“Strong, fast and powerful”: Why 22y/o talent who “has everything” can lead Barcelona’s backline
Barcelona have had quite a turbulent season in 2020/21. Their Champions League hopes were deflated by a rampant Paris Saint-Germain while back in La Liga, they couldn’t keep up with Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid in the title race. However, Ronald Koeman has done some good work with the squad too.
The recent resurgence of young players proves as much and among them, a couple of (future) stars were born. Ronald Araujo, a 22-year-old centre-back, is definitely among them. The Uruguayan has slotted right into the starting XI throughout the season, only halted by injuries in the second half of the campaign.
But when fit, Araújo is surely one of the best defenders Barcelona have in their squad. This tactical analysis will be a scout report on the young centre-back, highlighting some of his strengths and weaknesses while also explaining his role in Blaugrana’s tactics.
The analysis will use data as well to support its main points.
Standing at 1.88 metres, Araújo is a physically imposing defender who uses power and speed to outmuscle the opposition in direct duels. He is strongly right-footed and as such, usually deployed as the right centre-back in a back three or a back two structure. His main strengths are naturally in the defensive phase but the Uruguayan is a big presence up front as well, especially in the air during set-pieces.
Below you can see his player profile where we’ve compared him to the rest of LaLiga centre-backs in three major categories: attack, defence and passing. All data is in percentile rankings as it will make the analysis easier.
Starting with the attacking phase, we can see that not many other LaLiga defenders offer such an outlet in the opposition penalty area. Even though these are not extremely high values, you have to remember we’re talking about defenders here so 0.11 expected goals per 90 and 0.11 actual goals per 90 put Araújo in the top 10% in the league. Similarly, he is among the defenders who like to dribble out of their half even though he won’t do it all the time.
But what’s even more important is the defensive contribution. Araújo engages in a lot of defensive duels and wins most of them. Similarly, he is dominant in the air and has a great sense of covering depth and generally being positioned extremely well, as shown by great values in both PAdj interceptions and shots blocked.
However, looking at his passing, we can identify there is a weakness in his profile, especially in the context of Barcelona’s tactics. Araújo is not an elite progressor nor does he tend to break lines and set up play as often as Barcelona centre-backs are usually tasked to do.
The scout report will now turn to the tactical analysis of some of his most important traits.
Defensive tendencies and aggressiveness
Araújo is an inherently very aggressive centre-back and this is visible in the way he plays. In this section of our analysis, we’ll take a deeper look into his general tendencies when defending. For starters, there are some patterns in his movement that are worth observing. Generally, Araújo will stay further back as part of Barcelona’s rest defence and will also be tight to the player he’s marking.
However, once the ball is played towards that attacker, the Uruguayan will aggressively charge forward, trying to get ahead of the opposition player and outmuscling him to get to the ball. The first example below will show us what that usually looks like on the pitch.
Here, Araújo is sticking tightly to his man and once the ball is close enough, he will aggressively push past him in an attempt to get to it first. This is in line with general Barcelona tactics as the young defender is not the only one to aggressively charge forward in those situations.
But his strength and good judgement enable him to emerge victorious more often than not. The other thing to note is where the line of engagement starts as Barcelona also love to keep their defensive line extremely high up the pitch. Another image below will show us a very similar example with a very similar outcome too.
Once again, Araújo charges forward and beyond the attacker who’s trying to receive possession and start a quick transition. Notice how he gets ahead of him to get the interception and restarts Barcelona’s attack. This is a sign of great anticipation and judgement, especially for such a young player. But other than that, it’s also proof of what we discussed earlier in the analysis – Araújo’s extremely aggressive style of defending.
Notice how the duels usually happen at the halfway line and even in opposition territory. This is another clear trait of his defensive profile. Sometimes when he’s not being pinned down by an attacker, Araújo will charge into midfield to contest possession and stick to the opposition player that way.
These aggressive exits are a great way to counter-press and win the ball back immediately but are also quite risky when they fail. Still, it has to be said that Araújo is generally very consistent and successful in his exits, something that the likes of Gerard Piqué have also been doing for years now.
Here’s another example down below against Atlético Madrid. When and if the opposition have a free man in midfield, Araújo won’t shy away from aggressively pressing him from behind, even if it means breaking the defensive structure to do so.
Again, this is the type of movement that is susceptible to manipulation but with proper execution and cover, can also be a valuable transitional weapon. Still, it’s the confidence and solidity the Uruguayan shows in duels that ensure these actions are largely successful.
1v1 duels and covering depth
Undeniably the strongest weapon in Araújo’s defensive repertoire are his 1v1 duels and defensive duels in general. With 5.71 per 90 minutes, he’s still in the top 30% in LaLiga in sheer volume but in success rate (79.41%), he ranks 1st in the domestic league. He’s similarly impressive in the air too, registering 3.75 per 90 minutes with an impressive 70.1% success rate, enough for a 6th place in the rankings for the latter category.
So what’s the secret in such dominance in duels? Of course, his physique and sheer pace are a great part of it. Araújo can engage the attackers so high up the pitch because he is fast enough to track back and readjust should he lose the duel. But as we’ve already seen in this analysis, he rarely does so. By taking a deeper look, we can start seeing why.
Good defenders are adept at using their bodies to direct the ball and the opponent into less favourable positions or simply towards their weak(er) foot/side. Araújo does the same by imposing himself and using his hands to his advantage.
Notice in the example above how he uses his hands to push the opponent and get to the ball first. It’s a very efficient way to shield the ball and retain possession despite being inside the penalty area. This, of course, carries a certain risk but with only 0.56 fouls per 90, the Uruguayan is extremely adept at defending aggressively without committing fouls.
Here’s another example, this time against Huesca and once again inside the box. Araújo still uses his hands to fend off the attacker and even though the opponent goes down to the ground, the action breaks down and Barcelona exit the bout unharmed. Being so confident and successful even in high-pressure situations like this one is a sign of a very good defender.
Another important aspect of his player profile is covering depth. The 22-year-old usually sticks tightly to attackers in the backline and will anticipate where the opposition want to go. For instance, the next example will show us how he drifts wide since that’s where the other team’s attack is going next.
Eibar go for the direct route and aim for their forwards with long balls over the top. However, Araújo is ready and covering the area well, once again showcasing his ability in 1v1 duels.
Looking back at the initial graph at the beginning of this tactical analysis, we noticed that Araújo is not the usual Barcelona centre-back when it comes to passing. Of course, due to the club’s tactics and philosophy, he sees a lot of the ball, even deploying 56.31 passes per 90 minutes, enough for the top 15% among all LaLiga defenders. His success rate of 94.1% is also incredibly impressive but with a slight caveat of risk-aversive tendencies on the ball.
What this means is that Araújo is great at recycling possession, even under pressure, but is not the type of player to break the lines often and instigate attacks. The graph below will show us his passing map from four different games which offered us a big enough sample to analyse.
We can see that there is a lot of sideways and diagonal passing in this network but not as much directness and verticality. Araújo will gladly leave that to his partner in crime and that’s why the majority of the passes go towards the left side of the pitch. Similarly, we have to note the starting point of his actions. Both his heatmap from the initial dashboard and this map above tell a similar story – Araújo loves to act from the right half-space and higher up the pitch.
And this is exactly where we can also see his creative spark as well. While it won’t necessarily happen too often, Araújo does have it in his locker to unleash long switches of play and even thread an occasional pass behind the opposition backline. We can see that both in the earlier pass map and the following examples.
Above, the 22-year-old has pushed beyond the opposition’s first line of defence and found himself with enough time and space to send out a long diagonal ball forward. The youngster has the vision and the execution to accurately pass towards his teammates higher up the pitch but only in the right circumstances such as the one above.
His final third pass map below confirms this thesis. With only 4.76 passes into the final third (81.2% success rate), he is still effective but not anywhere near exceptional – in fact, only enough for a 38.6th percentile ranking according to our data.
The next graph depicts only the passes into the final third and they can help us dissect this area of his player profile a bit more.
It does seem like Araújo prefers short combinations upon entering the opposition’s half and will mostly serve as link-up with the forward line. While that is by no means a bad trait, it still shows us some limitations in his passing game. The Uruguayan will mostly opt for diagonal balls rather than penetrating the block vertically and breaking the lines.
This isn’t such a surprise either because teams tend to shut off central corridors and force Barcelona wide in most cases. That’s why vertical passing becomes more difficult but also far more valuable in such scenarios. An even more concerning thing is the fact he’s deployed zero passes into the penalty area in LaLiga this season. But even though he’s not exactly a volume passer in that regard, Araújo does have the ability to occasionally deploy such a pass.
And interestingly, as we’ll see next, his penetrative balls usually arrive following a dribble or a progressive run from the backline. With 0.67 progressive runs and 0.67 dribbles per 90, once again we’re not talking about extraordinarily big volume but the output is still there, especially with the latter which puts him in the top 20%.
Above is an example that demonstrates the situation in which we can expect Araújo to deploy a penetrative pass. As you can see, he will opt for such a ball right after beating his marker and when he’s either given or creates the space to do so himself.
With some coaching and encouragement, this area of his profile may still grow to become true Barcelona level.
Finally, we’ll shortly touch upon Araújo’s set-piece presence which is giving Barcelona an additional outlet in attack. We’ve already seen through data that his xG, true goals and even headed goals put him among LaLiga’s elite so let’s explore a couple of examples to see what makes him so effective in this area.
There are two main reasons for his success – physical power and great movement inside the area. Of course, the combination of those two aspects is what makes the difference at the end of the day. Our first example shows us how Araújo recognises where the space will open up after Sergio Busquets drags the marker away, opening a pocket that can be exploited.
Araújo charges towards that area, outjumping his marker and rattling the net with power. Interestingly, it seems like Lionel Messi is aiming at Araújo far more often than he is at his other teammates. The two have already developed a couple of clear tactics during set-pieces. The next example shows us one from a free-kick.
The 22-year-old makes a curved run from the wide areas and darts into the open channel down the middle. Messi’s pass is inch-perfect but Barcelona fail to capitalise on the opportunity in the end. Still, this shows how good Araújo’s movement was to exploit the space in the opposition’s defensive structure.
Finally, we have a very similar routine next, only this time it’s from a corner kick. Araújo makes another curved run but goes through a crowd and uses his teammates as blockers who stop his marker from following him. Of course, this setup requires help from his teammates but it’s the Uruguayan who gets on the end of the cross once again.
Ronald Araújo is set to lead the next generation of Barcelona defenders, both in the present and the near (and hopefully long-term) future. Despite only being 22 years of age, the Uruguayan is among the best defenders in the club and will only continue to get better.
It will surely be interesting to follow his progress as he grows into an elite centre-back. After all, it was Piqué himself who stated in an interview for the club’s official website that Araújo has everything and is strong, fast and powerful. According to the veteran, the Uruguayan can and will go far.