Nelson Semedo's Slow-Burn Route to Heady Heights of Barcelona

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2017

Barcelona finally have the right-back they needed in Nelson Semedo
Barcelona finally have the right-back they needed in Nelson SemedoManu Fernandez/Associated Press

As Barcelona finally filled their problem spot at right-back, the man signed and tasked with the job talked about what his new club meant to him, ahead of a season in which he and his new team-mates will try to return the Blaugrana closer to its core, successful identity.

"I started to focus on Barca with Ronaldinho," Nelson Semedo told the club's official website after completing his move from Portuguese champions Benfica on July 14.

The Portuguese defender wouldn't be alone in thinking this, but it still provided food for thought as he talked of the brilliant Brazilian capturing his childhood imagination.

It reminded us of two things, really. Firstly, of how far Barcelona have come in the last 13 or so years—and how that period of time has flown—with Ronaldinho having been a major catalyst in their subsequent transformation from flabby, fallen giants into the superclub they indisputably are today.

Paris Saint-Germain unveiled Dani Alves in the same week that Barca finally found a successor for him
Paris Saint-Germain unveiled Dani Alves in the same week that Barca finally found a successor for himMichel Euler/Associated Press

Secondly, it recalled exactly how high the standards have become at Camp Nou in the last decade-plus, and how high they will be for Semedo.

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He is Nelsinho—little Nelson, the name he went by when he first came into the first-team picture at Benfica—no more. The fresh arrival of Dani Alves, the modern yardstick by which all Barca full-backs must be judged, at Paris Saint-Germain in the same week was a not-so-gentle reminder of what is expected of Semedo.

That he should be thrust into the glare of the transfer spotlight at roughly the same time as a predecessor that Barcelona have so desperately struggled to replace isn't necessarily a bad thing, though.

While Hector Bellerin, who left La Masia as a youngster to make his way at Arsenal, may have been the choice of many precisely because of that connection with the club (though notably not of the legendary Xavi, per The Independent), Semedo bears far more relation to the inimitable Alves with his rampaging attacking style.

"He's a rangy, pacey, enthusiastic player with good positional sense," Lisbon-based journalist Simon Curtis, who has watched Semedo's progress closely, told Bleacher Report. "He's quick into the tackle and willing to use those long legs to get upfield in support of the attack, as all Barca full-backs worth their salt are expected to do.

"Given Barcelona's problems finding a decent successor to Dani Alves, I think they have now found a player who has a similar range of attributes, is consistent and reliable, full of energy and was one of the standout performers in the Portuguese league last season."

Matching that house style is key, of course, as Juliano Bellettianother previous incumbent of the role at Barca and the scorer of the winner in the 2006 Champions League finaltold this column for this week's edition of The European Football Show on TalkSport 2.

He said: "We know how difficult it is to find a right-back or a left-back for Barcelona, with the way they play, but I think this is a good choice."

It's why Bellerin sprang to mind—perhaps not heeding the example of Cesc Fabregas, who arrived back home in Catalonia to find the football too rigid for his tastes after the visceral energy of the Premier League.

The same could perhaps be projected for Bellerin, a player who leans heavily on pace and power, and is—like Fabregas—very much a product of his current environment in many ways.

Arsenal's Hector Bellerin was strongly linked with Barcelona before Semedo's move
Arsenal's Hector Bellerin was strongly linked with Barcelona before Semedo's moveCzarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

Other concerns around Semedo in La Liga circles (and he is, one must acknowledge, a new face for many yet to see much of him in action) centre around his age. He is 23, turning 24 in November, and has had what is by modern standards a slow-burning rise to the top. The paths of Bellerin and Fabregas as teenage prodigies are considered typical for elite players these days.

Semedo, on the other hand, came through the ranks at third-tier SU Sintrense, where Luis Boa Morte is just beginning his coaching career.

Based in Sintra, the lush semi-forested town to the north-west of Lisbon, there was little big club academy pressure on Semedo. He had turned 19 by the time he inked a deal with Benfica in 2012, with the understanding that he would continue his development in the B team during the following season.

It's been an organic, gradual progression. "He made the first team at 21 after a couple of years learning the ropes in the reserves," Curtis said. "He came through quickly from there on. Part of the reason he didn't come through earlier was that firstly, he didn't look ready and secondly, Maxi Pereira was a fixture on the right of defence. When Maxi left for FC Porto, a space for Semedo opened up."

Times have changed at Benfica. There has rarely been any doubt about the quality of young players moving through the club in recent years, but whereas Bernardo Silva and Andre Gomes were merely viewed as collateral and moved on after minimal contact with the first team, the next flush of Semedo, Victor Lindelof and Ederson all had their chances from coach Rui Vitoria—before, as the economy of Portuguese football demands, being sold on having won their first-team spurs.

Semedo is expected to be a key part of Portugal's 2018 World Cup squad
Semedo is expected to be a key part of Portugal's 2018 World Cup squadDenis Tyrin/Associated Press

Semedo, as with Lindelof, set about doing just that quickly after his ascension to the senior side in 2015.

"He made an excellent start and was ever-present at the start of 2015-16, taking everything in his stride," Curtis said. "He got a call-up to the national team almost straight away as a result, literally a few games into the season and into his Benfica career, so it was really a blistering start.

"He had so little time to find his feet in the first-team squad but managed to adapt astonishingly quickly to the big stage. It was clear almost straight away we were dealing with a major talent."

Curtis also praised Semedo's "cool head," after he was sent into pressure encounters from the off (his first appearance after replacing Maxi was in a highly charged Supertaca against Sporting CP) and recovered from the setback of a knee injury to prove his quality last term.

Barca's €30 million initial outlay could be supplemented by substantial bonuses—Marca reported they will pay an extra €5 million for every 50 games he plays through the length of his initial contract—but if he replicates his performances with Benfica, it will be worth it.

In terms of later bloomers, Barca have been here before. Pedro, lest we forget, was 22 before Pep Guardiola fully incorporated him into the first-team squad. Age on a lower scale shouldn't be a barrier to progression, but neither should it require players to run before they can walk.

Benfica did well out of putting Semedo forward at the right time. Now Barca will hope to do the same.