Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid was a disappointment for Quique Setien as he attempts to convince everyone his back to the future approach – restoring the club’s famed focus on a passing game – is the best way to bring the glory days back to Barcelona.
But even after the late goals that took the game away from his team in the Bernabeu last month, it is understood Setien took heart from one particular performer in Barca’s midfield.
Arthur’s display only served to convince Setien that he is on the right path.
The Brazil international completed 44 passes in the first half in Madrid – more than any other midfielder on the pitch. Just as had been the case in Barcelona’s only other league defeat under Setien, away to Valencia in January, his belief in Arthur’s potential was a source of optimism.
“He is an extraordinary footballer who understands everything,” says the Barcelona boss.
He sees the 23-year-old playmaker as the long-term solution.
Setien is not alone.
“He is very safe and trustworthy,” says Lionel Messi of his team-mate. “He has the La Masia style.”
Xavi agrees. “He is one of those players that we say has the Barca DNA.”
The praise from Messi had Arthur giddily rushing to get his phone from his pocket to search online and find out precisely what the Argentine had been saying about him.
But it is the praise from Xavi that might yet prove more significant and not just because the former Barcelona captain has been strongly tipped to return as coach before too long.
Xavi, even more so than Messi and the much loved Andres Iniesta, is seen as the epitome of the Barcelona way. The man who turned the rondo into much more than a pre-match drill but a way of winning matches.
Time and again, Xavi has namechecked Arthur as his heir.
It is no surprise Xavi should see his own reflection in Arthur. There is an uncanny likeness on the pitch. They share the same posture. There are echoes of the great man in his shielding of the ball and his subsequent use of it – circulating possession, probing away.
The sheer numbers show the similarity in style too.
Last season, his first at the club following his move from Gremio, Arthur averaged 80 passes per 90 minutes. That was more than his new Barcelona team-mate Sergio Busquets.
In fact, against Valencia he attempted more passes – 142 – than any La Liga player had away from home in almost six years. That player? Xavi, of course.
It is a remarkable statistic given the accepted wisdom is that Ernesto Valverde’s more pragmatic approach was not such an obvious fit for Barcelona’s pass masters.
It is Setien, after his much lauded work at Real Betis, who is regarded as a more appropriate keeper of the flame – and the early signs for Arthur have been encouraging.
In Setien’s first game in charge, the 1-0 win over Granada in January, Barcelona attempted more than 1,000 passes – far more than in any game under Valverde. More than any team other than Pep Guardiola’s Barca have ever recorded since Opta started counting, in fact.
With Setien’s Barcelona, there is a conspicuous effort to restore those values.
And that suits Arthur.
He came on in the 82nd minute of that Granada game. By the full-time whistle he had completed more passes than all but one of his opponents had managed in the entire match.
Even in what has been a stop-start season due to injury, and one not without its complications for Barcelona, Arthur ranks among the top players in the passing stats.
He is in the top six for passes completed in the final third per 90 minutes and, most intriguingly, ranks second for lay-off passes. That is defined as a first time pass away from goal when there is pressure on the passer. This combination play with Jordi Alba at left-back suggests there is something of the Iniesta about Arthur as well as his Xavi connection.
There is an awareness too that he must do more. That this is a prediction about his potential as much as it is a statement about his quality. Again, there are signs he recognises this.
For example, Arthur’s reaction to his recent injury issues was to hire a specialist fitness coach so he could do additional work at home. Even before the lockdown in Spain, he had implemented his own physical plan to improve his conditioning and become stronger.
He is also taking classes to learn the Catalan language.
It is the sort of attitude Barcelona will need if the team is to be upwardly mobile again. Where there is Messi there is hope, but the lesson of recent times is that more is required.
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