With the lack of signings in defence, Ronald Araújo, promoted this summer from the B team, could enjoy consistent minutes at Barcelona to showcase his potential this season.
The transfer window departed as quickly as it arrived for Barcelona’s defence. At the end of an embarrassing season, it was difficult to fathom how the Catalans could step into the next term with the same central core. However, the window has come and gone. The only change the centre-back position has seen is a certain Uruguayan prodigy’s number change from 30 to 4.
Having once been the fifth-choice centre-back, Ronald Araújo has made a steep climb up the pecking order. Within a year after his debut, he seems to be ready to fight with the starting centre-backs for a place in the line-up.
Now with Samuel Umtiti not as reliable as before, and Jean-Clair Todibo sent out on loan, the former Barcelona B player’s importance has increased multi-fold. The general nature of the centre-back position deals with a large number of booking and suspensions, which makes the back-up options even more vital to the team’s success. And with Gerard Piqué now 33, his legs too will require more rest than they have demanded. All factors considered, Araújo will see a drastic increase in playing time this season. Undoubtedly, this will be the season that scripts his future at the club.
The young Uruguayan has proved to be reliable in the few minutes he has seen across the past year. His horrific debut will be one that culés remember vividly. After coming on to replace Todibo in the 73rd minute against Sevilla, he lasted on the pitch only 14 minutes. A foul on Chicharito Hernandez awarded him a red card, and he received his marching orders. Yet, his debut must not be used as a scale to judge his ability and composure.
Last season, the 21-year-old had six appearances for the first team in the league. Despite coming under criticism for his horizontal band of passing, he was defensively firm. It was against Mallorca that he announced himself to the world. With 4 clearances, one blocked shot and 60% aerial duels won, it was a display of his defensive ability. Over the course of the season, multiple facets to his game were unlocked.
Araújo’s first team debut did not go as planned, but it did not affect him nor his chances | Photo by Josep Lago / AFP via Getty Images
Standing at 6’3, he has a physically dominant presence on the field. His height also makes him an imposing threat in the air, not just in defensive duels but also during set pieces. Astoundingly, his height does not appear to impair his pace in any manner. At 34.91 kmph, Araújo was also La Liga’s fastest player in 2019/20, with a searing run in the final league game against Deportivo Alavés. His pace and agility gift him with the impeccable ability to win the ball with minimal clumsiness. He has proved his strengths to be his anticipation, intelligence and speed. Furthermore, a dominant presence in the air and an imposing physique add to an impressive resume.
Nonetheless, there is yet another part of his skill set that makes him perfect for the Catalan club. In addition to his defensive capabilities, his ball distribution and composure on the ball are immense. In his six appearances for the first team in 2019/20, the youngster completed 94% of his passes accurately, with up to 60% long passes being accurate too. With a good ability to dribble, he has shown to be competent enough to find a way out in tricky situations. Though it is true that a large part of his passes has been horizontal, using that against him would be harsh indeed.
His most recent outing, once again against Sevilla last Sunday exemplifies his potential well. With Clément Lenglet suspended, Araújo was handed the start in what was the blaugranas‘ most important game so far. Against a ruthlessly attacking and confident Sevilla, the Uruguayan pocketed Luuk de Jong for long parts of the game. With 4 out of 4 ground duels won, 4 accurate long balls and a key pass, he was one of the reasons Barcelona did not spill the point. If anything, it was a performance that showed that he is ready to compete with the likes of Piqué and Lenglet.
Undoubtedly, he is not yet the complete player we need. There are notable areas where he has to improve, like his verticality in passing, positioning and ability to hold the line. That said, one must remember that he is just 21. His dedication, work ethic and confident displays have earned him regular call-ups to the Uruguay national team too.
What a young upcoming player needs the most is support. With both the board and the coach clearly backing him to step up, Araújo has a set platform to make the big leap. He has officially earned his promotion to the senior side and will don the number 4 shirt this year. Undoubtedly, he has all the characteristics to make it big in Barcelona. It is now only a question of his hard work and drive to be the best. This could be the year he cements himself, and one hopes he uses it wisely.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.