On 9 January 2021, Samuel Umtiti started and finished a game against Granada in Barcelona colours. It was also the game he was not supposed to start – or maybe even participate in at all – but a late warm-up injury to Ronald Araujo meant Ronald Koeman’s hand was practically forced.
With those 90 minutes under his belt, big Sam registered his first full La Liga display since 27 June 2020 when the Catalans drew against Celta de Vigo in a 2-2 stalemate. In 2019/20, despite suffering from injuries galore as well, the Frenchman was a somewhat steady presence in the team, nipping in and out of the squad but still offering something on occasion.
But even with that being said, this Umtiti is far from the one we were so used to seeing back in the day. In 2016/17, when he first arrived at the Camp Nou, the young centre-back was quickly recognised as a true rock in defence, soon even prompting the fans to call him the next Carles Puyol due to his charisma and solidity he offered.
3729 minutes across all competitions in that campaign and 3539 in 2017/18 indicated those claims were not thrown in vain. He was essential – a key cog in a team that had to fight on all fronts. However, it was in 2018/19 that things spiralled out of control and everything went downhill.
That season, Umtiti was out for 126 days due to two knee injuries, missing a total of 28 games or rather, 2520 potential minutes for the club. His very first knee injury was recorded the season prior to that, but that one forced him to spend only three games on the sidelines so the Catalans may not have thought much of it. And why would they?
After all, he’s never missed more than nine games at once due to a fitness issue until that point, both at Barcelona and Olympique Lyonnais. But despite that, the Frenchman was advised to opt for surgery to fix the issue. However, there was a big caveat in the whole situation – surgery would mean Umtiti would miss the 2018 World Cup in Russia and had he done that, he would have never become the champion of the world with France.
In that respect, his decision to go with alternative ways of recovery is somewhat warranted. But was it really worth it to throw away the rest of his career for it? Some will undoubtedly say yes, and Umtiti is among those people.
Fast forward a couple of seasons and the Frenchman is once again knee-deep in injuries. In 2020/21, he has already been absent for 157 days due to those very same issues. As a result, he was only selected four times by Koeman, registering a measly 145 minutes across all competitions for Barcelona so far.
But still, to some, there is something Umtiti can offer when he is fit and firing on all cylinders. The game against Granada, his latest full 90 minutes clash, proved as much. Yes, the whole team was dominant and riding on the wings of their stars, but the Frenchman was also quite impressive himself.
According to SofaScore, the 27-year-old registered two interceptions, one tackle, won both of his ground duels and one out of two aerial duels. And with his 97% pass accuracy, Umtiti was calm in possession and even supported the attack with 5/5 long balls.
But at the end of the day, is this enough to warrant him another chance in the team? It might sound harsh considering he is still a player in his prime years and a defender at that, meaning he could potentially have a somewhat longer career than other outfield players, but his level is not where it should be anymore.
Even if it was, Umtiti has not exactly been the reliable rock we loved watching week in, week out some years back. And for a club of Barcelona’s stature that matters, a lot. How are the Catalans supposed to fight on all fronts if they cannot trust Umtiti to stay fit?
Unfortunately, despite his valiant efforts at the beginning of his Camp Nou adventure, it does feel like the time is up for the French Puyol. As much as it hurts to say that because we all know the potential was there, there is no escaping the truth.
However, the worst thing is that other teams know it as well, which is exactly why Barcelona is now struggling to sell the defender. How can you find a suitor for a player who cannot stay healthy but is on colossal wages nonetheless?
That, of course, is an entirely different problem, not exactly related to the sporting project in Catalonia and a topic for another time.
The display against Granada was impressive, not exactly reminiscent of older, better days, but still better than what we have come to expect. However, Umtiti needs to do far more, far better and on a far more consistent basis to turn his fortune around.
Can he still do it? That remains to be seen.
Can the ban to Messi turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona?
Though the ban to Lionel Messi does seem terrifying news, a deeper thought suggests that it could be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona, opening up several avenues for Ronald Koeman to experiment.
Lionel Messi has made a name for breaking records for fun. Be it goals or assists or dribbles, he has the accolades decorating the walls of his quiet haven in Barcelona. On Sunday the Argentine found himself breaking yet another record, however, not one he would have relished too much.
The six-time Ballon d’Or award winner was sent off for the very first time in Barcelona’s famous Garnet and Blue. An unarguable offence involving a violent swing of the arm at Asier Villalibre was the incident that saw him earn the same. Consequently, a ban awarded will see Messi missing action in the upcoming two fixtures – namely against UE Cornella and Elche.
Though it does seem terrifying news, to begin with, a deeper thought suggests that it could indeed be a blessing in disguise for Ronald Koeman’s side. Temporarily so, though. Moreover, it could benefit both parties involved: the player and the team.
Sparing a scenario where he participates in Barcelona’s second-round fixture in the Copa del Rey, Leo will return to action once again against the side he received his marching orders against. The speculated return date is the 31st of January against Athletic Bilbao.
Having just come back from a muscle injury he picked up against Granada, the Argentine was far from his best in the Super Cup final. A red card was a miserable end to a painful night for him. It was evident that he was not ready to play. He pulled on through the night, almost till the very end before his patience caved in.
A fit and ready Lionel Messi is one of the key cogs in Barcelona’s engine. Rushing the captain back from injury would not be wise either for the team or the player. Messi, at 33, needs to be managed efficiently yet cautiously. This includes embracing the fact that regaining rhythm after injuries will require a longer window. Bearing that in mind, a forced two-game hiatus could be exactly what he requires to return raging.
However, the absence of the La Liga top scorer will put more burden on the shoulders of €100 million club players Antoine Greizmann and Ousmane Dembele. The French duo can see this as the perfect opportunity to step up. It is the perfect chance to prove why exactly they do have a bright future at the club. The talisman’s absence provides Griezmann with exactly the position he considers his own, and enable him to take up the baton of scoring. It will be the ideal stage for him to dictate the play between the lines and orchestrate the proceedings.
Meanwhile, for a certain Dembele, it almost guarantees successive starts. The youngster is just beginning to find his rhythm at Catalonia, and he will be looking forward to making up for the absence of his captain.
The games Leo is set to miss are relatively low-pressure on paper. This could now tempt Koeman to push in youngsters and experiment with the forward line. The Copa del Rey fixture against Cornella could well see young Alex Collado and Konrad get deserved minutes.
While Collado has constantly been superb for the B team, Konrad has been patient on the bench for many games. The La Masia graduates deserve a chance in the top flight, and Messi’s suspension could give them a chance. Either way, both have made it to the squad list for the Kings’ Cup fixture.
Similarly, the opening up of a spot on the right-wing, an infrequent occurrence, could see chances given to Fransisco Trincao. The youngster has hardly got a sniff of a start so far, and the opening up of a spot in his natural position could be what it takes for him to earn a start.
Moreover, there is a certain aspect of this on the team as a whole. Coming back after a defeat poses its own range of challenges. Nonetheless, bouncing back after a defeat in the final of an event requires suturing of a much deeper and painful wound. Having Leo on the side is always a reassurance to his teammates on the field. However, his absence following a major defeat will be a real test of the sides resilience.
An individual effort will not suffice in the coming games. With the captain on the sidelines and the hounds of the traumatizing defeat set loose on them, the players will have to be on their toes. It will be a test for the coach, and one that examines the drive in the players. What could that be in the eyes of a true fan, if not a blessing in disguise.
The team is in dire need for motivation, and for a sense of confidence. Victories in two games without their talisman can provide the biggest boost in morale for all the players alike. As for his return, Messi will be looking to come back with a bang against Bilbao next week once his ban calls curtains
It is no secret that the club-captain’s presence would lift the spirits and confidence of all personnel involved. However, the ban to Messi benefits multiple parties in the given situation, himself included. It also provides the chance for the likes of other players to step up and take responsibility on the pitch when, namely the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, among others. Alternatively, an empty spot in the team might force Ronald Koeman’s hand to give minutes to Konrad de la Fuente, Fransisco Trincao, and even Alex Collado. Will the side be able to cross the line? One really hopes so.