Barcelona’s new young centre-back Ronald Araujo did not even start out thinking he would be a defender – but the tall and confident Uruguayan has settled superbly well into the blaugrana back line this season.
Araujo’s great physical presence, impressive reading of the game, power in the air and speed across the ground have brought back memories of former Barça captain Carles Puyol. In fact, Araujo has said that growing up as a kid in Uruguay, Puyol was one of his heroes.
Born in the northern Uruguayan city of Rivera, Araujo moved to the country’s capital of Montevideo as a teenager to further his chances of a professional career, first playing for Club Atletico Rentistas, then in 2017 joining top flight club Boston River.
In summer 2019 he came to the Catalan capital, initially to play for the Barca’s youth team in Spain’s third tier. By then Araujo was already captain of Uruguay’s under-20 side, and his fellow countryman Luis Suarez was on hand to help him settle into life in his new city.
Until 17 years old he had played as a forward for his youth teams, something he also shares with Puyol, who was a winger growing up. Araujo’s nose for goal was shown as he scored six times in his 42 games for Barcelona B, while also getting introduced to the defensive systems and patterns of play used by all teams within the La Masia structure.
Unfortunate to be shown a red card just minutes into his LaLiga Santander debut against Sevilla in October 2019, Araujo’s first start in the competition came after last year’s COVID-19 lockdown, when coach Quique Setien started him in a 4-0 victory at RCD Mallorca in mid-July.
Injuries to senior centre-backs Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti opened up further opportunities as the 2020-21 campaign has progressed, and Araujo has improved rapidly to become a firm fan favourite already. His physical gifts and anticipation mean he is very rarely dribbled past. In interviews with the local press, he has joked that since he faces Barça captain Lionel Messi every day in training, opposition forwards are not such a big test! His past as a striker was recalled when he scored his first LaLiga Santander goal with an acrobatic strike against Valencia last December, which was voted ahead of some special Messi efforts as Barça’s official goal of the month.
A quiet character and devout Christian, Araujo is a fan of traditional ‘cumbia’ music and plays the keyboards and organ. He has been eager to soak up all the learning experiences he can this season and spends some of his free time watching videos prepared by Koeman and his staff which show areas of his game to improve. A particular objective has been to improve his passing out from the back – such an important element for any blaugrana defender whether they play a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 tactical shape.
An unfortunate ankle injury picked up in February put a temporary brake on Araujo’s progress, but he has since returned to fitness and strong form and was picked by Koeman to start his first career LaLiga ElClasico in this month’s dramatic visit to Real Madrid.
It is still early yet to say whether Araujo can emulate his hero Puyol by winning six LaLiga titles, or even his coach Koeman’s tally of four. However, the Uruguayan has already established himself as a key member of Barça’s defence, and undoubtedly as one of the most promising LaLiga rising stars of the moment.