Tactical Insights

Barcelona’s €30m Vitor Roque looks set for a loan. But will they wait for him?

Vitor Roque arrived at Barcelona in early January to the kind of fanfare usually reserved for an established star.

The day before the young Brazilian landed in Spain, Barca published a video featuring a CGI tiger prowling across the pitch at the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys. Other social media posts followed Roque looking around the Barca museum, visiting city landmarks, and printing his own shirt in the Barca shop.

Roque’s nickname — Tigrinho (‘little tiger’ in Portuguese) — could be used as a discount code on match tickets over the next month. It all added to a slickly coordinated call to action — louder and more sophisticated than anything we have seen accompany other recent transfers.

His signing was a big gamble for cash-strapped Barca. Their deal with his Brazilian top-flight club Athletico Paranaense, agreed last July, was for an initial €30million (£25.6m; $32.2m at current exchange rates) plus a potential further €31m in add-ons.

At the time, Xavi was asking for the signing of a replacement for Sergio Busquets to be prioritised. Instead, the money was spent on an unproven 18-year-old Brazilian forward. Even though Deco had not officially taken up his role as Barca’s new sporting director, the deal was his doing. It was such a Deco signing that he was the one who travelled to Roque’s home in Curitiba for a charm offensive.

It had been planned for Roque to join up with his new team-mates in January this year. When it looked like Barca would struggle to register him, the plan was pushed back until the summer. Then the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury Gavi suffered in November changed things. With space freed up on the salary limit but no money to bring in a direct replacement, Roque’s arrival was set for January again.

Supporters knew very little about Roque. He had played 26 minutes for Brazil in March 2023 and had completed only one season at senior level, but fans welcomed the news with open arms. Many were more than ready for a positive boost, with the team in a slump that would culminate in Xavi’s dramatic decision to step down at the end of the season — which he reversed last week.



Xavi’s Barcelona U-turn – the dramatic story behind his decision to stay

There is a wider context too. This past year has been one of the darkest periods in Barca’s history, with the emergence of the Negreira case only adding to the pain of long-standing financial trouble and other recent scandals. Even the 2021 departure of Lionel Messi still hurts.

Roque was never going to be the unique remedy to it all. He should have arrived with a low profile, accompanied by a message that patience would be required — but Joan Laporta’s Barcelona is a seller of illusion and Roque was presented as the team’s potential saviour.

The reality was different. Dressing-room sources — who did not wish to be named to protect their positions — spoke with The Athletic in January of their initial impressions of Roque in training. They said it was quickly obvious that he had improvements to make in terms of technical skill.

Even in his first steps at Barca, in sessions held in front of the media at the club’s Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, some present were already commenting on how difficult he found it to keep up in the team’s famous ‘rondo’ drills.

When Roque made his debut as a second-half substitute against Las Palmas in a La Liga match on January 4, he missed a couple of clear chances on goal. The same happened against fourth-tier side UD Barbastro in the Copa del Rey a few days later.

His first goal came on the last day of January with a header against Osasuna. In the following match, against Deportivo Alaves, he scored again before being sent off for a second yellow card.

Roque scored his first goal for Barca against Osasuna in January (Siu Wu/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Those goals were the high point but both came from the bench as an impact player. When Roque started matches, you could see signs of struggle and how he needed time to settle. The problem was that, after the big build-up, he was already being judged by different standards.

When Roque made his second La Liga start, in the April 13 away match at Cadiz that fell between the two legs of Barca’s Champions League quarter-final with Paris Saint-Germain, the critical reaction from fans on social media and in the local Catalan press was telling. It was as if he had already been written off.

The forward, who turned 19 in February, was not great in that Cadiz game. He played 61 minutes, completing no successful dribbles, making four passes and taking one shot, which was not on target. Since then, his role has been reduced. In the past two games, he has been an unused substitute and was not even seen warming up.

Barca are now planning to loan Roque out next season. Sources from the coaching staff and the board of directors say the ideal scenario would be for him to get regular minutes at another top-flight Spanish side to help him get to know the language and the style of football.

“We will sit down to see what is best for each player,” Xavi said when asked about Roque’s future before Monday’s game with Valencia. “It’s not easy to come from Brazil, to adapt at 18, to make a difference at Barca. He needs time, minutes, and maybe more confidence. He is capable of playing for Barca for a long time. At the end of the season, we will decide.”

The process of the past few months poses another question: did Barca need to spend all that money on a raw teenager?

This season, La Masia’s graduates have made a remarkable impact, with Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsi breaking into the first team and others, including 18-year-old striker Marc Guiu, also getting minutes. It took Guiu less than a minute to score a goal on his debut against Athletic Bilbao in October and he scored again in the Champions League defeat by Royal Antwerp in December. He has two goals in 185 minutes — the same as Roque in his 318 minutes.

At least now there is a more public recognition of reality: that Roque requires time to adapt, that he is very young and needs a process that Barca, with its demands of immediate impact, cannot offer him today.

Some have drawn a comparison between Roque and Vinicius Junior, who arrived very young at Real Madrid for a similar fee and with similar expectations, in 2018. He started with Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s reserve side, and it took him a few seasons to become the remarkable player he is today.

Putting all questions over potential talent aside, it remains to be seen whether Barcelona have the patience required.

Their attitude has suggested a different outlook.

(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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