But whilst everyone had their eyes on the Argentine, it was another South American who was quietly having a colossal impact on the match. Wearing Andrés Iniesta’s no. 8 shirt, Arthur was making his first start in Europe’s premiere competition and he was staggeringly good.
On the one hand, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Arthur is a Brazilian midfielder who Barcelona signed from Gremio where he was an integral part of the Brazilian side winning last year’s Copa Libertadores and this year’s Campeonato Gaucho. Big stages to perform on.
On the other hand moving to Europe is always difficult. The transition to a higher level of football can be a problem, especially for someone as young as Arthur (he just turned 22 in the summer), but Arthur thus far appears capable of managing it with ease.
But what is most impressive isn’t that he has played well, Neymar joined Barcelona from Santos and played well, it’s that he has played that very particular Barcelona-brand of “well” – which is damn near impossible to do.
Seriously. Even youngsters from La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy, can find it difficult to express themselves and their style of play in the bigger, more intense games. Just look at Sergi Samper for an example of how even “Barça DNA” isn’t a guarantee of success at the Camp Nou. Being able to play the Barcelona way isn’t the same as actually doing it.
And not only did Arthur do it, but he did it in the Champions League, and he did it by filling perhaps the biggest void there has ever been at Barcelona; the one shaped by Xavi.
Xavi was (and is) the greatest central midfielder of all-time. A peerless player of precision passes and metronomic mastery. He bent the game of football to his will like he wielded the god damn Infinity Gauntlet. Space and time were his to command, souls were lifted and minds were changed because the power of his play changed reality forever.
But Father Time is undefeated, and he came for Xavi half a decade ago. Xavi’s slow decline was mirrored by Barcelona and Spain’s. The sides that he had orchestrated for four years, dominating the international and club games simultaneously for an entire World Cup cycle (a feat not even Pelé, Maradona or Messi managed to do) were so enthralled to him that like the Fisher King’s kingdom, they withered as he did.
Barcelona reworked their system to find life again through Leo Messi’s magnificence and Sergio Busquets’ brilliance. The pair of them, aided superbly by the ethereal Andrés Iniesta, adjusted their games to cover for Xavi’s absence. But it was Messi and Busquets that bore the brunt of it as Iniesta wasn’t exactly young either.
Ivan Rakitic replaced Xavi in the Barcelona XI and he is a much more direct player. He is excellent and has been excellent (e.g. his goal at Wembley) but he can’t play possession football the way Xavi could. He can’t aid Busquets and Messi in controlling games the way Xavi could; keeping the ball, giving the ball, recycling possession at speed whilst resisting the opponent’s press.
Without that player, the metronomic link between Busquets and Messi, Barcelona’s suffered. Not in La Liga much, Messi and Busquets did some serious heavy lifting to ensure that didn’t happen. But in the Champions League. When they had to take hold of tricky quarter-finals and own the ball, they couldn’t (because Messi and Busquets were exhausted from all the heavy lifting they had been doing in La Liga). And so when they reached the latter stages, facing up to difficult opponents; they lost, and lost, and lost.
Arthur is that player, that metronomic link the Barcelona midfield needs.
Obviously he is not on Xavi’s level (for god’s sake he’s only 22!); he’s great but not yet ready to sit upon the throne. He’s no King Arthur just yet. But Prince Arthur? Sure, absolutely. The path to the throne for him is clear, and moreover, his ability to wear the crown is screamingly obvious from the adorable way he uses social media like a fan to his staggering serenity amidst the war of Wembley.
Spurs just couldn’t get to Arthur. He was so comfortable turning or dropping his shoulder to escape their attempts to press him. His presence made Sergio Busquets’ life so much easier (there’s a reason Busquets completed 100% of his 67 passes and 100% of his 7 tackles).
Whilst Arthur was comfortable passing the ball backwards or sideways if it meant retaining possession, he also showed he wasn’t some sort of crab-passer; he had and displayed the capability to drive the ball between the lines of Spurs’ midfield to Leo Messi and the forwards.
He just kept it simple, which in a game as complicated as taking on Spurs at Wembley is not easy to do. Expressing your personality at such a young age on such a grand stage is not easy to do. Yet Arthur did both against Spurs and played a key role in Barcelona’s brilliant win.
This was only Arthur’s fifth start for Barcelona, so there is a long way to go (and given how essential he already seems to be, he will need careful managing to avoid the post-Christmas drop-off that all summer signings from Brazil suffer in their first season) but for the first time in a long time, Barcelona have a young midfielder who genuinely looks capable of sitting on Xavi’s throne.