A new, unfamiliar era is dawning at Barcelona. Of that magical trident formed by Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, only the Argentine will remain at the start of the 2018-19 season. We may not know where the great Iniesta will be lining up then, but it will not be in Catalunya, after last weekend’s Clasico marked the beginning of the end for one of football’s great love affairs at Camp Nou.
But all may not be lost for Ernesto Valverde and his double winners. Just minutes after Iniesta’s penultimate appearance at Camp Nou the young star who has been labelled as his successor gave his own masterclass on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Arthur Melo is currently his own protracted farewell at Gremio, and if he can sustain Sunday’s startling performance to down Santos the future – and present – should be bright for the Blaugrana.
The 21-year-old pulled off a rare triple feat in a 5-1 blowout in Porto Alegre over Neymar’s former team, Gremio’s second victory out of four Serie A clashes to date. Not only did Arthur lay on an assist for Maicon, he also rounded off the win with a lovely low finish from outside the box; and for good measure completed an outstanding 100 passes over the course of the 90 minutes.
It was the first time since 2013 that a player in the Brazilian top flight had achieved such a feat, and cements the midfielder’s reputation as one of the nation’s most promising talents. And luckily for Barca he will soon be theirs: after starring in Gremio’s Copa Libertadores triumph of 2017 the Catalans swooped to seal a first option, making him a future Cule for the bargain basement price of €30 million (£26.5m/$36m) .
It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Barca’s Brazilian icons past and present were vital in negotiations. “When the stories started coming out about Barça’s rumoured interest, I had a short conversation with Neymar with the national team,” Arthur explained after sealing a pre-contract deal.
“I asked him about Barcelona and he only had praise for the club and the city. He recommended Barcelona to me.
“After that I spoke with Philippe Coutino on Instagram, who agreed with everything Neymar said. He said that that city is wonderful and it’s an excellent club to work at.”
In truth it is Coutinho, not his compatriot, that is likely to step first into Iniesta’s role. Arthur excels in a more withdrawn role, controlling the tempo of the game in the way that Xavi used to so well at Camp Nou.
He also adds an extra dimension to the attack with his incursions from deep; Marca for one, not given to praising potential Barca stars, suggested the youngster was a “low-cost Marco Verratti” in a recent report.
It is a part of the game he has worked on incessantly under the guiding eye of coach Renato Gaucho, no mean attacking threat himself during his playing days, and it is paying off. Having contributed just two goals in 50 games during 2017 and after seeing the start of this year interrupted by a niggling injury picked up in the Libertadores final, Arthur has already hit the net four times in just 14 outings so far.
None of that, moreover, has affected his clockwork precision. Arthur continues to average a pass completion rate closer to 100 than 90 per cent in both Serie A and this year’s Libertadores, with his passes per game also brushing three figures. Those are numbers built for Camp Nou, where as in Brazil possession is treasured above almost all else.
This summer, then, would appear the perfect time to introduce the Brazilian to the rigours of La Liga. As well as Iniesta the hapless Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez are also facing Camp Nou exits after struggling to prove they are up to the task on one of football’s most demanding. That would leave Barca under-manned in the engine room, and Arthur fits the profile of the utility midfielder who has the skillset to play understudy at first for either Coutinho, Ivan Rakitic or Sergio Busquets while learning his trade and pushing for a first-team place outright.
To complete a deal, however, Barca must first convince Gremio to release a player that is proving vital once more to their Libertadores aspirations. The knockout stages of the great South American competition start as late as August, and the reigning champions will try to pull out all the stops in order to keep their dynamo. Further negotiations will be required to bring forward a deal that had been expected to be finalised in 2019, but which has been made more urgent by Iniesta’s exit.
The Catalans also face a slight bureaucratic headache. Currently the limit of three non-EU players is filled by Coutinho, Paulinho and Yerry Mina and, while the former of that trio has applied for a Portuguese passport by virtue of his marriage to a fellow holder there is no guarantees it will arrive in time. Should Coutinho’s papers fail to arrive, it is likely that Mina will make way in a temporary switch to make room for Arthur.
Make room they should, however. Arthur will need time to adjust to his new home, but he has all the talent necessary to make sure that, along with Coutinho, the loss of the irreplaceable Iniesta is not a body blow for the reigning Spanish champions.