Lately, 20-year-old centre-back Jean-Clair Todibo, on loan from Barcelona at Schalke 04 for the second half of the 2019/20 season, has been strongly linked with a move to Wolves. But could he still make an impression on new coach Ronald Koeman?
After less than a week of being linked with a certain Jean-Clair Todibo, Barcelona completed his signing for a nominal fee of €1 million from Toulouse. During his time in France, Todibo did not participate in a lot of games but was highly rated from his first-half spell in the 2018/19 season.
He was tipped as part of the incredible generation of centre-backs that came from France, including Ibrahima Konate, Dayot Upamecano, William Saliba and Jules Koundé, among so many others. This had to do with his tremendous composure on the ball, passing, and solid aerial ability. He has always had lapses of concentration, but there was not much to dislike; Todibo had the potential to play football for Barcelona.
Despite joining the team as a January arrival, Todibo took time to settle in and was only able to make his debut for the club during mid-April against newly-promoted SD Huesca, keeping a clean sheet. However, he dropped a shocking performance against Celta de Vigo a month later, failing to contain the likes of Iago Aspas and Maxi Gómez.
He only managed to play a grand total of three games after that for the club but was named in the XI against Inter Milan at the San Siro. It was a must-win game for the Italian giants, who were trailing Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona in the Champions League group at that point. Barça had already qualified for the Round of 16, and the result would not matter to them. They did, however, manage to squeeze out a win thanks to a monstrous performance by Carles Aleñé, and you guessed it – Todibo.
The Frenchman ended the game with four clearances, one block, one interception and eight tackles. He had to deal with the threat of Lautaro Martínez and Romelu Lukaku and did so quite brilliantly. Additionally, he won 10 of his 12 ground duels and was not dribbled past a single time while completing two of his own.
Life has come quite fast for Todibo since that game, as he was loaned out to Schalke 04 – even though Barcelona had only two fit centre-backs. In Germany, the 20-year-old completed a substantial shift during his Bundesliga debut against SC Paderborn, completing one key pass and winning 100% of his aerial duels (4/4). He was also part of David Wagner’s plans post-lockdown but faced injury trouble after their game against Werder Bremen and failed to compete for the Gelsenkirchen outfit post that.
Since that, Todibo has had a transfer to Everton fall through, been tested positive for COVID–19 after his return to Barcelona, and now is linked with a move out of the club, with another Premier League team: Wolverhampton Wanderers are in pole position to sign him, according to Sport.
Across his time at Toulouse, Schalke and Barcelona, Jean-Clair Todibo has only collected 25 appearances as a professional | Photo by Pau Barrrena / AFP via Getty Images
Departing Catalonia could, in fact, turn into exactly the breakthrough the Frenchman is looking for, who will likely trickle down the pecking order behind Clément Lenglet, Gerard Piqué, Ronald Araújo and possibly Eric García, with the youngster strongly linked with a return to Barcelona. Barcelona may also have to keep Samuel Umtiti at the club, despite listing him as transferrable. Additionally, Jorge Cuenca has his spot in the squad long overdue and would likely take precedent over Todibo, in spite of also being rumoured to leave Barça.
Todibo has the chance to resurrect his career in England with Wolves, who have been in the hunt for more centre-backs after the injury to Willy Boly came to haunt them last season. They completed the signing of Marçal yesterday, who is presumed to occupy the left-centre back spot. Todibo could serve as the replacement for Conor Coady, who is an exceptional passer and has played every single minute for Wolves in the past two Premier League campaigns. Todibo’s ball-playing skills make him capable of taking in Coady’s slot.
Alternatively, he could also come in the midfield acting as the deputy for Rúben Neves, who plays as a deep-lying-playmaker, pinging in long balls from deep to conduct play. As good as the Portuguese is at long passing, he has failed to cope defensively and is often outplayed. Todibo has had his fair share of time as a defensive midfielder during his time in Toulouse’s youth ranks and can replicate Neves’ long passing in that role.
Todibo’s future can play out in multiple ways; the player is still 20 and has ample time to turn his career around. And if he can provide a repair to the fitness quandaries he has faced in the recent past, there are not many who can stop him from being part of some of the elite defenders in world football.
Ansu Fati and the return of natural wingers
In Ronald Koeman’s La Liga debut as manager of Barcelona, he handed Ansu Fati a starting place in the team. It proved to be the correct decision as the youngster stole the show. It was great seeing Barça play with proper wingers again which helped unlock the Villarreal defence.
On Sunday night, Barcelona played a strong Villarreal side. As the Blaugrana kicked off their campaign, the Yellow Submarine had already played two La Liga games. The Barça defence looked shaky at times but in the end, kept a clean sheet. They passed the ball out from the back well with Clément Lenglet breaking the press with a beautiful left-footed pass on several occasions.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets struggled to adapt to the double pivot role and was off the pace with his passing. On the other hand, Frenkie De Jong looked more comfortable in this position. His build-up play was excellent, and he covered a lot of ground. Miralem Pjanić also impressed in his cameo and will be pushing for a starting role.
In attack, the Catalan side went with a front four. Antoine Griezmann was the quietest of the forwards and sometimes found himself too wide again. Philippe Coutinho looks to be regaining some form in his preferred position. He was involved in the build-up plays and gave a great assist to Fati. Lionel Messi put in another impressive performance and seemed to be enjoying himself. The attackers linked well and there was a lot more movement than recent seasons. Their understanding should continue to improve as the season progresses.
Ansu Fati celebrating the opening goal of the match against Villarreal | Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images
However, the real stand out of the game was Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old started on the left-wing and was a constant threat down this channel. Most of Barcelona’s attacks came down the left side with Jordi Alba having one of his best games in a long time. The two players combined well and seemed to effortlessly know where space was. When Alba and Neymar used to play on the wings they would sometimes compete over the same areas. But with Fati and Alba, they looked like a great partnership
On the night, Ansu Fati scored two goals and won a penalty for the team. His first goal came after a beautiful pass from Lenglet over the top of the defence found Alba. The left-back produced one of his classic cutbacks, but this time found Fati instead of Messi. The Spanish international unleashed a confident first-time finish leaving Sergio Asenjo almost static on his line.
Minutes later, Coutinho played the young winger through and again Ansu finished at the near post. Again, Lenglet found the pass through Villarreal’s press that started the move. Fati is proving to be a clinical finisher with 9 goals from just 14 shots in La Liga. Such composure in front of goal is rare for any player let alone a 17-year-old.
“When I am handed a chance to play, I become eager to take it and make the best out of it.”Ansu Fati
The young winger was involved again when he was brought down in the penalty box by Mario Gaspar. Once again, Fati demonstrated his ability to take defenders on and beat them. His pace caused a lot of problems for the opposition’s defence. Ansu showed just how good he is tactically, as he is technically. His positioning and decision making were almost flawless, especially for someone who has had so little minutes in the first team. When he was substituted in the second half, he received a warm embrace from Koeman for his fantastic display.
The performance of Ansu last night also highlighted how important is it for Barcelona to play with wingers. Almost all the attacks came from the left-hand side where Alba and Fati played. However, there was only a handful of attacking plays coming from the right side where Roberto and Griezmann were. Having that width and pace really stretched the Villarreal defence and created space for others to exploit.
Ansu Fati scoring his second goal in the 20th minute against Villarreal | Photo by David Ramirez via Imago
“I criticized Ansu for his performance in pre-season. That’s what gave him a boost. He made a huge impact, especially on the wings.”Ronald Koeman
The second goal of the evening shows how important having that width is. With Coutinho running through the centre, Griezmann was directly ahead of him. Two defenders were then dragged into the area around Antoine which allowed Fati more space to run into. If there was no left-winger, that space could not have been exploited and the goal would not have happened.
With the success down the left-wing, the manager may consider playing with a more natural winger on the right too. The right-wing was almost invisible for Barça over the 90 minutes and this is unsustainable for the full season. The substitutions of Francisco Trincão and Ousmane Dembélé showed how having two natural wingers could work. Dembélé was positioned on the left and Trincão on the right. Both offer width in the team and are can dribble past defenders. It is something to consider when playing against teams that play in the low block.
Overall, Barcelona’s first game of the season looked promising. There was a lot more intensity in the team and plenty of movement. The competition for places should keep players’ levels high and allow for rotations. So far, the 4-2-3-1 formation seems to be working and allows for some to play in their favoured position. Ansu Fati impressed during the game and showed why having pace and width is so important to any Barça team. The performance levels should continue to improve as players get used to the system and get more minutes on the field.