Can Quique Setien cope without Arthur Melo?
Background photo: 1997, CC BY-SA-3.0
Is Arthur Melo more critical to Barcelona's success than people think? The Brazilian midfielder already missed several of Barca's games through injury or coach's decision. The Blaugrana's record with him is significantly better than without. For the moment, his ankle injury only rules him out of the match against Real Sociedad. However, if his absence stretches further, how can Quique Setien adjust?
Arthur established himself as a first-choice in both Ernesto Valverde and Setien's midfield alongside Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong. The Brazilian's play dictation, vision and ability to cover a large swathe of the pitch, attacking and recovering, connects the dots for FCB.
The 23-year-old missed 14 of Barca's 37 games in all competitions this season. He couldn't feature in the second-leg Champions League group stage clashes with Slavia Prague and Inter Milan due to injuries. He also missed the return leg against Borussia Dortmund for tactical reasons. In La Liga, he's already missed 10 matches including El Clasico at the Nou Camp, the 2-0 defeat to Granada and the season-opening loss to Athletic Bilbao.
When available, he makes a difference, bagging four goals and four assists in 23 appearances. In the build-up, his passing and movement key Barca's attack. Thus far, he logs 266 passes in the Champions League and 809 in La Liga. Regularly breaking down defences, the Selecao averages 0.6 key passes per 90.
With the Brazilian on the pitch, Barcelona marched to 14 victories, held on for three draws, and suffered four defeats. Without him, the wins drop nearly in half to eight, scattered among four draws and three losses. If cup matches awarded points, an Arthur-guided Blaugrana would pull 45 of a possible 63 points [71.4%] across all competitions but only 28 of 45 [62.2%] in his absence. There's no denying they play better with him in the starting XI.
He missed Sunday's victory over Real Sociedad with an ankle injury. BeIn Sport reported he might miss three weeks, a span which includes eminently winnable Liga matches against Real Mallorca and Leganes but also the home leg in Barca's Champions League Round of 16 tie with Napoli, currently knotted at a goal apiece. If the injury lingers, more difficult matches with Sevilla and Bilbao enter the picture. Until Setien's old club, Real Betis, did their former boss a favour by knocking off Los Blancos', Real Madrid held a slight edge in the table. They're now two points behind but, with both Clasico legs completed, the Catalans can't afford to drop points.
When Arthur isn't in the lineup, Ivan Rakitic usually starts. Due to the Brazilian's frequent sojourns, the duo log comparable minutes. Rakitic plays a little deeper, possibly to compensate for 31-year-old legs, and thus isn't quite as involved with link-up play in the final third. On the other hand, he attempts more than twice as many shots. Unfortunately, his zeal to test keepers isn't paying off. The Croat remains goalless this campaign. his attacking inefficiency must concern Quique Setien for the Champions League, if not for the two matches against teams struggling in La Liga's depths.
When defending is the order of the day, Arturo Vidal steps in rather than Rakitic. The Chilean adds steel and sandpaper to the lineup when summoned. Yet, he also contributes six goals and two assists to the Liga cause. He came on for Rakitic and delivered the cross Robin Le Normand handled in the box, leading to Lionel Messi's penalty. Perhaps Setien should consider going with Vidal from the start.
After loaning out Carles Alena in January, there isn't a viable third option. As well, Setien probably missed the boat on gaining Rakitic's confidence when he took the reins from Valverde. The player reportedly wants away, most recently tied to an Atletico Madrid transfer. The boss can't win his trust or boost his self-esteem by playing him only when Arthur is unavailable. Rakitic has been around the block. He sees the writing on the wall.
With his contract entering its final year in June, honesty might be the best policy. Acknowledging Rakitic is second-choice and agreeing to move him into a more favourable situation at another club this summer could relieve tensions. Otherwise, it's easy for concern over his future to continue affecting the World Cup hero's play. Unfortunately, Barcelona's recent transfer policy can't be called player-friendly, as youngsters like Alena and winger Carles Perez can attest. As the saying goes, you make your bed and lie in it.