The problem with the Arthur transfer

Few transfers in recent memory have blown up a fanbase like that of Arthur Melo, who is moving to Juventus with Miralem Pjanic coming the other way, along with 10 million Euros.

On the surface, Juventus is paying Barça 10m to take a geezer off their hands, but there is a lot percolating under the surface of this move.

Essentially, this is a financial deal. It is well and truly all about the money. Both clubs need to balance their books for two different reasons. Juventus is on their own, but Barça board need to balance the books so that they aren’t personally on the hook for any overages, but also so that it looks nice at their next press event when they talk about how well the club is doing financially.

This is the biggest problem with the transfer. The team is stuffed with old players on big salaries, and a legacy of a trio of 100m-plus transfers that have all, for one reason or another, not worked out. Couple that with the fiscal losses related to a global pandemic, and you have a club with some money problems. Looking around at who to sell and who somebody might want to buy, the list got interesting, we can only imagine. When you look at who somebody wanted who would do the least amount of damage to the sporting project (more on that later), Arthur was low-hanging fruit. He’s 23, talented as hell and Barça have midfielders coming out the wazoo. But man, is it skeezy to move a player on just to balance the books to save your own butt. Of course, these are the same men who have before let the club face culpability so that they could escape personal responsibility. So there is a template already in place.

Where dreams go to die

When Arthur came from Gremio, it was amid talk of a “controller,” this idealized being that sits in the center of the midfield and … well … controls. It’s difficult not to think of Xavi as the ultimate controller, even as anyone who considered Arthur the next Xavi was surely guilty of being overserved. Arthur also came with lots of talk of “Barça DNA,” of a player who understood the game and could play it in the right way, the dream of those who believe that proper play would bring excellence which would bring a return to glory for a team that has heretofore considered the Liga an invitational tournament.

Statistically, Arthur was far from a controller in the sense of ball progression. Yes, a lot of that was due to playing in the tactical equivalent of Stonehenge. When a mid gets the ball and doesn’t have anywhere to put it, does it make a sound? But Arthur had other complexities. Even with places to put the ball, like everyone else on the team this season, he took too many touches. He’s also slow, and seems to lag behind play mentally in a way that makes him not the best defender.

In an idealized system, none of those problems would manifest themselves. A Xavi defensive highlights reel would be a rather short one. But in that same system, Xavi took the ball, and dished the ball. A press worked to recover and feed him the ball, pressed-up defenders solved problems before they started, to feed him the ball. Xavi could do what he did, which was to control the proceedings with a style and virtuosity that made him a legend of the game for club and country.

Arthur doesn’t have that luxury. Pinning the failure entirely upon the player is as problematic as pinning the failure entirely upon the system. But the failure is complete. The club failed him and the team. But he wasn’t good enough either, which is something that shouldn’t get lost in the furor. Setien set tongues a-wagging when he said that “Arthur wouldn’t be the first player to generate expectations that didn’t materialize.” Not sure why. He’s exactly right. He isn’t blaming Arthur, just saying that stuff didn’t work out, despite all the expectations. Coutinho is one, Dembele another, Griezmann another. The list of players for whom that is true at FC Barcelona is, just in recent history, a long one. Perspective is a lot of the problem with the Arthur transfer.

As idealized players go, Arthur was the last of his kind in the midfield. But he is also a player who, as Ray Hudson said, “flattered to deceive.” But if you look at the midfield now, that particular profile is absent, that psychological link to past glories that made a sturdy-looking Brazilian mid so hotly anticipated. A controller. Now, there is Busquets, Rakitic, Vidal, Puig and De Jong. It’s still a midfield stuffed with talent, and one of those players is an icon, the other has potential to become one, schooled in the ways of La Masia and ready to set hearts aflutter with every run. But Arthur was different.

So what now?

Well, aside from cursing the board that brought the team to the state where this kind of a deal needed to happen, pandemic or no pandemic, next steps will be interesting. It’s also worth noting that the reaction from people might lead those new to this world to think that Miralem Pjanic sucks. He doesn’t. Far from it. He works hard defensively, progresses the ball and is versatile. Yes, he’s 30. So welcome to the Catalunya branch of AARP. Early lunch discounts for seniors begin at 6 p.m. He isn’t Arthur, but Arthur doesn’t have proper function at the team because it’s broken. So fix the team, and bring back Alenya, who would be wonderful in that role. Or use De Jong there in a more mobile platform. The team has no shortage of options when it comes to filling a hole that doesn’t really exist because everything else is a mess.

Pedri is coming, so is Trincao and Matheus Fernandes. Collado is also ready to start running around midfield, and Alenya will be coming from from Betis, looking to stake out a spot that will keep him in Blaugrana. So it’s pretty difficult to get that worked up about a midfielder leaving a team where he was never going to be able to play to his strengths anyhow, except as a philosophical deus ex machina. And that is another big problem with the Arthur transfer. The club seems to be giving up on the right way of playing, when in fact it did that years ago. It did when it bought Neymar, did it when it bought Rakitic. It did it when it bought Coutinho, sure as hell did it when it bought Dembele. Then it stuffed those players into a mess of competing mindsets, damning them to failure. The real problem with Barça is that it has no real idea HOW it wants to play, but has full commitment to that non-program.

Lip service is paid to maximizing the remaining time of the greatest player to ever play the game, then they stuff the roster with expensive players who can’t run, a relic of a 9 and put the whole thing in the hands of a third-choice selection, fired from his last job for very real cause, who has a way with words that evoke romance in thirsty supporters. Given the state of this team and the way Real Madrid has calmly and logically built its roster, it’s a wonder that Barça is as close to the top of the table as it is.

Letting go of dreams is hard. Arthur is a step in that process, even if every sliver of the motivation behind the move is out of kilter. But when you give money managers the keys to the henhouse, priorities change. The transfer of Arthur isn’t the biggest problem here. That Barça is bad and getting worse is the proverbial thousand-pound gorilla here. And the people whose jobs it has been to resolve that problem have, in five years, succeeded only in making matters worse. Arthur’s transfer is a symptom, not the disease.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.