“I didn’t know much about Arthur before [he joined], but he’s really similar to Xavi,” Lionel Messi raved about Arthur Melo in September 2018, just two months after the midfielder left Gremio to join Barcelona. “He’s really safe and reliable [on the ball]. He has the style of a player that’s come through La Masia. He plays well over short distances, he doesn’t lose the ball… He’s got to grips really quickly with the team’s dynamic.”
Praise doesn’t come much higher than that. Not only did it come from arguably the greatest player in history, but Leo was comparing the Brazilian to arguably the game’s greatest metronome. Luis Enrique’s Barca, while hugely successful, were accused of betraying the club’s DNA after the departure of Xavi in 2015. His departure coincided with the last time the Blaugrana won the Champions League and, with no like-for-like replacement, their play under the former Roma boss increasingly bypassed the middle of the park.
Even with a front three of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, that was considered sacrilege. That all changed during the 2017-18 campaign, when Neymar moved to Paris Saint-Germain and Ousmane Dembele flattered to deceive in his place. Barca were markedly average for much of the season, their 3-0 defeat to Roma an unfortunate highlight, and they stepped up their search for a Xavi heir, tying up a €39m deal for Arthur, who had just won the Copa Libertadores with Gremio and was also wanted by PSG and Chelsea.
Ernesto Valverde had envisaged lining Arthur up in a midfield three with Sergio Busquets and Philippe Coutinho, who at the time had been backed to take over from Andres Iniesta. Although things didn’t quite pan out that way, the 23-year-old didn’t take long to make an impact. Not at least on his teammates, who quickly began queuing up with praise, from Rafinha saying he had ‘a touch of Xavi about him’ to Thomas Vermaelen stating he ‘has all the battling skills and technical ability to go right to the top’.
In two particular matches during his debut season at Camp Nou, he confirmed his credentials as the heir to Xavi. First, he completed 135 of his 142 passes in 1-1 draw at Valencia to play the most successful balls in a Spanish league game away from home since his predecessor back in November 2012. He then followed that up in the Champions League, achieving a 98.6 percent pass completion rate with 71 successful passes out of 72 during a 5-1 rout of Olympique Lyonnais.
This term, however, he has been unfairly made a scapegoat by his club and new boss Quique Setien, who ludicrously suggested Arthur had failed to live up to expectations. While it’s fair to say Barca have endured a turbulent campaign by their lofty standards, levelling any sort of blame at the playmaker is absurd when you consider he has missed part of the season with injury and has always been a quiet cog. The problem lies with how the Catalans’ poor performances have forced him out of his comfort zone, hanging out to dry.
“Since Arthur has been with me, he has tried very hard to take on the things we’ve asked [of] him,” the coach argued. “Sometimes he has been lacking some consistency, but it is not easy to change things in a player which other coaches have said are very good. Arthur has been used to being told to make sure of holding the ball. Now we come in and say you should play one or two touches. He has found it a challenge, but he is on a good path. It will make him a better player.”
That may well be one area where Arthur needs to improve, but Setien’s credibility is quickly shot down when the player replacing him at Camp Nou is Miralem Pjanic, who needs even more time on the ball and - at 30, seven years older than the Brazilian - has been showing signs of slowing down for some time. It may be that he enjoys a new lease of life as one of the outside central midfielders in the Blaugrana’s 4-3-3, but that seems unlikely. As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
So what are Juve getting? They’re not signing Jorginho, but rather the next best thing. Arthur will slot snuggly into Pjanic’s No 5 shirt, protected by two ‘mezz’ale’ beside him. He has the quality to dictate games with his precise passing and brilliant footballing brain for the next decade. Defensively, the ball sticks to him like a magnet and his signature move, whereby he pirouettes his way out of trouble with poise, will be a weekly sight to behold for Juve fans, relieved their club has finally brought in a competent ‘regista’.
Arthur made no secret of his desire to stay at Barca and the deal may be primarily motivated by financial incentives, amidst speculation that Juve are standing to pocket a ‘plusvalenza’ - or capital gain - of €47m, with Barca’s balance sheet set to benefit from a much-needed €49m, but one thing can’t be disputed: the Old Lady are not only significantly weakening a direct rival. They’re also significantly strengthening themselves.
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