Can Arthur replace the irreplaceable Xavi?
On the 2nd of May, 2009, Barcelona visited the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for a date with arch-rivals Real Madrid. The scenes that unfolded at the Bernabeu were cataclysmic for the home crowd to witness. Even after taking the lead, the Blaugrana outfit, shot six bullets to Real Madrid’s chest, past the goal guarded by Iker Casillas.
The match closed all doors for Real Madrid’s title challenge in the La Liga. A normal stat paddler would hold a certain Lionel Messi or Thierry Henry responsible for the demolition. But a certain somebody didn’t let the pain caused by him be felt. The Los Blancos were taken apart by the anaesthetic brilliance of Xavi Hernandez.
Xavi performed just like he did on any other day. When he presses he wins the ball, when you press him, you get floored. Xavi registered four assists on the day. Unbreakable, untraceable and not a bit prone to press. Xavi’s second assist to Lionel Messi split the Real Madrid defence apart.
Surrounded by Canavarro, Gago and Van Der Vaart, any other player would give the ball away than bite the dust. Not Xavi, he just kept the ball stuck to his feet and with one quick move of the eyeball, caught Lionel Messi’s cheeky bypass. Messi had the easiest of tasks to slide the ball past Casillas. What did Xavi accomplish? He attracted all the defenders and still kept possession to execute the unimaginable.
This wasn’t the only incident when he has kept possession under terrible pressure. Pep’s Barcelona had everything a team demands: Clinical finishers like Henry, Pedro and Villa, the uncanny genius of Lionel Messi, the creativity of Iniesta, the defensive stability provided by Busquets and the controlling role of Xavi Hernandez. The role of Xavi Hernandez was seldom noticed. The task at his hand was simple to describe yet unsymmetrically tougher than any role on the team.
The possession game would flow only if Xavi held the ball long enough. What did Xavi do? He kept the ball, looked by and hit open spaces. Xavi had another task to keep the ball away from the opposition presses. Unlike Ivan Rakitic in the current team, Xavi wasn’t afraid of losing the ball to presses and rather than passing backwards, he adjusted his body movement to play in the best positioned forward player.
Xavi could hold the ball no matter how big a defender surrounded him. He didn’t mind the number of defenders that swarmed around him and even the rough play that they attempted. Xavi personified Pep’s ideology: Take the ball, look for spaces, and pass the ball, repeat. The World Cup in 2010 shed light on Xavi’s midfield role and Xavi was nominated for the Ballon D' Or the following year.
Since the Barcelona midfielder has left for Al Sadd, Barcelona’s midfield has looked very shaggy. The loss of the iconic holding midfielder changed the roles of all players. Iniesta didn’t have a perfect midfield partner to play the quick passes and open the defence. This forced Lionel Messi to drop deeper and deeper into the field thus creating a hole in the attack. Any through ball and Luis Suarez had to be the only one to approach it.
Xavi’s departure also increased the pressure on Busquets. Andre Gomes, Ivan Rakitic, Rafinha, all were prone to dispossession and Busquets had to be on his heels all the time. Busquets’ freedom in the defensive midfield role and his forward approach took a hit.
Barcelona has struggled to find a replacement to Xavi yet and it ever so kept increasing the pressure on Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets. Barcelona’s questions needed answers? Will we ever find the replacement to Xavi? Didn’t seem likely. Denis Suarez and Phillipe Coutinho had shown promise to succeed in Iniesta’s role. Barcelona B midfielder Carles Alena’s promotion would add depth to the creative midfield role. But who will control the tempo of the game? Who will hold possession and look for open spaces? The answer to Barcelona’s woes had been written long back in 1996 when Xavi was just crawling his way into the first team.
When Xavi was busy destroying the midfield of Real Madrid at Bernabeu, a young captain for a Brazilian club took the pitch in a U-14 match. The kid had a plaster in his left hand. Yet his innate timing of passes, the exploitation of space was accurate as it could become at such a young age. The kid was surely the future of Brazilian football but nobody could guess he would take Europe by storm. While growing up in the streets of Brazil, just like every other kid, he turned the narrow streets into a football pitch. Kicking the ball from a young age, attempting a lot of cheeky skills fascinated by futsal, the kid was developing into a raw talent.
While he was inspired by the artistic masterpiece of fellow countryman Ronaldinho and the majestic Andres Iniesta, he grew up attempting to become like them. For whatever reason, he tried to imitate greatness and he developed into a different type of great. Not a bit prone to pressing, finding free spaces, the ball stuck to his feet as iron does to a magnet. The name that was written in the back of the impressive Gremio midfielder, read clear as day, Arthur.
Unproven, playing at Brazil, unknown to Europe, Arthur Melo attracted Barcelona’s eyes following his brilliance in the FIFA Club World Cup. He performed amazingly in the pre-season friendlies at the US.
Arthur took up the big stage in Europe. His first game in European Competition, his first start for Barcelona, against the Tottenham Hotspurs at Wembley. He impressed like he has been playing in UEFA competitions for years. Arthur stayed away from all attempted tackles and presses. Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Harry Winks, Wanyama, Lamela, all tried to take the ball away from his feet but in vain. Whether Spurs attempted to dispossess him in a 1v1 or a 2v1, they always came up second best.
Arthur has inherited his idol Andres Iniesta’s iconic #8 shirt. While he has Iniesta’s number on his back he has the skill-set that represents the puppet-master Xavi Hernandez. Busquets was able to complete 100% of his passes against Spurs. Rakitic was able to play more freely in the forward zone rather than the unlikely creative role. Lionel Messi hardly dropped deep into the midfield and he destroyed Spurs all ends up. The catalyst to all the amazing performances by the Barcelona players was the #8.
Barcelona still wonders if this is the new Xavi. They thought at one point that there won’t be an heir to Xavi’s throne. But all great things which at one point seem irreplaceable have to be done away with for a better future. Xavi left a legacy at Barcelona and Arthur has to build his, succeeding the great puppet-master and also inheriting the #8 shirt.
While at one point, Ptolemy thought that all heavenly bodies revolve around the earth and the space beyond planets is unreachable, Copernicus described that it is the planets that revolve around the sun. Kepler developed his theory that planets rotate in elliptical orbits which received more applause when Newton developed his law of gravitation. Change is essential. Charles Darwin did quote once that only the species which adapt to change can survive. Milan couldn’t survive, Manchester United are struggling to survive, but Barcelona have managed to.
Barcelona could either dwell on the loss of its legendary midfielders or celebrate the rise of the new ones. However, Arthur is not at Xavi’s level yet. But that is not a fact that couldn’t change. The Navier-Stokes equation is holding on all but one theory from Stokes. The day someone illustrates a problem that contradicts the theory it will bow into a new one. At this moment, Xavi is the greatest ever Barcelona midfielder and Iniesta is the greatest to don the #8. Maybe years later, Arthur Melo will rewrite the facts. He has the potential and he is with the team that will help him overcome and push his limits.