The gamble looked like a risky one, and it turned out to be. When then-Barcelona technical secretary Ramon Planes signed Ronald Araújo there were many raised eyebrows at the club. “He’s a liability with the ball and he doesn’t understand the tactical concepts,” the coaching staff at Barça B, the reserve side, complained. “Trust me, this kid is going to be great,” Planes replied. At Barcelona Ciudad Deportiva training complex, however, Araújo’s competitiveness began to shine through. One day, the feeling of love became mutual. During a Barça B game against Mallorca the Uruguayan defender scored, but it was not enough to prevent defeat. He was also injured and although he insisted on carrying on the coach, García Pimienta, replaced him. Araújo wept on the bench. “There’s something different about this kid,” the coaching staff said.
In the mornings, Araújo would train with the reserves and in the afternoons, he would be put through what Barça players call the “bull ring,” a machine for practicing passing and ball control. “At the beginning it was crazy. It was really difficult to get the hang of it. My teammates had been playing in the same way since they were eight years old and I came from a completely different type of soccer,” Araújo explains. The young defender matured on the pitch and off: in his second season with Barça B he was installed as one of the team captains.
“There are two gestures that define him,” says a club employee. “In 2020, when he was already breaking into the first team, he asked to play in a playoff game with the reserves. And then, when he made the definitive move to the senior side, he asked his teammates for permission to leave the WhatsApp group. And he made sure he said goodbye to absolutely everybody.” Araújo has adopted a similar methodology since his promotion. He never avoids the pitch side flash interviews after games and he has become one of the leaders of a new generation of Barcelona players that includes Spain internationals Ansu Fati, Éric García, Ferran Torres, Pedri and Gavi. “He organizes lunches. He brings the group together,” says sources at the Ciudad Deportiva.
However, Araújo’s jump to the first team was not definitive. His style of play was still a work in progress. And Barcelona coach Xavi Henández was quick to notice. “Boss, can I ask you a question?” Xavi nodded. “What’s the third man [a player who is unmarked and in a position to receive the ball]?” Far from being annoyed by Araújo’s tactical naivety, the technical staff were impressed by his honesty. And, as García Pimienta had done in the reserves, they went to work on polishing the Uruguayan’s game. “He has it all in there. We just have to get it out of him,” the staff said. They started to prepare individual videos for the defender. “I have adapted. I’m comfortable with the ball,” he says.
Although his pass completion statistics for this season and last are similar (91% in 2021-22 and 89% so far in this campaign), Araújo now takes many more risks. Last season he delivered 44 passes per game compared to 57 this year. “Xavi gave me that confidence,” he says. He also takes the ball forward almost twice as often. “I’ve tried to get him to be more daring on the ball. What happened to him is normal. When you don’t master something, you become uncertain. But I want him to take risks. And he’s doing it. You can see how much he has improved. Last year he had already improved, but this season he’s doing much better,” Xavi explained.
However, as Araújo notes, “the most important job a defender has is to defend.” The Uruguayan is like a brick wall in one-on-one situations (he has only let an attacking player past him once this season), wins the vast majority of his direct duels (69) and is excellent at winning the ball back (39). Such is his progression that some at Barcelona have started to compare him to a club legend. “He is reminiscent of [former captain Carles] Puyol. He plays when he’s injured. He demands the maximum from everyone.”
Araújo is a fundamentalist of defensive play. It is an axiom that carries over into results. “Without him, we were knocked out of the Champions League,” notes a club employee after the Uruguayan missed four of Barça’s six group stage games. “With Ronald, everyone feels more supported: the defenders, the midfielders and the forwards. And when that happens, everybody plays with more freedom,” says the technical staff.
Signing Araújo was a gamble, but one that nobody now remembers. The Uruguayan has won over all his doubters. First, García Pimienta, then his former Barça coaches Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién and Ronald Koeman. Xavi applied the finishing touches. Barcelona’s fans have taken Araújo to heart and this Thursday, in the second leg of the Europa League knockout round playoffs against Manchester United, they will trust him to stop Marcus Rashford, one of the most in-form attackers in the Premier League. “Rashford is a very versatile player. He can do a lot of things on the pitch. He is difficult to stop. But it’s a team effort,” noted Barcelona defender Joules Koundé. And when it comes to playing for the team, there are few better than Araújo.
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