In 1999, Pep Guardiola turned to Xavi Hernández. “You will retire me, but there’s this kid who will retire us both,” he said, referring to Andrés Iniesta, who he’d just seen compete in the Nike Cup youth tournament. That was the way that baton was supposed to be passed. From Guardiola to Xavi to Iniesta. But then what?
Guardiola’s prediction came true and the Barcelona midfield has continuously been marshalled by prophets of the passing game since the start of the 1990s. Yet Xavi left in 2015 and Iniesta moved to Japan this past summer. All of a sudden, there was a need to unearth another protector of the ball. Someone to slot in beside Sergio Busquets. Someone, as those in Blaugrana circles would say, with “Barça DNA”.
In Arthur Melo, they’ve found him. Little did Guardiola know when he made his prophecy in 1999 that there was a two-year old in Brazil who’d have as much “Barça DNA” as those who’d grown up around La Masia.
Since signing from Gremio in the summer for a fee that could reach €40m, Arthur has grown and grown and he is already a fixture in the team’s starting XI. He’s been so good that the club’s most expensive signing ever, Philippe Coutinho, has even had to alter his own position in order to make room for the Brazilian in the midfield.
The stats tell part of the story, with his pass completion percentage of 94 percent the second highest in the Barça squad after the 95.6 percent of centre-back Samuel Umtiti, but it’s through watching the way he completes those 94 out of 100 passes that you see just how natural a passer of the ball he is. In fact, the six out of 100 that he doesn’t complete are revealing too, as he’s usually still picked the right option.
The consistency is another factor which makes Arthur such an exciting prospect and which has Barcelona fans salivating. Other players have come in and played like a Xavi or an Iniesta for a half, a match or a fortnight, but they’ve never been able to keep it up. Arthur has been doing it for two months now. His average passing competition percentage may be 94 percent, but his very lowest has been 88 percent, which is still the same as the average for the Blaugrana squad. He has done it in all kinds of games too, from LaLiga to the Champions League, from a match against relegation-threatened Rayo Vallecano to a Clásico against Real Madrid, from the perfect carpet of the Camp Nou to the potato field of Wembley.
Now the question becomes, how good can he get? He’s already exceeding most people’s expectations, so can he reach the legendary heights of Guardiola, Xavi and Iniesta? If you ask Xavi, then the answer is yes.
“I see a lot of potential in Arthur and I think he can be a very valuable player for Barcelona,” Xavi told Catalunya Radio this past week, which wasn’t the first time he has praised the 22-year-old. “He’ll become even better when he gains more confidence. He is similar to me. I see myself in Arthur.” As far as praise of a midfielder goes, it could harder be any grander than a comparison with Xavi from the man himself.
Barcelona’s style may have been slowly changing in recent years and we may never quite see a repeat of the ‘pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, goal’ football of Xavi and Iniesta. But, in Arthur, Barcelona have unearthed a quality player who can help keep the philosophy and the dream alive. Expect to see a lot more of him over the next decade. Expect to see him get even better.
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