.362 minutes in all competitions, compared to only 2 assists in roughly 2.500 minutes last term.
Barcelona should protect two of the world’s brightest young midfielders in Arthur and De Jong | Photo by Imago
His figures have experienced a significant upgrade over the past months. From 0.2 shots per game in the 18/19 La Liga, to 0.5 in the present one. From 53 touches to 60. From 0.4 dribbles to 1.8. From 2.5 duels won to 4.8. From 0.5 key passes to 0.7. His passing accuracy, though, has decreased, from 93.5% to 91.2%, but this could hint at his more vertical and complex deliveries. Arthur no longer is horizontal, as many people still believe he is.
Arthur has the conditions, mostly technical, to be an extraordinary midfielder for Barcelona. His innate ability to evade the press, his personality and self-sufficiency to move the ball out of risky situations when intimidated by the rivals, his accurate passes and controls to favour a fluid possession game, his agility to dance through defenders and carry the ball…But, obviously, he’s still nowhere near the perfect Barcelona midfielder. His dynamism can be extremely useful for a team that at times lacks such activity and charisma, but the objective should be to not transform this dynamism into excessive mobility. Xavi Hernández was a very dynamic interior, but he used it to adapt his position to every situation and to adjust the distances with teammates and opponents. Thus, the Catalan was a very positional interior. Arthur is a very dynamic midfielder too, but this has caused problems more than once as his tendency to get close to the ball makes him invade others’ zones.
❛ That [rarely taking risks] happened to me too. When I was 20 or 21 years old I didn’t take many risks. I didn’t break lines as often. It’s a matter of confidence. He will have it ❜
The former Grêmio youngster looks like a classic Barça midfielder, but he’s far from orthodox for the Positional Play. Outstanding for possession, but not for positioning. For ball retention, but not for passing and positional intention. While compared to Xavi, what made the Spaniard unique was his positional intelligence and delicate handling of distances – which is precisely what Arthur lacks. This, however, can only be learned with time, practise and correction. Xavi didn’t acquire such concepts overnight. Once Arthur learns the when and how to move, he could undoubtedly become the midfielder Barcelona needs.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.