It’s not everyday that you are linked with Barcelona, and it’s an even rarer occurrence that you are compared to Andres Iniesta. But that’s exactly what happened to Arthur Henrique Ramos de Oliveira Melo, known as Arthur Melo, or simply Arthur, ahead of arguably the most important match of his professional career. But who is he? And does he really share a likeness to one of the greatest players to grace the modern game?
Originally from Goiania, Arthur moved to Porto Alegre at the age of 14 to join Gremio’s famed youth academy after impressing their scouts whilst playing for Goias. But despite his promotion to the first team under Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2015, it wasn’t until 2017 where the diminutive midfielder made his breakthrough. A composed debut performance against Guarani propelled him into the starting line-up and he has since established himself as a regular, featuring prominently in their first Libertadores triumph in 22 years.
Unlike most who burst onto the scene in Brazilian football, Arthur won’t make the headlines for his goalscoring exploits or fancy tricks, but for his transitional play, metronomic passing and link-up. In the Brasileirão last season, he attempted 2,002 passes (300 more than any other player), completing 1,863 of them at a rate of 93.1%. His average of 82 passes per 90 minutes was also a top flight high.
South American football is notoriously rough and standing at 5ft 8in tall in the centre of midfield will often put a target on your back, but the Brazilian uses his low centre of gravity to burst past markers who perhaps get too close, in a similar fashion to Thiago Alcantara or Naby Keita. While the statistics will say that Arthur has contributed a solitary assist in 38 appearances, that number fails to address his overall importance to the side, who lean on him to drive from deep and break strong defensive structures with incisive passing.
Defensively, his reactions are improving massively: the short amount of time he takes to recover the ball in advanced areas is one of the reasons why Gremio have such a formidable defensive record. Alongside his strong sense of leadership, the 21-year-old highlights the value of consistency in top level sport having played the most minutes of any Gremio player in the Brasileirão last season.
Since coming under the wing of Renato Gaucho, a Libertadores winner as a player in 1983 and now in his third spell as coach, Arthur is learning how to become a more decisive presence at both ends of the pitch. “I’m a player who likes to have the ball at my feet, and organise play,” he told reporters.
“As a defensive midfielder I see more of the ball, further back. But as a playmaker Renato is forcing me to get into the area, reach the goal and try to score, as well as thread the ball through. I am also forcing myself to support the attackers and wingers. I think that is where the difference has come, I am trying to get into the area more to feed those up front.”
His potential has not gone unnoticed. The likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea have all been linked with Arthur, as have Atletico Madrid and, of course, Barcelona. Brazil coach Tite has also kept a close eye on the midfielder, calling him up to the Seleção for September’s World Cup qualifiers although he did not see any playing time with Fernandinho, Fabinho and Casemiro ahead of him in the pecking order.
Shakhtar, Porto and Udinese are experts in providing that gateway for South Americans to flourish in Europe, but for various reasons Premier League and La Liga clubs remain reluctant to take a gamble. Work permit regulations cause headaches, reservations over their ability to play at the highest level are valid and the potential downsides to signings not working out – both financially and technically – are greater. However, in Casemiro, Gabriel Jesus and more recently Richarlison, the precedent has been set which could see more scouts headed towards Brazil, Argentina and Colombia from now on.
On the other hand, Gremio are unlikely to let one of their star players leave without a fight. Arthur is under contract until January 2021, and the Brazilians will not consider any bid shy of €30 million as a starting point for negotiations. Midfielders of his assurance and intelligence at such a young age are rare, and especially if Luan leaves for Europe in the new year, that will further reduce the pressure to sell until he has another season under his belt and has proved he is more than a one season wonder.
He may not possess obvious star quality like Jesus, Malcom or Richarlison, but his particular skills set could prove unique. That feathered first touch, a surprisingly stocky frame and his ability to welcome the ball in central areas is priceless for the modern game. His man of the match performance against Lanus in the Libertadores final only magnified his talent – which explains why he is an ever-present at the Arena do Grêmio under Renato.
The step-up to Barcelona or Manchester United is a large one for any player and it’s unlikely Arthur will be ready to make it right now, but there’s no reason why he won’t be able to in twelve or even eighteen months and with that in mind, Europe’s top clubs would be mad to take their eyes off him.