“Saviour!”, “Knight in shining armour!”, “The silent and serene warrior!” “Steal from Sevilla” – There was a shortage of adjectives to describe Clement Lenglet after his masterful display against Napoli in the Round of 16 of last season’s Champions League.
The Frenchman had hit the high point of his career at Barcelona- at least so far. Stepping up on a European night when Barcelona could not afford to lose, he deserved the praise. After all, he not only opened the scoring on the night but also defended as his life depended upon it. That night at the Camp Nou, Barcelona’s No.15 recorded three clearances and blocked four direct shots, amongst other statistics.
Articles were written on how Barcelona’s very own defensive protege was the key against a mighty Bayern Munich. For once, one felt reassured that the Catalan giants had made a solid and dependable reinforcement in defence. One for the future- to lead the side in years to come.
As exaggerated as the above description may sound, this was precisely the thought process of the devoted Culé at the moment. The adrenaline of Napoli’s destruction at the Camp Nou evoked emotions that one never felt before. Understandably so, the Golden man of the hour showered with golden words and praises. And as the world was a witness that night, there was undeniably something special about Clement Lenglet. His composure, distribution, comfort on the ball- all indicated a player tailor-made for Barcelona.
However, it all fell apart in Lisbon on that dreadful night. That game and the humiliation it brought came as a shock. Trauma of that kind could often be a deal-breaker – a potential career-ender for the weak-minded. Clement Lenglet, coming off a performance that announced his arrival, had a disastrous outing. In a matter of a week, the Frenchman had gone from hero to villain. Fans and the media took out their frustration on a couple of singled-out players, of whom the Frenchman was one.
The aftermath of trauma – A tough nut to crack
Recovery is a subject left less explored. Shaking off an incident and moving on is not as easy as one expects. The extent of the impression left behind varies with the individual, more so in some than others.
The defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich was painful. It was a necessary humbling blown out of proportion. The aftermath of that night brought out the sheer diversity in the mental resilience of Barcelona’s squad. While some walked off toward their vacations unscathed, others suffered under the nightmares of media backlash. While some wiped their shoulders and looked ahead to the future, some were stuck in the past. Clement Lenglet was one in the latter category.
“I left that game raging. Taking such a sizeable 8-2 defeat hurt me a lot, I was worn out. I felt empty for a few days. It’s very hard to digest, it hurt so much, so much. It was the first time I’d let so many goals in, in a game.”Clement lenglet | l’equipe
While most other members got themselves rolling early in the season, the Frenchman struggled. His performances screamed of a lack of confidence. His sluggish movements indicated his internal turmoil. He was nowhere close to the level one associated him with, nor did he seem anywhere near getting there. On Saturday, Lenglet admitted the same in an interview with L’Equipe saying-
“Maybe that game influenced my season, it was not good in all ways, but not just that. I started with a physical deficit because I was worn out. I took two or three months to get my feeling back.”lenglet about his 2020-21 campaign
As admitted by the defender himself, this start to the season was rocky. The uncertainty in decision making was visible and augmented by the blow to his confidence. Lenglet looked like a fish out of water. His shaky performances did good neither to the team nor to himself.
Lenglet’s 2020-21 season started with Barcelona’s 4-0 victory over Villareal. The game was a positive restart to club football for the Catalans, with Ansu Fati, Phillipe Coutinho, Jordi Alba, Lionel Messi, and Frenkie de Jong, among others, putting up an encouraging display. Yet, Lenglet was dazed in the spotlight.
The same reflected in his second game of the season, where he was sent off within the opening half. An unnecessary nudge in the face was enough to seal a second yellow card of the night and extend Lenglet’s nightmare.
Deepening the pit
The first Clasico of the season, a little later that month, notched up the pressure on the Frenchman. After all, Barcelona were already under pressure following from a 1-0 loss to Bordalas’ Getafe. Early in the second half, when the scores were still level, a tug on the shirt of Sergio Ramos saw the visitors awarded a penalty. It was a goal that helped Real Madrid steal all three points from Camp Nou. And while the penalty decision was dubious and highly contested, Lenglet once again had the noose around his neck.
Life as a professional footballer can get painfully challenging. At times it feels like every half-decision goes the other way. Under the mountain of bad luck and poor form, Lenglet dragged through October. It was when Barcelona took on Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano that doubled the burden on his shoulders.
The 1-0 loss in Madrid had long term consequences on the Catalans season. While Ter Stegen’s obvious error in judgement led directly to the winner, Sergi Roberto and Gerard Pique suffered long term injuries. Furthermore, the loss of Barcelona’s key asset in defence exposed their low-staffed department. Moreover, Clement Lenglet now had to lead the defence.
While the No.15’s shortcomings were masked on nights when Barcelona’s attack clicked, they were ruthlessly exposed more often than not. Lenglet was nowhere to be seen when Alvaro Negredo found an open goal to slot in Cadiz’s winning goal at the Ramon de Carranza. The following game against Juventus was a party of penalties. While two spot-kick decisions went in favour of the Italians, Lenglet, as he usually does, found himself responsible for one. The 3-0 defeat was a nightmare to witness, and a performance Lenglet would like to undo.
The month of December continued to be neutral, with the standout moment being his goal against Real Valladolid. At the Jose Zorilla, Ronald Koeman experimented with a three-man backline out of the blue. The resultant distribution of workload freed up the centre-back. As a result, a much calmer and visibly more proactive version of Lenglet came out that night, one that had delighted the Barcelona fans since his signing. The cherry on the cake was his opener- a confident header past Jordi Masip.
2021: A fresh start after the stained chapter?
After disaster struck in the Supercup final in January, Barcelona switched gears in the league. The Blaugranas pulled off four convincing wins in La Liga, alongside two stunning come-backs in the Copa del Rey. With the forward line looking more dangerous than ever, the defence was lucky to get away with errors at times. Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza began to steal the limelight with match-defining performances, but the same can not be said about Lenglet.
As he began to recuperate his lost confidence slowly, there were few moments of individual brilliance. However, he did not stamp his authority on any game. The Frenchman was yet a loose link carried by the team on good days, yet ruthlessly exposed on off-nights.
Needless to say, the team’s ‘bad nights’ did come up every now and then. The 4-1 home loss against PSG was a dagger through the heart of all Barcelona defenders. In particular, however, the No.15 had the worst outing. He was invisible in defence, outrun, outsmarted and ousted. The weak link in the side caved in, and the scoreline suggests the outcome.
Soon after, Lenglet conceded his third penalty of the season against Cadiz. Following the defeat to PSG in the game, Barcelona maintained their one-goal advantage up till the 89th minute. It was at this last second that the Frenchman whipped out an unnecessary challenge to bring the visitors right back into it. As a result, Barcelona dropped points again, and there was one man with all the blame again.
The centre-back delivered three clean games leading into the second leg clash against PSG. However, at the Parc des Princes, Lenglet gave away his fourth penalty of the season after a challenge on Mauro Icardi. The penalty could not have come at a worse time as Barcelona were already chasing three away goals before that.
The light at the end of the tunnel
After the Catalans exit from the Champions League, things started to look better for the defender. His subsequent displays in the League showed glimpses of his ability once more. There was more confidence in his play. His challenges seemed less rash and better timed. The process of recovery begun, and Barcelona looked more reliable at the back. An unfortunate own goal against Getafe could have well been a setback for him. However, the convincing win took eyes away from the incident.
The final stretch of the season exposed Barcelona’s defence, despite there being very few individual errors. The Catalans required a string of back-to-back wins to seal the League title. However, at every stage, luck seemed to be against them defensively. As Gerard Pique said, the side were conceding very few shots on goal, but every one of those few shots was ending in the back of the net.
However, it would be unfair to judge or single out Lenglet for the same. For the poor season he had so far, his performances came as an upgrade. He maintained his newfound form till the end of the season, a season he would like to forget in every aspect. But, as if scripted, his season came to an end in a game that summed up his year. In his final game of the campaign, he was sent off in the 83rd minute against Celta Vigo. Poetic, but for all the wrong reasons.
As Whoscored rightly points out, Clement Lenglet completed a ‘mistakes poker’ this season. He is the only player in the top five European Leagues to have scored an own goal, been sent off, commit an error leading to an opposition goal and concede a penalty this season. No statistic could sum up the Frenchman’s season better. Of course, the improvement at the end is positive. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the season was a nightmare for the centre-back.
Season Rating: 4/10
One would like to be more generous in deciding an overall rating. The thrashing by Bayern Munich and the repeated doses of salt on the unhealed wound undoubtedly lead to Lenglet’s poor season. Indeed, one must not take mental health for granted. Constant criticism from the media and fans must have taken a toll on his confidence.
The arrival of Eric Garcia, Oscar Mingueza’s promotion, and Ronald Araujo’s cementing performances mean that the No.15 will not have it easy next season. He has not shown enough to convince the club of his abilities. Selling him, if the right offer arrives, would be the best way forward for Barcelona. Nevertheless, he could be a handy backup on the bench for Ronald Koeman. The defence of Barcelona requires changes by the mass.
Lenglet did not click when the team needed him to, and by the time he did, it was too late. His knack of conceding penalties and gifting goals cost Barcelona heavily this season. The only saving grace, if any, is the late flourish.
Looking ahead to next season, whether or not Lenglet should be in the plans is debatable. Undoubtedly, he does not have the mental endurance nor the consistency that elite football demands. However, the glimpses he shows and the late flourish indicate that the ability to be a world-class centre back is there. And he seems to back himself, saying that he will certainly continue next season.