Translating his impressive form from Barcelona B, Uruguayan centre-back Ronald Araújo earned his first senior start on Saturday against Mallorca. Deserving of more?
To be able to make the leap from a second team to the top flight, one of two things is required: personality, or maturity. Obviously, and ideally, both traits should come together. However, if one has certain limitations in one aspect, he can compensate them by standing out in the other. For instance, many argue that La Masía 20-year-old midfielder Riqui Puig does not have a physique matured and developed enough for the First Division. That said, his uniqueness, self-confidence and personality regardless of the opponent is what makes him such an exciting prospect.
There are others who are not as special in terms of talent as him, of course. This could be the case, for example, of Barça B’s Monchu Rodríguez or Ronald Araújo. They may not be the best in terms of raw qualities, but their unmatched competitiveness and maturity for someone of their age is what has made them receive call-ups for the first team in recent times.
While all-round midfielder Monchu is waiting for his debut as he made his first senior squad list on Saturday to face Mallorca, Uruguayan centre-back Ronald Araújo enjoyed his second appearance with the big boys this past weekend. He had already been handed his debut by Ernesto Valverde back in October at the Camp Nou against Sevilla, as he came off the bench in the 73rd minute to replace an injured Jean-Clair Todibo. Nonetheless, that day had a bittersweet taste for Araújo as he was sent off only 14 minutes later for a challenge on Chicharito Hernández.
Even so, back then it already looked like that was not going to be his only minutes with the blaugranas. His progression in the past two years has been stellar, since he was signed for Barça B from his native Uruguay in 2018. A defender with excellent physical and defensive conditions, hardly any Second Division B striker has been able to beat him in a duel. Strong and tall, with 1.93 metres that allow him to be an imposing figure in both areas, Araújo impresses with his ferocious competitiveness in spite of his 21 years of age.
Still, his main weakness since arriving to Barcelona has been his footwork and adapting to the Catalans’ positional play. While no one doubts his defensive expertise, it’s his ability to build up play what needs most improvement. Notwithstanding, Barça B coach García Pimienta has been guiding and teaching him from day one, and Ronald now looks much more settled into Barça’s game. Despite he will never have others’ talent to break lines, his positional sense and intelligence with the ball at his feet have experienced an impressive evolution since 2018.
❛ I worked hard to make this opportunity happen. I am very happy and excited. I tried to enjoy it to the fullest ❜
after his first start against Mallorca
With his physical readiness and combativeness, it is clear that making the leap to the elite will not be a problem for him. Therefore, with Clément Lenglet suspended and Samuel Umtiti just returning from an injury, manager Quique Setién did not hesitate to give Ronald Araújo the full 90 minutes away against RCD Mallorca on Saturday. It was Barça’s first La Liga game after a three-month break, but Araújo didn’t seem out of place at any moment. In fact, he looked as if he had been playing alongside Gerard Piqué for ages.
It is true that Mallorca were not a too challenging opposition this time, and the circumstances were not the appropriate ones to judge someone. But, while the Bermellones‘ Takefusa Kubo was very threatening with his trickery, the Uruguayan managed to remain composed, solid and concentrated. He was very attentive to make a block or interception, recorded the most completed passes with 99 out of 104 attempts (95% accuracy), and had the joint-most clearances alongside Piqué, both with four.
❛ I always work to play. I trained a lot during confinement and also learned tactical aspects that I lacked ❜
The high position of sweeper keeper Marc-André ter Stegen throughout the entire match took off some responsibilities from Araújo in taking the ball out from the back. Still, the youngster did exactly what a coach would demand from his inexperienced centre-back: to not take risks. He did play it safe most of the times, but not earning much attention already shows that he was calm and polite and did nothing wrong. When a defender makes the headlines, that usually is because of a blatant error, but that was not the case for Ronald. Instead, he looked almost as experienced as others.
With Lenglet returning from suspension and Umtiti in need of minutes as he needs to prove his value before a potential transfer in the summer, Ronald Araújo may have a subsidiary role as the fourth centre-back this season. Nevertheless, with five substitutions allowed per match, with him being the only right-footed centre-back other than Gerard Piqué, and with rotation needed with the dense schedule ahead, Araújo could be enjoying many more minutes with the first team than before.
❛ My teammates and the coach gave me a lot of confidence. Years ago I chose them [Barça] on the PlayStation, now I share dressing rooms and matches [with them]
He [Luis Suárez] has helped me a lot, not only in football matters, and before the game he gave me a hug ❜
After his solid performance against Mallorca, the coaching staff may have been reassured of the 21-year-old’s capacities and may place their faith in him more often. If Piqué needs rest, he could be his first back-up rather than having to use a left-footed defender on the right. Moreover, with Jean-Clair Todibo on loan at Schalke 04 but rumoured with a highly questioned move away from Barcelona in the summer, Araújo could be pushing for a permanent promotion ahead of next season. As he continues to collect professional minutes, Ronald Araújo looks to rise in the pecking order at the same time that he earns Setién’s full confidence.
Koeman’s system in the Barcelona 4-0 Villareal
With a 4-0 victory at the Camp Nou, Koeman’s side has started the season on a positive note. Find out more about the tactical aspect of the match in this tactical analysis of Barcelona’s match against Villareal.
La Liga is finally back, and it’s back in full swing. We saw many high-scoring matches, with even Atleti scoring 6 goals against Granada. A very entertaining start to La Liga was capped off by Barcelona’s 4-0 Victory over Villareal. Koeman’s first La Liga game in-charge of Barcelona was a resounding success. The mindset of the players involved was clearly different from the mindset under Setien. With many players looking rejuvenated, Barcelona put in a performance which was desperately needed considering the fact that the wounds from Lisbon haven’t yet healed. Find out just how Barcelona managed to dominate a strong Villareal side in this tactical analysis.
Barcelona started out in a 4-2-3-1 as expected. The only surprise was that Messi’s starting position was more central than usual and Griezmann occupied the right-wing. Messi does eventually drift towards the centre anyway but the starting position is usually wider.
Villareal were in a 4-4-2 which later transitioned into a 4-4-2 diamond in the second half after the substitutions. Right from the start, Villareal looked to press from the front, with Chukwueze and Moi Gomez cutting out passing lanes to the full-backs and the two Villareal strikers pressing Barcelona’s center-backs. Here, an advantage of the 4-2-3-1 Koeman deployed was immediately visible. De Jong would drop back to receive the ball and then play it forward to Busquets, who was the other pivot. Had Barcelona played a 4-3-3, the pivot would have dropped back to receive the ball and build-up from the back in this case. But the midfield would be stretched vertically which we saw many times last season.
In midfield, Barcelona were prevented from playing through the centre by Parejo and Coquelin. The distance between Villareal’s midfield and defense lines was not much which forced Barcelona towards the wings. This strategy came back to bite Villareal in the form of Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old left-winger was unplayable against Villareal. Gaspar was unable to contain him. Jordi Alba was much better than in a long time. The work-rate Koeman demands and the many extra training sessions were really showing. After a 2019/20 season which wasn’t the best for Barcelona, yesterday’s performance was very impressive.
Both wingers would regularly tuck-in between the full-backs and center-halves. This allowed Barcelona’s full-backs to advance up the field much more. With the full-backs attacking and the wingers tucking in, the Villareal defensive line would be occupied. This allowed Coutinho more space than usual. Along with this, Busquets and De Jong would be available to either stop the counter, or to act as passing options. This assortment of many attacking roles allowed Barcelona to have sustained attacking possession.
Villareal had a clear game plan as well. Considering the fact that their two strikers are performing well and are well-synchronized, the wingers were instructed to cross the ball often. The full-backs would advance, but not overlap frequently. This could either not be a part of the game plan or because of the attacking threat, Barcelona posed from the start. With Dani Parejo in midfield, Emery would ideally be able to continue playing the possession-based football his teams play. Coquelin would offer a bit of dynamism in midfield along with the Spanish midfielder.
However, Koeman took an interesting decision and gave Busquets the role to man-mark Parejo. Though both were surprisingly not the best on the ball on the day, Busquets did well to restrict Parejo to lateral and back passes. In the second-half, Vilalreal’s game plan was executed better in the 4-4-2 diamond. This allowed Parejo to get on the ball more, wit him playing a major role in the build-up. Emery knows his players’ strengths very well. Parejo in the defensive mid role, with pacey wingers on either sides means fast transitions. For Barcelona s well, the transitions were key. Coutinho’s mediapunta role and the freedom Messi has both contributed to this.
We already saw the many benefits this formation has offered, taking the strengths of the players Koeman has into full consideration. The ease during build-up with one pivot dropping back, being able to sustain the attack with the mediapunta getting more space, the freedom Busquets had to man-mark Parejo, which would have been difficult in a single pivot, etc. Another one of the advantages is in defense.
Barcelona were vulnerable in defense throughout last season. Jordi Alba looks like refreshed and fitter than usual, and with Dest potentially joining the Blaugrana, the full-backs are looking promising. In case that Barcelona does get caught on the counter, Koeman does have a solution to one of the problems. When Barcelona are on the backfoot, De Jong and Busquets would need to make sure their positioning is immaculate. They were instructed to plug the gaps between the center-halves and full-backs, which would have a two-fold purpose. Firstly, through-balls against more creative players would be much more difficult, with the gaps being reduced and Coutinho and Griezmann helping in defense. Secondly, the opposition would be less likely to crowd the box, since Barcelona can now afford to get at least 4 players into the box if the pivots were to position themselves as such. However, this would be very dependent on the split-second judgment and whether the players decide to press or track-back.
For Koeman’s first La Liga match, the performance was quite promising. Barcelona looked better tactically and in terms of hard work than Villareal as we saw in this tactical analysis. The latter being something that Barcelona desperately need, what remains to be seen is how Barcelona will fare against teams that rely on individual ability more than Villareal and the unpredictability that follows. Apart from this, will the players be able to sustain the intense work ethic Koeman demands? If Barcelona do decently in these conditions and some others, we might see a much better season from them than expected.