With abundant quality on the ball, inconsistency, indiscipline and behavioural issues have ended up marking the Barcelona career of Arthur Melo.
The deal between Barcelona and Juventus for the swap involving Arthur Melo and Miralem Pjanić caught many off-guard. Despite the rumours of an exit going as far back as February, few if any thought that Barcelona were capable of making such a dubious decision. Arthur had drawn some comparisons with Xavi Hernández and the legend said he saw himself in him. Those comparisons turned out to be the least of his problems.
“I see myself in Arthur when I watch him play. It’s as if Arthur is me”
Barcelona’s midfielders are renowned for their passing range as well as ability to play short, one-touch passes that serve to create space for others; their vision for a killer pass that can lacerate the opposition in an instant; positional intelligence and awareness so as to know when and where to be at all times; and most importantly, speed in efficiency at performing all these tasks. Arthur was good at retaining and relieving pressure when on the ball, but that was just about where his virtues ended and his vices began.
He often topped the charts when it came to overall passes completed but the destination of the passes is often more important than their rate of accuracy. His offensive play was nothing worth expanding on. In La Liga, a tournament that demands consistency, he made a total of just 26 key passes in both his seasons at Barcelona. He also made total of 4 assists and scored 3 goals in the Spanish top-flight but at an xG – a measurement of the quality of a shot – of just 1.52 and an xA –probability of a pass resulting in a goal – of just 3.55. If that isn’t low enough, the rate at which he would be expected to provide an assist was 0.12 per 90 and that of him scoring was at 0.05 per match.
Those aren’t numbers that anyone would call Xavi-esque. On performance alone, he is the midfielder with the lowest xA per 90 of all Barça midfielders to have played 20 or more games this season. Arthur was cautious, he never wanted to put a foot wrong but this inadvertently made him a bore to watch. Fans often spoke of the potential he had but that talk never seemed to come to an end.
Even Ernesto Valverde, a man often criticised for his reactive approach to games, was disappointed at how many fruitless passes he made. He wanted more verticality but the No. 8 rarely ever provided it. If Arthur was more like Arturo Vidal in terms of the shots he took and the chances he generated for others, then maybe he would have had a better chance at staying at the club and maybe he would have played more than 1,183 minutes in the league as well.
Valverde had an issue with finding who to give time to given how packed the midfield was, but more often than not, when Arthur received that time, he failed to perform at the level expected of him. Because of the same issues, Quique Setién was happier to use the likes of Iván Rakitić and Vidal than the Brazilian given their experience and higher rate of efficiency at what they are required to do. Taking into consideration his inconsistency in performance, the sale makes a tad bit more sense.
Arthur Melo will not play for Barça anymore | Photo by Imago
It wasn’t only on the pitch that he was disappointing – he had behavioural issues off the pitch as well. While Ousmane Dembélé has grown into more of a professional – in part thanks to the arrival of his national team captain Antoine Griezmann – Arthur has taken up the mantle of the problem child.
In early 2019, he travelled to Paris for his good friend Neymar’s birthday right before one of the most important matches of the season: El Clásico in the Copa del Rey semi-finals. Whether by correlation or causation, he found himself with a hamstring injury that would rule him out for several weeks, missing the biggest match in the world in the process.
At the tail end of the year, he made the mistake of traveling to Andorra for some snowboarding, a sport made infamous by the gruesome injuries inexperienced snowboarders incur. He had already been suffering from some pain in his pubis but recklessly decided to participate in a sport that is incompatible with football. He missed three successive games due to a groin injury, including the December Clásico against Real Madrid as a result of his indifference.
Over the Christmas period, he travelled to Brazil for the holidays and to recover from the aforementioned injury but returned not only with a worse lesion to his groin, but he was also overweight. He ended up missing some crucial ties, one of which was the Supercopa defeat against Atlético de Madrid due to injury and an overall lack of fitness.
“Arthur called and said: ‘I’m in Brazil and I will not return’. It’s his decision, but no one gave him permission to do so. We have opened a case against him because there is no reason to justify his absence”
Josep Maria Bartomeu
Barcelona president on Sunday via Sport
One would think that his behavioural problems had climaxed there but things somehow took a turn for the worse. Over the past few days, rumours have circulated in the Spanish media stating that Arthur will go on an early holiday to Brazil and that he won’t be returning to Barcelona any time soon. According to Mundo Deportivo, he wants to cancel his contract altogether and Barcelona is once again furious with him. He has every right to be angry with the board given the treatment he received but this sort of behaviour is extremely unprofessional and is giving him anything but a good image in the eyes of his next suitors. Barcelona are also rumoured to have opened disciplinary proceedings against him which as per Sport could result in him receiving the biggest fine in the club’s history.
“We agreed that until the Champions League ended, he would continue to play for Barça, both in the league and in Europe. He is a player who has a certain importance in the team and who could help us. But he did not return from the mini-vacation. It is an unacceptable act of indiscipline”
Josep Maria Bartomeu
on Arthur Melo
Inconsistency and subpar performances on the pitch, indiscipline and rebellion off it, this may just have been one bad egg that Barcelona avoided in time. President Josep Maria Bartomeu and the rest of the board have often been criticised for their poor decision making of but given all this, it doesn’t seem like much of a surprise that they would want him as far away from the club as possible.
Analysis of the left-back problem at Barcelona
On the 22nd of June in the year 2012 Barcelona re-signed once one of their own, Valencia speedster, Jordi Alba, for 14 million Euros. Once part of the club after coming through the esteemed La Masia academy, he was to replace Eric Abidal, the French left-back who had given much to Barcelona over the years but his unfortunate health problems meant it was the need of the hour to move onwards. Fast forward 8 years and a massive 335 appearances for the Blaugranas, the man who was initially dismissed as ‘too short’ by the Catalan club stands as a gargantuan figure who made the left-hand side his own.
It is unpropitious for Barcelona that time cannot be rolled back, because if they could, they would definitely look no further than the little man they signed in 2012 to fix their current concerns at left-back. As things stand, however, Alba is 31 and clearly regressing as each season passes. While he still has an excellent command on his attacking skill, it’s the defensive issues faced by him and the other fullbacks that puts the team in hot water consistently. Moreover, one of the key aspects to his game is the pace and acceleration he brought near the touchline, and that is one area that is bound to regress with age. It is, therefore, the correct time to look for a replacement for the Spaniard; otherwise, the Blaugranas risk being set back a few years as happened with replacing Dani Alves.
This train of thought was what Barcelona had in mind when they signed Junior Firpo from Real Betis in August 2019. He was, at that point, a highly well-regarded prospect in La Liga, with several teams including Real Madrid and Manchester City posing interest in the Dominican. However, Firpo’s attacking threat was nowhere close to the Spaniard. In the 17 appearances he did make, Junior Firpo had a low xA (Expected Assists) of 0.06 per 90 last season as compared to Alba’s 0.14 per 90. Additionally, he had 3.71 passes into the final third per 90 as compared to Alba’s 4.75. Finally, Firpo was never able to recreate the kind of understanding Alba had with team captain Lionel Messi which made the duo lethal. The young left-back never makes the same runs into the box as Alba and the Argentinian is often left wanting more in that regard.
Junior Firpo, at the moment, simply does not match up to Jordi Alba at all.
Defensively speaking, Firpo did attempt more tackles than the Spanish veteran – 2.12 tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 1.03 per 90 in 19/20, but it is often due to necessity as he is caught out of position very often. This trickles down to the fouls, which stand at 3.1 fouls per 90 for 24-year-old, as compared to Alba’s 0.74. Consequently, Firpo picked up 5 yellow cards while Alba picked up 7 in a little more than double the starts, indicating a lack of discipline in Firpo’s case. The duo is similar with regards to successful pressures, as Alba had 2.8 successful pressures per 90 last season and Firpo had 2.65 for the same.
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
For what it is worth, Firpo does bring a touch of aerial dominance into the picture, but that is hardly a requirement for the left-back of a team like Barcelona. The youngster’s growth has stagnated over the season, and he showed no signs of adaptability when it came to moving from a 5 at the back system at Betis to a flat 4 at Barcelona. Maybe with time, Junior Firpo becomes an able replacement, but with multiple players past their peaks, including long time mainstays Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique who have been so crucial to the Blaugrana’s defensive system, Barcelona must bring in a fresh face. Someone who can fill the massive shoes of Alba quickly. We, at Barca Universal, therefore, look at 3 possible replacements for the Spaniard who can complete the Blaugrana’s search in that position.
Going the Jordi Alba route: Alex Grimaldo
A name Barca connoisseurs will be familiar with, Alex Grimaldo is also from the once-famed La Masia, and was one of the highly touted prospects before he chose to move to Benfica, eyeing the possibility of more playing time since Alba had a tight hold of that spot at Barcelona. Now that Alba is ageing, it might be time to dive in for another trusted La Masia prospect who will know the workings of the club from his academy days.
Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images
Grimaldo is a short and lean player, with a boosted acceleration – a profile very similar to that of Alba. Often used as a midfielder in his earlier days, he has the decision making and a great handle on what to do when he has possession of the ball, which is a massive bonus for a team like the possession hungry Catalans. He has a tremendous attacking output and is genuinely fearless, something Firpo is clearly lacking. The 24-year-old Spaniard has racked 22 assists in 88 games in the Primeira Liga and is one of the top fullbacks in the league. His xA per 90 stood at 0.21 as compared to Alba’s 0.14 last season, and he also led the numbers for tackles, making 2.34 successful tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 0.58. When it comes to passing, Grimaldo completed 83% of his passes last season, whereas Alba made his passes at a completion rate of 87.1%.
While Grimaldo is short in stature and teams often look to go over him, he still has the positioning to make up for the same and has the pace to make up ground if he falters. Something prime Alba can massive relate to.
The short-term, big success option: Nicolas Tagliafico
The red and blue of Barcelona owes a lot to the red and white of Amsterdam. From players like Johann Cruyff and Jari Litmanen to more recently, Luis Suarez and Frenkie de Jong, there have been a plethora of players who have represented both the clubs. Now that Barcelona have been looking to offload the regressing Suarez, Nicolas Tagliafico could turn out be an interesting option to entice Ajax for a swap deal.
Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images
The Argentine left-back moved from Independiente in 2018 and has since appeared 65 times for Ajax. While he is not as much of an attacking threat (8 assists in 2 seasons), the 28-year-old does give Barcelona something they desperately need in their current predicament – defensive solidity. Compared to Alba’s 25 tackles attempted in the 19/20 season, Tagliafico attempted almost four times that number (96) and successfully completing 61 of them, compared to Alba’s 14. He was also able to block 10 shots compared to Alba’s 5.
However, the defensive side of the game is not all he provides. He is solid while in possession as well, completing 86% of his passes, and playingi in one key pass every game. He also created seven big chances last season, of which only four were converted. Tagliafico stands at a modest 5’7”, but he does have the lung-bursting stamina in him, which will be a criterion to consider while replacing Alba. In buying Tagliafico, Barcelona could potentially look to employ something their Blanco rivals in Madrid successfully did after buying Ferland Mendy – plug the defensive errors from the wings and solidify the defence as a whole.
The left-of-centre option: Jose Gaya
Barcelona looked towards Valencia in 2012, and maybe the solution lies there in 2020 as well. Jose Gaya has been one of the most highly-rated left-backs in La Liga for years. Despite, that, he is only 25 years old, but has already racked up 144 appearances for the club. With Valencia having a fire sale, it would be the perfect time for the Blaugranas to target their academy graduate.
Gaya is a very attacking fullback who tends to occupy areas on the left-hand side byline a lot. He is an outstanding crosser and attempted 3.08 crosses per game in the 19/20 season. He had a total of 939 touches in the mid and final third combined, showing his tendency to push up in the opposition half and receive the ball high up the pitch. If he loses the ball, Gaya has the electric pace that can help him catch up with opponents quickly. He is not afraid to complete a challenge and is hard to take on, given his short, but robustly built. Gaya was one of the standout players in what was a rather disappointing season for Valencia, and Barcelona should grab the chance to buy him with both hands, especially after his excellent display against them in La Liga this season.