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.
Barcelona and the Georginio Wijnaldum affair
Georginio “Gini” Wijnaldum has been at the heart of Liverpool’s robust, hard-working midfield for the past five seasons. He’s a player Culés know all too well, as he scored two goals in two minutes to help lift Liverpool past Barcelona in the 2018/19 Champions League semi-finals.
Wijnaldum is an impending free agent this summer and has been linked with Barcelona ever since Ronald Koeman took over in the fall. Koeman coached him with the Dutch national team and has a real affinity for the player, even coming out in interviews claiming he was on his “transfer list”.
Barça are in a tough situation as they need to revamp their squad but lack the proper funds to do so. Wijnaldum could potentially be signed for free in the summer, but should Barça pursue him?
Wijnaldum rose through the ranks of the Feyenoord youth system before making his senior club debut at 16 years-old in 2007. In fact, he is the youngest debutant in the Dutch club’s history. He made 135 appearances with his boyhood club and won the Dutch Cup in 2008. Wijnaldum then had spells with PSV Eindhoven and Newcastle United before signing with Liverpool in 2016.
With Liverpool, Wijnaldum has won practically every trophy possible, from the Champions League in 2019 to the Premier League in 2020. He has made over 212 appearances for The Reds and is a staple in their midfield. Under manager Jürgen Klopp, he’s made a name for himself as a midfield engine, one whose high energy and pressing gives the team defensive stability as well as a quick outlet for transitional play.
Playing alongside Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Naby Keita in a midfield three, his work rate allows Liverpool to dominate opposing teams. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Against Barcelona in 2019, he played as a centre forward, and he’s even played matches at centre back.
The 30-year old is capable of fulfilling various roles in the middle of the park. In the early stages of his career with Feyenoord and PSV, he played as an advanced midfielder, a number ten, and even on both wings. To showcase his attacking prowess, he had seasons of 14, 15, and 16 goal hauls in 2010/11, 2012/13, and 2014/15 respectively. His roles during his one-season stint with Newcastle were varied, and he was impressively their leading goalscorer (11) in the Premier League that season (2015/16).
Wijnaldum is also a key squad member for the Dutch National team. He made his debut in September of 2011 and has made 70 appearances ever since. He often plays as an advanced midfielder and has scored 21 goals for the Oranje. Looking at the heap map below, it’s clear to see the different roles he fulfills for his club side and national team.
Wijnaldum is an extremely hard-worker on the pitch. Defensively, he’s nearly impossible to shake off with his physicality and positioning. Offensively, he’s press-resistant, efficient with his passing and has a knack for scoring goals. Once again, he’s not asked to do much on the creative-end for Liverpool, but his time in the Netherlands and with the national team proves he’s more than capable of fulfilling those duties.
Last season, he averaged 45.9 passes per game with a completion rate of 90.4%, 9.10 made passes while under pressure from opponents, and 1.69 tackles plus interceptions per game. This season, he is one of the squad leaders for Liverpool in terms of most passes made while under pressure (7.51). In the Premier League this season, he is winning 2.4 of his ground duels per game.
His averages of only 0.08 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes and 0.15 goal contributions per game last season may indicate a lack of creativity, but that’s only due to his positioning and tactical instructions from Klopp. For the Dutch National team, in which he plays in a more advanced position, he has tallied a staggering 11 goals and four assists in 17 appearances since 2019. That’s a rate of 0.88 goal contributions per game, albeit at a smaller sample size.
Where would he fit in at Barça?
Evidently, Wijnaldum is one of the most versatile players in the world. He does a little bit of everything and as such, could potentially fill a variety of roles for Barça.
In Koeman’s 4-2-3-1, Wijnaldum can play in the double pivot or even the number ten role. There, Winjaldum’s high energy and defensive work rate could cover a more attack-minded player, like Frenkie De Jong. Koeman has recently reverted to Barça’s typical 4-3-3, however, the 2014-2015 Netherlands Footballer of the Year can play in any of the three midfield positions. He’s had some experience as a number 6, playing in front of the defence and anchoring the midfield, but his box-to-box capabilities would best serve the team if he played as an “interior”, one of the two central midfielders.
Barça fans have often clamoured for a workhorse in the midfield, someone who will do the team’s dirty work night in and night out. This player’s defensive work rate would counterbalance the more attack-oriented and free-roaming midfielders. Arturo Vidal filled this role for a season or two and Ivan Rakitic to a different degree before him. Wijnaldum could play this part admirably for the Blaugrana, just as he currently does for Liverpool.
It’s easy to see why Koeman wants to sign him. The question is, should Barcelona move ahead with it?
Although there are many arguments in favour of signing Wijnaldum, particularly regarding his versatility and box-to-box acumen, there are equally as many against it.
To start, he is already 30-years old and would be 31 by the start of next season. While he is still performing at a high level and not showing signs of slowing down, signing him would put the club in an awkward place. His salary demands are reportedly why he wants to leave Liverpool, and the Catalans should be hesitant before signing him to a potentially long-term, high salary deal. He could easily end up in Arturo Vidal’s situation, where the club signed him at 31-years old and after a season and a half, decided to offload him for free.
Furthermore, because Barcelona are in dire straits financially, they need to spend what little money they have wisely. Squad building should be focused on long-term replacements for key positions such as left-back, centre forward, and defensive mid. Wijnaldum would be a complimentary piece, and while he could be a solid temporary fix, Barça require core pieces.
His addition would also crowd the Blaugrana’s jam-packed midfield, not to mention take minutes away from their various “gems.” To fill the three centre-mid positions, Barcelona have Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Riqui Puig, Miralem Pjanić, the up-and-coming Ilaix Moriba (set to make his debut this Friday in the Spanish Cup), and even Sergi Roberto or Philippe Coutinho once they return from injury.
As mentioned, some fans would want him because of his work rate and tireless effort on the defensive end, but the squad’s defensive issues won’t disappear because of one hard-working player.
In years past, a signing like Wijnaldum would make perfect sense. He would have been younger and could fill a long-term need as a versatile squad piece, but Barcelona are now in a different place both on and off-the-pitch. It can be frustrating for culés to hear the age-old arguments about how their club is struggling financially. Still, the reality is that Barça must now be extremely diligent and effective with their signings, focusing instead on finding long-term replacements in key positions. Wijaldum could be a solid addition, but he is not a player the club absolutely needs.