In December 2017, before the Manchester derby, Brazil boss Tite traveled to England and sat down for a brief chat with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola prior to the game at Old Trafford.
Among other issues, Tite was particularly interested in Guardiola’s thoughts about two of City’s Brazilians, Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho. Jesus had been lined up alongside Sergio Aguero in a two-man frontline, something he seldom did in the national team, while Fernandinho had recently been used as a sweeper behind Yaya Toure. As the conversation evolved, other topics were brought up.
At some point, Guardiola asked Tite about midfielder Fred, then a City target, but he might have been surprised by the answer given to him.
The Brazil coach told his Catalan colleague that he found Fred a world-class footballer, but if he had to choose between him and Gremio starlet Arthur Melo, he would go with the latter.
Arthur, meanwhile, arrived at Camp Nou around the same time last summer after Barcelona paid £27.4 million for his signature.
Since then, Tite’s words have proved prophetic.
Arthur has made a striking first impression at Barca. Despite not being a La Masia graduate, he plays like he’s been at the club for over a decade, drawing comparisons with legendary midfielder Xavi Hernandez and being touted as a fantastic signing by the man himself, as well as Lionel Messi.
Fred, on the other hand, has struggled to get into Manchester United’s team despite his sizable transfer fee, making just seven starts and scoring once.
It is no surprise that after the World Cup, Fred has been discarded by Tite and Arthur has begun to thrive.
When Brazil took on Cameroon on Tuesday, Fred surprisingly showed up and watched the international clash from the stands in Milton Keynes, England. On the pitch, Arthur made another start for the senior team. Since making his debut in September, he has been involved in every game and now controls the midfield alongside Casemiro and Philippe Coutinho.
“He is going to change the way the national team plays,” wrote Tostao, one of the country’s strikers at the 1970 World Cup and now a football columnist for the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper.
That’s one of the strongest endorsements a player can get in Brazilian football, but the coaching staff have been similarly impressed.
How could they not be?
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For a long time, Brazil has been looking for a “ritmista” (rhythm maker), the type of player who can dictate the tempo of a match from midfield. Tite has gone as far as suggesting that the whole Brazilian youth setup should be rethought in order to produce more footballers like Arthur and Flamengo’s Lucas Paqueta, who is set to join AC Milan in January.
Gremio’s president, Romildo Bolzan Junior, had fueled the debate when he said in September 2017 that Arthur is the brightest kid the club’s academy has ever produced—Ronaldinho, Lucas Leiva, Emerson, Renato Portaluppi and others all behind.
Tite considered including Arthur in his 23-man squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, but he concluded it would not be fair to leave Fred off the roster after his performances during friendly camp in March, particularly in training. The decision backfired after an injury prevented Fred from playing a single minute at the tournament.
Despite Tite’s confidence in Arthur, few people—possibly including the Brazilian coach himself—could have predicted a better start to life for the 22-year-old at Barcelona.
The skepticism about Arthur’s move says more about his critics than Arthur himself, though. The midfielder planned his move in such a meticulous way that he was certain he would not find it difficult to cope with the pressure of being the long-term replacement for Xavi.
“I’ve seen some Brazilian players moving abroad in the past and struggling to adapt because they didn’t have their families by their side. That’s why I’m very grateful to mine—I made sure they [his dad Ailton Melo, mum Lucia and brother Paulo] came with me, they’re my base, my everything,” Arthur told Bleacher Report following Brazil’s 1-0 win against Cameroon.
“Barcelona are an amazing team, have got an excellent structure, but I was aware that if I wanted to succeed there, I had to pay attention to some important details,” he continued.
“I asked them to give me a personal chef and I have now a Catalan one with me. I know nutrition is a very important thing in an athlete’s career. They also handed me a physical trainer and a physiotherapist. As much as the club already have these professionals, if you can also work on your own, you will be able to recover faster from a game. They are with me every day.”
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Junior Chavare, a former Juventus scout in South America, first met Arthur when the midfielder was just 14 years old.
Chavare had been hired to take care of Gremio’s youth department and almost instantly turned it into one of the most prolific talent factories in the country. Porto’s Alex Telles, Bayer Leverkusen‘s Wendell, Hannover’s Walace and talented duo Everton and Luan—still with the club—have all come through under his watch.
Even to this day, when he speaks about Arthur, Chavare gets so excited that he can go on for almost 10 minutes talking about his former protege. He rates him as one of the most professional kids he’s ever worked with.
“A Catalan newspaper called me when he was signed by Barcelona and asked me how long it could take for him to settle at the club. ‘Perhaps two years, three?’ they pondered. I told them he would get into the team right away. They laughed at me and said it was impossible. I replied, ‘That’s because you don’t know him,'” Chavare recalled to B/R.
“I usually say that Arthur’s mental strength is bigger than his own technique. He has always been a man in a boy’s body.
“He comes from a family background that—let’s be honest—is not the most common in Brazilian football. He always had a great life, is very intelligent. If it wasn’t enough, a bit before being promoted to the first team, he signed with a big agent [Jorge Machado] and got his own entourage. It made the difference for him.
“But the potential has always been there. Barcelona had already watched him back in 2014.”
When a picture taken in Machado’s office was leaked around December 2017, it appeared Arthur’s move to Barcelona was finally happening, despite Gremio’s frustration that they were not made aware of any meeting.
He was wearing a Barca jersey and had his dad and brother, Kaue Machado (one of his representatives) and the Catalans’ man in Brazil, Andre Cury, by his side. Some blamed the photo leak on Ronaldinho’s nephew, Diego Assis, who also works as part of his entourage, but nothing has ever been confirmed.
Arthur grew up in Goiania, the capital of the rural Brazilian state of Goias. He watched Barcelona as a youngster and was determined to make his dream move a reality.
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Mazinho, who won the 1994 World Cup with Brazil, is the father or Thiago (now at Bayern) and Rafinha Alcantara, who both came through Barcelona’s youth academy. A similar player to Arthur in his day, Mazinho had no doubts the former Gremio man was a perfect fit for the Spanish champions.
“He settled in very quickly. Due to his playing style and Barcelona’s one, I think it made things easier for him,” he said.
“He’s got great ball control, a very good pass and knows how to control the tempo of a game. I’m not surprised at all by the way he adapted. His approach on the pitch is exactly the same as what the club became famous for over the past decades. It’s very nice to see Rafinha, Coutinho and him together.”
Despite that, Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde initially didn’t sound too impressed when he was asked about Arthur before his arrival. In a press conference before a game against Girona on February 23, he joked: “What’s his surname again? I thought he was an actor.”
However, it didn’t take long for Valverde to find out that Arthur was no joke. When he substituted the Brazilian during the Champions League game against Inter Milan on October 24, the boos echoed around the Camp Nou, and Valverde later had to explain the substitution to reporters, saying the midfielder had some muscle discomfort and that he did not want to risk losing him.
The following game was the Clasico against Real Madrid at home, and Valverde’s protection of his player ahead of the game said it all about how important Arthur had become. Barca thrashed Real 5-1, with Arthur playing 84 minutes before being replaced.
Beating the odds is something Arthur has been used to since an early age in Porto Alegre.
He has found himself on the release list in Gremio’s youth teams, struggled to break into the senior side, was then barely used by coaches such as Luiz Felipe Scolari and Roger Machado, and he was almost loaned out to modest outlets such as Fortaleza and Osasco Audax.
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Chavare recalls the moment it almost fell apart for Arthur: “I had left Gremio for Sao Paulo, but then one year later, when I returned to the club, I found him a bit discouraged…I mean, perhaps not discouraged, but there were some doubts, they were about to end his contract. I said ‘no’ and a while after that, made him train away from the rest of the group for three months. He didn’t get it at first,” Chavare recalls.
“I needed him to work intensively on two things: his game intensity and physical resistance. He was a No. 10 who was turned into a No. 8 and then a No. 5. I had to get him prepared to run 8-10 kilometres per game.
“He complained to me every day during that time. Even his father came from Goiania to Porto Alegre to ask if his son was doing anything wrong to deserve that. A few months ago, I sent them a message, ‘What now?’ They laughed and replied they didn’t remember doing anything like that back then. Those three months made Arthur the player he is today.
“He’s got 360-degree vision. If you come after him from one side, he escapes through the other. His decision-making is spectacular. I joke that he lost the first ball in three years against Uruguay last week when he fell on the floor. He’s one of these unique players we can produce.”
The vision, the brain, the range—it has been said that Arthur plays with such grace on the ball that he could play in a suit.
Instead he looks more than happy in the yellow of Brazil and the blaugrana of Barcelona. Colours he only just started wearing but that he looks set to don for many years to come.
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