Barcelona are this week expected to confirm the signing of young attacking midfielder Robert Goncalves on a one-year loan from Brazilian side Fluminense. The 19-year-old will join up with the club's B team for an extended trial that may result in a permanent move and eventual promotion to the first team if he impresses sufficiently at the Mini Estadi.
Robert grew up in Sao Goncalo in the interior of Rio de Janeiro state, where he was spotted by a scout from Fluminense when he was nine. He rapidly established himself as one of the best players in their academy by starring for their youth sides and later performing well for Brazil at both Under-15 and Under-17 levels. Internacional and Santos both showed strong interest prior to him signing his first professional contract with the club in September of 2012.
He was just 17 when he made his first-team debut in a brief substitute appearance away to Bahia in late 2013, but has struggled to build on that early introduction to senior football. Ongoing muscle problems, the after-effects of a serious car crash, a bout of hepatitis and a fractured foot have all since cut into his playing time. He did not appear at all during 2014 and made just four substitute appearances during the recently-concluded 2015 campaign.
In youth football, Robert was a bright, inventive and decisive attacking midfielder, capable of linking attacks together in the final third, opening up defences with his silky skills and striking good efforts on goal. And while at senior level he is still a technically-accomplished performer who combines well in tight spaces and is highly skilled on the dribble, he has yet to receive the run of games necessary to play with that same sharpness and incision.
Indeed, his limited minutes to date have largely been characterised by his tendency to dawdle too long in possession and to attempt the spectacular when a simpler action would be more appropriate. These traits are perhaps understandable given his inexperience and the frustrations of the past two years, but are not ones that tend to go down well with either supporters or teammates.
There have also been questions over his attitude. Fluminense coach Eduardo Baptista said last month that he would like to see Robert push himself more in training in order to develop into the player he believes the 19-year-old is capable of becoming. While his teammates were annoyed by his dressing-room manner following his well-taken late goal in the 3-1 defeat away to Santos in October. His jubilation clashed with the downbeat mood of a squad preoccupied by the defeat and their club's lowly position in the league table.
In the circumstances, it is no surprise that Barcelona have sought the opportunity to assess his ability, desire and fitness at close quarters prior to making the move permanent.
There are many occasions on which it can be argued that a move to Europe at such a young age is one that has come too soon, but in Robert's case a change of scenery might be just what he needs to regain some momentum. For various reasons, his career has stalled and the collective and system-based approach of the Barcelona B team could be the catalyst to find the required focus to push on and become a decisive, team-oriented player.
Robert has shown flashes of talent. But even if he's given consistent and successful development, he still looks a few years away from being a player capable of making up part of Barcelona's first-team squad. If the deal is made permanent at the end of 2016, he would still be likely to need another half-year in the B team followed by a top-flight loan elsewhere before he would be ready for such a promotion.
It should be noted this is not the only piece of business that Barcelona have recently done with Fluminense. They previously held first-option agreements for Kenedy (now of Chelsea) and Gerson (Roma-bound in January) and continue to have such a deal in place for Marlon, a physically-impressive 20-year-old centre-back. Robert is less established, but the structure of the deal means that the club are well-covered if things do not go to plan.
The next couple of years will be key in determining what sort of career Robert goes on to have from here. He has an interesting set of attributes but has not yet been able to put them to as good a use at senior level as he did during his youth career. For Barcelona he represents a development project with a good amount of potential upside. And if he takes well to the club and their style of play, one that could yet turn out to be a shrewd investment.