In one of the most unexpected transfer moves of the summer, Arturo Vidal sealed a move to Barcelona.
It is evidently unexpected due to the circumstances surrounding the deal. The board had been rumored to be interested in signing a midfielder all summer and were linked with the likes of Thiago Alcantara, Adrien Rabiot and Miralem Pjanic. And more importantly, the deal came out of nowhere. Last Thursday, reporters and journalists close to the team began to speculate about a potential Vidal transfer. And in just 24 hours, Barcelona agreed to a deal with Bayern Munich and also completed the framework of the agreement with Vidal’s agent.
Vidal will join a team that is stacked with midfield depth but will provide him with a new challenge after a lengthy career so far in Europe.
The 31-year-old Chilean international is arguably one of the most experienced midfielders in the world today. Vidal has played seven seasons in the Bundesliga and four in Serie A. He spent four seasons with Juventus and three with Bayern Munich. He has won 16 club trophies, which includes seven straight league titles for Bayern Munich and Juventus. His success has also carried over to international level as he was the driving force in Chile’s 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario tournament wins.
Vidal is a notoriously colorful character on and off the pitch. Like Gerard Pique, Vidal is not afraid to speak his mind and say what he truly thinks about a situation. For instance, he was highly critical of the refereeing in the Champions League ties against Real Madrid over the past two seasons. On the pitch, Vidal exemplifies what it means to be a leader. The passion and intensity which he plays with are unique traits that are admired by his team-mates.
So what can Barcelona expect from Arturo Vidal?
In today’s game, there are not many players that approach and play the game like Vidal does. His aggression and physicality truly captivates his style of play as a midfielder.
One of his biggest strengths is his versatility and ability to adapt to multiple roles and positions. Last season under both Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes, Vidal was tasked with multiple responsibilities on the pitch. He played in 4-3-3 formations as both a central and defensive midfielder and in a 4-2-3-1 as a box-to-box midfielder. When either of the managers elected to play with a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Javi Martinez playing as a holding midfielder, Vidal played higher up the pitch and was still effective in maintaining possession and dictating pace of play.
His unlimited range on the pitch has made him one of the most complete midfielders in recent years.
As seen in this sequence against Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal Round of 16 fixture, Vidal is able to complete a tackle to win back possession, maintain possession, distribute a pass upfield to James Rodriguez and follow it all up with a sprint to the box where he receives a cross.
Considering that he is not known for his pace or speed, his workhorse approach on the field is admirable. For Bayern, Vidal was the engine that never stopped. From hustling to recover possession to employing a press, Vidal’s work rate on the pitch is impeccable.
As alluded to before, Vidal is arguably one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world -- which sees him have attacking and defensive responsibilities while also controlling play in the middle third.
When it comes to his defensive abilities as a midfielder, there are not many in Europe that perform better than Vidal. Last season in the Bundesliga, he averaged 3.1 tackles and 1.3 interceptions per game but in cases such as his, stats do not paint the entire picture as to how much of an impact he has defensively. Over the past couple of seasons, Vidal has imposed his will with physical challenges and effective high pressing when Bayern did not maintain possession. While he might not outrun wingers on the flanks or outpace attacking midfielders, he makes up for it with his aggressive challenges in an effort to win the ball back or pressure the opponent.
For instance in this play during the fixture against TSG Hoffenheim last season, Vidal is able to halt a counter by completing a tackle and follows it up by recovering possession to jumpstart a counter-attack by distributing a pass out wide to Arjen Robben.
And in this play during the fixture against FC Augsburg, Vidal steals the ball in midfield and follows it up with a counter-attack run that results in an assist to Robert Lewandowski.
As a true box-to-box midfielder, Vidal is heavily involved in the attack. Last season for Bayern in the Bundesliga, Vidal averaged 46.8 passes per game and created 26 goalscoring chances, which is impressive considering how deep he was positioned on a game-by-game basis for the team.
Vidal strives to open up play and push the ball upfield in an effort to get team-mates involved. He is capable of opening up play with a long pass into the box or a through ball to a winger out wide. While he is not a competent dribbler in space, he counters this weakness with quick passes to halt a lethargic midfield.
In this play during the Champions League Round of 16 first leg against Besiktas, Vidal is positioned deep and still manages to deliver a long aerial pass to Lewandowski up front to get him in position for a goalscoring opportunity.
For a multi-dimensional midfielder like Vidal, he is one of the rare players that can fit in for any of the powerhouse teams in Europe. As a player that can cover so much space on the pitch and puts winning at the top of his priority for the team, there is a reason why he is beloved by so many of his former team-mates.
How Vidal will fit in at Barca
Due to his capabilities of being a versatile midfielder, Vidal will provide Ernesto Valverde with a multitude of options as to how he would fit into the team. He can play in Valverde’s 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation while playing in any midfield role that the coaching staff prefer.
Now while he is not a controlling type of midfielder like a Thiago or Pjanic, Vidal has unique attributes that would bolster a Barcelona midfield in dire need of major changes. His defensive capabilities will provide support for the backline and also for Sergio Busquets. When in possession, Vidal can open up play with outlet passes out wide to Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele. When in the attack, Vidal can provide support for the forwards up front — something players such as Paulinho and Andre Gomes struggled to do so. And more importantly, his presence in the middle third will dictate pace and tempo of the midfield -- a trait Barca have desperately needed in the Champions League over the past couple of seasons.
The two major question marks in regards to his fit with Barca are his injuries and age. Vidal is coming off a season where he missed significant time due to his recurring knee problems and a calf muscle strain. And with midfielders over the age of 30, many begin a slow decline and are unable to return back to prime form. There were glimpses of this last season with Bayern as he had issues with tracking back on counter attacks and at times began to isolate himself late in games.
It should be a high priority for both Vidal and the coaching staff to monitor his health while also providing him with rest throughout the season to keep him fresh for the long and tiring campaign.
Regardless of the perspective for which one would view this transfer, Vidal joining Barcelona is a low risk and high reward deal. Barcelona did not have to overpay for Vidal in the current inflated transfer market and the deal is just a three-year contract. He is only a short-term solution for the midfield. If he struggles or if injuries deteriorate his availability, then Barcelona could look to sell him or loan him out for the remainder of his contract. But if he excels, then he would provide a much-needed solution to Barca’s midfield. Even at age 31, Vidal has plenty to prove and he is at the right club to do it.