Barcelona has made its first purchase of the summer, signing Portuguese right back Nelson Semedo from Benfica for a fee of €30 million, plus €5 million for every 50 games he plays for the life of his new five-year contract with the Catalan club. After Arsenal rebuffed Barcelona’s offers for La Masia product Hector Bellerin, Barcelona swiftly moved on to plan B and nabbed a superior player for a lesser fee.
Semedo’s transfer is a huge success for Barcelona’s much-maligned board. While the interest in Bellerin seemed to exist solely because he was familiar to the club and not his actual ability, the board showed good restraint in not overpaying Arsenal for him and instead purchased Semedo, a 23-year-old who fits the profile of a Barcelona fullback perfectly, full of pace, energy and creativity. Even if the fee rises to €50 million, it will mean Semedo has played 200 games for the club, and that many appearances alone will justify this acquisition at that price.
The current market for top fullbacks also paints the move in a positive light. Semedo is a far better footballer than Kyle Walker, whom Pep Guardiola just recruited to Manchester City for £50 million, and he is a lot better than Bellerin, whom Arsenal valued at £50 million or more because he recently signed a contract extension. Benjamin Mendy is coming off a fantastic season at Monaco, but another £50 million fee from City for him would make Semedo look like a bargain by comparison.
Semedo played 44 games for the Liga NOS champions last season, including starting all eight of Benfica’s Champions League games. Nelsinho was an integral of Portugal’s best defensive team and had several standout performances, including one against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League knockout round. He was one of the few defenders in the league to average 1.1 key passes per game and his average of 1.6 dribbles per game was 10th best in the league.
Barça’s capture of Semedo also adds some clarity and solidity in midfield. Sergi Roberto is now free to move back to his natural midfield place after performing admirably as the deputy right back last season. Roberto isn’t a lock to be even a top six midfielder for Barcelona this season – as of now he’ll be competing with Denis Suarez, Andre Gomes, Arda Turan, Sergi Samper and Rafinha for minutes, though one or two of those players might be gone by the start of the season – but the ability he showed on the ball even as a defender was noticeable.
Roberto was a key figure in Barcelona’s two most memorable moments of the season, scoring the comeback-clinching goal against PSG and driving the ball forward to help create Lionel Messi’s winning goal in Barcelona’s thrilling Clasico victory in Madrid. If he can reproduce that magic on a consistent basis in midfield, it will be a lovely byproduct of Semedo’s arrival.
Perhaps the only Barça player who isn’t happy with this move is Aleix Vidal. Purchased two season ago from Sevilla to be Barcelona’s backup and then, presumably, replacement for Dani Alves, Vidal’s time in Catalonia has been ravaged by injury and bad luck. Barcelona’s transfer ban in the summer of 2015 cost him half a season and his broken leg last season kept him out almost all year. He has amassed only 11 league starts and slightly more than 1,000 minutes during his two seasons at the club, and now it appears he will remain a backup option without ever getting a real chance to earn a starting spot.
If Vidal is happy with that, though, then this signing is fantastic for Barcelona on all fronts. They’ve purchased a tantalizingly skilled player, moved one of the few La Masia graduates in the team back to his natural position and have a backup in Vidal who has enough quality to save the club €5 million or so during the next few years by keeping Semedo on the bench when he needs rest.
Perhaps Barcelona are not buying a totally polished product in Semedo, but to me that is part of the appeal of the signing. Semedo still has some growing to do as a player, but of all of the young right backs in Europe, he is the player that most resembles the profile of Barcelona’s Dani Alves. In modern football, tons of fullbacks love to get forward, but what Alves offered Barcelona was so much more than an attacking option. He had the touch, imagination and motor to be Messi’s dance partner on the touchline while still possessing the ability to cover defensively.
Bellerin has the athletic traits to cover that much ground and he offers Arsenal an attacking option going forward, but his game lacks the tactical and technical nuance to replace Alves’ contributions. Semedo is different. He has all the flair you could want in a RB, a good sense of making key passes around the opponent’s box, great agility and touch to play cute 1-2s with Messi down the wing and blazing pace to cover when needed.
Defensively Semedo is not as solid as Alves and he has a slight physique, but at this age that isn’t a surprise. If the Catalans can groom his tackling and timing a bit on defense, with the natural offensive instincts and talent he has, he can be Barcelona’s starting right back for a very long time.