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How Arthur is emerging as the next midfield gem at Barcelona

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The Brazilian can build on a strong first season

Brazil v Argentina: Semi Final - Copa America Brazil 2019 Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

The route that Arthur Melo took to get to Barcelona and his recent sudden emergence has been one against all odds.

It is no secret that scouts from top European clubs regularly check in and assess emerging young talents from around the world, especially those in Europe and South America. Among their tasks, it is their job to find the next hidden gem. Even before players reach the age of 18, scouts already have an eye on which talents have great potential to succeed in Europe. Yet Arthur was not on the radar of many scouts and no-one could have predicted his sudden rise.

Arthur’s start with Gremio was one of slow but promising progress. Initially, Gremio’s coaching staff and scouts viewed Arthur as a promising prospect who could be integrated into the squad over time as first a rotational player and then as a starter. Instead, his development and overall play in competitions early on sped up the process. This led Gremio to push Arthur into the first team in 2017 and both sides did not look back. Arthur wowed the coaching staff during the campaign en route to helping the team win the prestigious Copa Libertadores.

Gremio v Botafogo - Series A 2017 Photo by Lucas Uebel/Getty Images

Many teams in Europe began to take notice of his rapid progress, including Barcelona. Barca closed the deal with Arthur in 2018 after scouting him and, just like Gremio’s coaching staff felt after watching him play, they have not looked back.

The Brazilian international showed more than just potential in his first season with Barcelona. His play on the pitch immediately earned him a place as a fan favorite. More importantly, he earned the trust of the coaching staff to play in the biggest and most important fixtures.

Arthur’s rise from being an unknown in Gremio’s youth system to a coveted young prospect in Europe is a remarkable one. The progress he has had as a midfielder undoubtedly does not stop here. His superb performances have shown that he has the quality to be Europe’s next generational midfield talent.

Immense showing in his first year

If UEFA handed out rookie of the year awards to recognize the best first-year player in Europe, Arthur would be among the favorites to win it.

In his first year with Barcelona, he shone and exceeded the initial expectations that were placed on him before the start of the season.

The early projection was for manager Ernesto Valverde to slowly integrate Arthur into the team while also getting him accustomed to Barca’s style of play. Considering that it would be his first season, Barca planned to be extremely patient with his progress. But from his first minutes with the team, Arthur showed that he was more than ready to play a pivotal role wherever Barca needed him.

Barcelona v Valencia - Spanish Copa del Rey Final Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

His performances in the International Champions Cup and the Spanish Super Cup illustrated how well he quickly adapted to Barca’s possession-based style of play. Even in a small sample size of four games, his style was reminiscent of Xavi Hernandez at times. Arthur’s pre-season performances earned him a couple of starts early in the season that eventually translated into him becoming a main central figure in Barca’s midfield. The Brazilian played in 44 games in all competitions with 32 of them being starts. Regardless of the competition, Valverde played Arthur in key fixtures and quickly became a fan.

Arthur played the vast majority of games as a central midfielder while also playing a couple of fixtures late in the season as a central defensive midfielder. Most of the time he was positioned alongside Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets in the 4-3-3 formation. When Valverde rolled out this midfield trio, he elected for Arthur to play on the left -- a position that allowed him to link up with Jordi Alba and Philippe Coutinho. Valverde was determined to see Arthur succeed in an expanded midfield role early on.

See here how Busquets is beginning to distribute play with both Arthur and Rakitic positioned adjacent to him in the 4-3-3 setup. In the case that either of the two receive the ball, both Arthur and Rakitic have the option of pushing the ball upfield if they wished to do so.

Even though he was positioned on the left, Arthur was able --if the opportunity presented itself in open play -- to move out to the center or right to get involved. In other instances, he moved out from the left to counter an opponent’s defensive set-up via overloading or to switch for a short amount of time.

For instance, Arthur’s performance against Atletico Madrid at home was among his most complete. He completed over 90% of passes and, as displayed here, also had a presence distributing passes in the center and occasionally on the right where Rakitic was positioned.

Arthur’s pass map against Atletico - 4/6. Courtesy: WhoScored

The main component of Arthur’s showings in midfield this past season was his play in possession.

In Barcelona’s possession-based system, midfielders play a crucial role in dictating pace and play. It is their job to be the link between the defense and attack while being the main distributors for the team. But their responsibilities on the pitch do not just end there. Among their tasks, Barca midfielders must be capable of maintaining a heavy workload in passing, pressing, movement, defending and playmaking.

Arthur’s overall performances undoubtedly checked off much of this to a great extent.

Starting with his passing, Arthur’s ability in this area was one that impressed the most and the trait that arguably attracted Barca to scout him in the first place. In 27 La Liga games, Arthur averaged 44.3 passes per game per WhoScored -- a considerably low number due to the fact that he did not play many full games and both Rakitic and Busquets occupied a larger role in the midfield. In La Liga, Champions League and the Copa del Rey, the Brazilian completed at least 90% of passes per WhoScored. The workload varied depending on how many minutes Valverde entrusted him with but the accuracy and quality in his play was there on a consistent basis.

Arthur’s distribution in midfield complemented Barca extremely well. In games where he played alongside Busquets and Rakitic, Arthur effectively inserted himself in the controller role tasked with maintaining possession and sustaining the positional shape of Valverde’s 4-3-3 set-up. Keeping possession is one aspect, but how a player distributes the ball exemplifies how well a midfielder fits into a possession-based system. Arthur managed to succeed in both with precision in his play. The Brazilian was not just a passer who cautiously distributed the ball but looked to exploit weak links in the opponent’s positioning as well.

See here how Barca are beginning to orchestrate a transition upfield from defense to attack. As he receives the ball, Arthur noticed the organizational imbalance that Eibar were in and opened up play by sending the ball out to Coutinho. It is a simple yet important pass that is delivered with pinpoint accuracy and thus allowed Coutinho to progress upfield on the counter-attack.

While his responsibility centered around maintaining and distributing possession, Arthur strived on opening up play when needed -- especially in threatening situations upfield. In La Liga, he completed 87.9% of passes that were directed to the final third per Wyscout, which ranked 10th in the league. On an adjusted rate, he averaged 12.09 passes directed to the final third per 90 minutes per Wyscout, which ranked fourth in La Liga behind Rakitic, Ever Banega and Kroos.

Short passes were the norm for Arthur, but he was not a one-dimensional passer. Instead, he often looked to be more advantageous with his passes. This came in the form of passing out wide to full-backs in an effort to stretch the opponent’s defensive line or distributing longer passes in between the lines. For instance, the Brazilian averaged 3.5 long balls per 90 minutes per Wyscout, which is a moderate rate taking into account his positioning on the pitch.

For example, see here how Arthur is positioned deep in Atletico’s own half. With time and space, he is able to deliver a long ball out to Suarez and successfully opened up play in the final third.

Arthur impressed with his passing range but frustrated opponents even more in combating against the press. The lack of pace or breakaway speed did not halt him being a master at maintaining possession while facing a team press or general pressure from an opponent. Arthur was exceptionally crafty in how he maneuvered his way out of tight spaces to free himself into open areas on the pitch. His turnaround movements with the ball quickly became a trademark move of his.

For instance, see here how he is surrounded by four Levante players and under heavy pressure, he is able to cut to the right while moving away into open space.

Here, Arthur is in possession but with no immediate forward options to push the ball into the final third, Sevilla moved in with numbers on the press. In response, Arthur twirled around to avoid the pressure and dished the ball off. Barca maintain possession while facing no immediate threat in forcing to retreat from a change in their positional shape.

Arthur showed extreme composure when facing pressure from the opponent. His ability to anticipate when a press was going to be triggered -- whether it was from one or multiple players -- allowed him to react accordingly as to how he would escape the pressure. The calm manner in which he possessed the ball put him in a more comfortable position to keep possession rather than panic when faced with pressure -- a trait that players like Marco Verratti and Thiago Alcantara have mastered. Along with his trademark turnaround move, Arthur also liked to shield the ball away from opponents. This required exceptional balance and poise but it eventually became an effortless move of his over time.

Arthur progressively became a specialist in countering a press over the course of the season. His unique technique provided him with time and space to adjust to different pressing situations throughout a game. As mentioned before, pace is a deficiency of his so he could not rely on dribbling past multiple opponents or sprints down the flanks to avoid incoming pressure. Still, it did not prevent him from becoming one of the best press resistant midfielders in the league. In La Liga, Arthur averaged an exceptionally low 0.4 unsuccessful touches per game per WhoScored.

His midfield play also featured tactical awareness in regards to his off-ball movements. When he did not have the ball, Arthur looked to read the game and responded according to how play was progressing, such as with moving in between the lines to open a passing lane or dropping deep to provide support for the ball carrier. The Brazilian had a knack for striving to get involved with play when Barca controlled possession.

From a defensive perspective, Arthur showed precise quality but only to a moderate extent. He was not an Arturo Vidal type of player who would aggressively challenge opponents with physical tackles or provide constant movements to battle for an interception. These types of attributes in the midfield were provided from Rakitic, Busquets and of course, Vidal -- all of whom averaged over an interception per game in La Liga this past season. Instead, Arthur’s defensive contributions in the midfield centered around a mixture of zonal marking and aggressive challenges when the opportunity presented itself.

For example, see here how Harry Winks is able to recover possession and immediately looked to deliver a ball into the final third. Arthur reads the play from the start and is able to successfully intercept the pass.

In this sequence, Arthur moved out to the flank to battle for possession. His challenge causes enough separation between the ball and opponent which then allowed Arthur to pounce on the opportunity to recover and maintain possession within seconds.

The exquisite play from the Brazilian international was on full display throughout the campaign. Even with his consistent performances, there are a couple of areas that need improvement and tweaking before he can begin to reach world class status.

Areas of improvement

As alluded to before, there are five main characteristics for a midfielder to truly enjoy considerable success with Barca. Among them, they include being able to display a competent level of passing, pressing, movement, defending and playmaking abilities on the pitch. Now this is not to say that a midfielder must be a total and complete force in each trait but rather exemplify the ability to have an adequate impact as it pertains to the responsibilities that each covets.

In Arthur’s case, he showed excellent promise in passing, pressing, movement and defending. However, it was in the department of playmaking where the Brazilian was generally found to be lacking.

Arthur showed tremendous growth in contributing to open play when in possession but did not offer much when it came to getting involved in the attack. Arthur performed well in the build-up but rarely managed to send in through balls into the box or create chances for the attacking front three. In La Liga, the Brazilian completed 19 through balls and created 14 goal-scoring opportunities per UnderStat. Creating a mere 14 goal-scoring chances for team-mates is a relatively low figure and not what should be the norm among players who have the ball at a high rate per game in league play. But his low attacking contribution was not an anomaly among Barca midfielders. In comparison, Rakitic created 16 goal-scoring opportunities while Vidal had 22 per UnderStat.

So why did Arthur and his midfield counterparts not offer much when it came to helping out the attack? In Arthur’s case, this largely relates to positional freedom just as much as it does with his individual play. This does not fall entirely on Arthur but rather more on the conservative gameplan of Valverde.

Arthur alluded to this when speaking before the Copa America about the differences in tactics between Barcelona and Brazil. He touched on the fact that with the Selecao, he has “more freedom to go back and build the play.” Arthur continued by mentioning that manager Tite also gives him “more freedom to look for the ball further back.”

He later clarified his comments by stating that he likes the style of play of both teams but his initial points still stand. With Barcelona, Arthur does not have much positional freedom to weave in as he pleases but rather is situated to play mainly in one portion of the pitch. He can move out from the left side where he is positioned but only if the opportunity presents itself. Due to Valverde’s conservative approach of strictly maintaining Barca’s 4-3-3 shape, Arthur does not have the freedom to be assertive in the attack with constant movements out of his line or runs into the box.

In contrast, Pep Guardiola is a manager who likes to give his midfielders more creative responsibilities in his 4-3-3 setup. Whether it was with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta for Barcelona or currently now with the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne for Manchester City, Guardiola strives to play in a more attacking approach with his midfielders orchestrating more chances in the final third. Now of course, Arthur is currently nowhere near the level of those four midfielders from a playmaking standpoint but with more positional freedom to progress further upfield, he can be much more influential in the build-up of play.

For example, see this sequence from Barcelona’s 1-0 league win against Real Madrid. Arthur is in possession and approaching the box. The first thing that he notices is the disorganized Real Madrid backline that left an open gap of space in the box along with an eager Rakitic looking to exploit it with a cutting movement to it.

Now watch how the play unfolds as Arthur sends in an excellent through ball for Rakitic that stretched Real’s backline. He showed how threatening he could be with movement and positional freedom in the final third.

While Arthur was not much of a force from a playmaking standpoint on a game-by-game basis, he has the potential to flourish if given a more demanding creative role in the final third. He has shown world class potential in his role as a controller but with more responsibilities in the team’s involvement in the attack, the Brazilian could grow into a more complete midfielder. More importantly, this would undoubtedly benefit the team in instances where they are stagnant in attack or passive in their movement up to the final third. It is up to Valverde to unlock the full prowess of Arthur’s midfield play and get the best out of his talent.

For Arthur, he must be willing to adapt and grow in whatever task that will be given to him next season. If Valverde keeps his methodical conservative attacking approach, then he needs to continue to grow into being a top press-resistant midfielder and widen his passing range to push possession into deeper spaces. But in the case that Valverde decides to play a more aggressive attacking style, the Brazilian must be willing to take on the highly demanding role by generating more of an attacking approach to his play style. This comes in the form of more off-ball runs into open space and advantageous progressive runs, which he averaged a low 1.15 per 90 in La Liga per Wyscout last season.

Overall, there was just so much to be enthralled of with Arthur’s play and prompt development on the pitch. As many Brazilian talents have done before, Arthur showcased the ability to make the difficult look easy in a nonchalant manner. Heading into next season, the expectations for him will be even higher considering he will be coming off a strong Copa America showing and all eyes will be on how he accommodates playing with Frenkie de Jong. Nonetheless, the talent and skill that he possesses will surely continue to impress.