Arthur Cabral: Can the Basel Star Follow Salah’s Path?
Arthur Cabral might not be a household name yet, but if he continues his current trajectory then it should only be a matter of time. His 46 goals over three Swiss top-flight league seasons have caught the eye of some Premier League clubs – how far can he go?
Once the untouchable force in Swiss football, the last few years have been bleak by Basel’s standards.
Between 2002 and 2017, the club from the third-most populous city in Switzerland won 12 of the 16 titles on offer in the Swiss Super League. They made the last 16 of the Champions League in 2012, 2015 and 2018 and developed a conveyor belt of footballers for Europe’s elite including the likes of Mohamed Salah, Ivan Rakitic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Breel Embolo, Granit Xhaka and Yann Sommer.
Their business model was simple: win the league, gobble up the Champions League money, develop young prodigies, sign obscure foreign players and sell them for huge fees. For years it worked magnificently and looked to have set them up to reign over Swiss football for the next half century. Yet whether it was complacency or shrewd work from Young Boys of Bern, all of a sudden, the dynamic in Switzerland dramatically shifted.
In 2017, Young Boys, with their new sporting director Christoph Spycher, changed focus and went all in on youth development, revamping their scouting system, spending big on youth coaching and signing young talents. The move was risky but progressive. All but a handful of senior players were sold, and a new coach in Adi Hütter was hired to implement a new, high-intensity system from scratch.
Five years on, the results speak for themselves. Basel were no longer the untouchable force in Switzerland, they’d fallen behind their rivals from the capital who stormed to the Swiss Super League in four consecutive seasons, finishing on average nearly 19 points ahead of Basel every year. Last season, Young Boys finished a jaw-dropping 31 points above the club who had dominated Swiss football for the first 17 years of the century.
Young Boys also eclipsed Basel in the transfer market too. Since Manuel Akanji joined Dortmund in 2017, only Mohamed Elyounoussi, Albian Ajeti, Tomas Vaclik and Edon Zhegrova have left Basel to join a big five European league club, and all have struggled to make an impact. In the same period, Kevin Mbabu, Djibril Sow, Jordan Lotomba and Silvan Hefti all left Young Boys and all play regularly in the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Serie A.
For Basel, it would take something monumental to change the tide. So, like so many European clubs, they looked to South America.
Arthur Cabral hadn’t exactly been prolific in Brazil when Basel came calling, but he had made his debut in Serie A at the age of 17 and scored seven goals in 31 games for the newly promoted Ceara in his first season in Brazil’s top flight.
It was enough for Brazilian giants Palmeiras to take a punt on him for €900k in the January of 2019, but chances were hard to come by for Cabral, featuring just twice for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side in the first 25 games of the season, and halfway through the year, Palmeiras decided to look for a loan suitor.
Having just finished a distant 20 points off Young Boys in the Swiss Super League and last season’s top scorer Albian Ajeti set to leave for West Ham, Basel were in desperate need of a new goalscorer. Cabral looked like he’d fit the mould.
Hopes weren’t particularly high for Cabral. The exotic nature of the signing in August 2019 brought a degree of excitement, but that was tempered by the fact he’d played just two competitive games all year and only had one full season in senior football behind him.
Yet coach Marcel Koller remarked that he liked what he saw from the young 21-year-old in training and started him right away in a 5-0 win over Krasnodar in the Europa League. Cabral looked raw, but at times unplayable, bustling and bouncing off flailing Russian defenders to grab an assist and an awful lot of plaudits on debut.
His first goal came just six days later, a perfectly powered header nine minutes into his first start in the Swiss Super League, before tripling his tally a week later with two close-range efforts against Luzern.
Cabral would go on to end the season with 18 goals in all competitions, including two in Basel’s journey to the quarter final of the Europa League and 14 in the Swiss Super League – tied third in the league.
In just his second season in senior football, his first in Europe, at the age of just 21, it was an impressive return. His power, even at such a young age, was what Swiss defenders were really struggling with. At times, he could be quite untidy and cumbersome, but his frame, speed and strength were all attributes that could bail him out when his technique let him down, while his predatory instincts in the box were jarringly impressive.
In the summer of 2020, Basel didn’t have a choice but to make the move permanent. Basel had finished the season 14 points behind Young Boys in the league, but for all his rawness, Cabral looked like the type of player who could help them bridge that gap. Quite simply, Cabral was the type of striker clubs like Basel dream of signing, and at 21, there was so much more to come.
The fee set them back €6m, over €2m more than they had ever paid for a player, and suddenly Cabral had gone from having few expectations to suddenly having every expectation.
But it didn’t have an impact. He took just 18 minutes to open his account for the 2020-21 season, strongly heading in against Osijek in the Europa League before taking just six minutes to get off the mark in the Super League with a beautiful, deft flick through his legs against Vaduz.
Now the rawness of Cabral was starting to fade, and a smoother operator was beginning to emerge. The bustling, powerful dribbling style was still very much there, but it was starting to appear with softer touches allowing Cabral to operate as an effective link up man and even more dangerous finisher.
Comparisons have been made between Cabral and Il Fenomeno Ronaldo in Switzerland, but Cabral has always said his idol was the other world-class Brazilian striker of the early 2000’s, Adriano, and there is something quite Adriano-like about the way Cabral bustles with the ball. Also, the way Cabral strikes a football. He’s not as lethal as Adriano was, but his ball striking ability is phenomenal.
In January 2021, he showed his best, scorching a first-time volley with his weaker left foot from the edge of the box into the top corner of the net against Zurich. In October, he went one better against the same opposition, playing a one two with a teammate before unleashing a thunderbolt into the top scorer from over 30 yards. Adriano-esque. “He was the emperor, I am the King,” King Arthur remarked on the comparison, a nickname that has followed him throughout his time in Switzerland.
He also had the chance to emulate his idol Adriano by playing for Brazil later that month but didn’t get off the bench for his first appearance for the Selecao.
Cabral ended 2020-21 with 18 goals in the league – only behind Jean-Pierre Nsame (19), netting two more in the Europa League qualifiers. His 18 league goals came from an xG total of 16, with 17 coming from inside the box – 10 from his right foot, five from his left, and three from his head. It’s a nice balance that shows off his range of finishing.
Yet Basel again finished a distant second, this time by 31 points, with coach Ciriaco Sforza being sacked in April before the end of his first full season.
In the summer, former assistant Patrick Rahmen was appointed head coach on a full time basis and the club signed another starlet from South America, Matias Palacios from San Lorenzo for €5m – a fee only bettered by what Basel paid for Cabral.
18 games in, and Basel have come on considerably. By this stage last season, they’d lost six games in the league, but this season they’ve lost just one and sit one point above Young Boys in the league, yet seven behind leaders Zurich.
This turnaround is in no small part down to Cabral’s efforts. The now 23-year-old has 14 goals in 18 league games and 27 in 31 in all competitions, including 13 in 12 in Europe. Across 2021, in league and European competition, only Robert Lewandowski scored more than Cabral’s 39 goals.
Cabral is now turning into the complete striker. It’s fair to say he doesn’t have the finesse associated with a King, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever match up to Brazilian number 9’s of time gone by, but his predatory instincts set him apart as one of Europe’s best already. He is a monster in the air, a lethal finisher, super intelligent with his movement and stronger than an ox.
Arsenal, Tottenham and Barcelona have all been rumoured to be making a move, along with Newcastle United who’s fans might be hoping King Arthur could be their Holy Grail in their quest for Premier League survival.
But it’s West Ham who are the club most strongly linked to his signature and the move makes sense as there’s strong similarities between himself and Michael Antonio. Both can look ungainly and untidy, but both for all their lack of sophistication, are complete forwards who use their physical attributes and penalty box hunger to huge effect.
His link up play is improving too. His touch has come on immeasurably since moving to Europe and his ability to be the focal point of attack in all areas of the pitch is outstanding. He has all the attributes to play deep, as a target man or as a poacher running in behind with his deceptive speed.
His finishing stats again this season in the league bear similarity to that of last year – 13 goals inside the box, eight right footed, three left footed and three headers. He’s under-performing his non-penalty xG total (13.2) with his 12 non-penalty goals, but he’s getting in much more dangerous positions than ever before – his non-penalty xG/90 average in the 2021-22 Super League is 0.80, above both 2020-21 (0.68) and 2019-20 (0.42).
For Basel, it feels like a throwback to glory years when they’d sign an unknown foreign player who’d help them to win the league and then sell them on. This hasn’t happened now for quite some time, but with Arthur Cabral they now have the chance to do it all over again.
Whether that five-year drought will end this season, we’ll soon find out. But will Cabral be there to help them do it?
The king looks set to abdicate his throne for pastures new elsewhere in Europe this month and whoever crowns him as their own has a royal treat on their hands.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to our mailing list to receive exclusive weekly content.