Barcelona are all set to travel to Lisbon for the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League. The very first game they play in the Portugese capital will be one of the most challenging games yet: an in-form Bayern Munich. In a game against one of the most attacking sides in Europe, just how crucial will the performance of Clément Lenglet be to keep Bayern at bay?
The calm before the storm is a well-established phenomenon, and so is the eerie tranquillity after the storm. If one were to consider the calm during the storm, however, the ideal parallel would be Clément Lenglet. Holding a placid and composed character amidst all the disarray in the Barcelona defence is not everyone’s cup of tea. To this day, it is difficult to speculate the wonders that materialised out of that low-key 35-million-euros signing.
Consider this. A magician on the stage of a dark theatre room pulls out the most beautiful doves from his hat. He does it once; he does it twice, and despite not receiving any acknowledgement, he continues grinding out birds from thin air. It is only when the stage lights turn on that his mastery is appreciated. Lenglet too is on the same boat. Being a silent worker is nothing wrong, but indeed it is the vocal ones that grab the limelight.
Masterclass against Napoli
On Saturday night, however, things turned out different. Just 10 minutes into the game against Napoli and the 25-year-old was at the centre stage. Just as the corner was delivered, he soared above the rest and lashed the ball into the back of the net. The goal was contentious, having involved a challenge that saw Kalidou Koulibaly go down. Probably, it would have been appropriate for the goal to have been disallowed. That still takes nothing away from Lenglet or his performance.
After a key display in both ends versus Napoli, Clément Lenglet will be critical against Bayern once more | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
Against Napoli, Lenglet once again put forth a commanding display on all fronts. The visitors attacked incessantly from the get-go and got a tremendous chance within the opening two minutes. The game continued to follow suit as Gennaro Gattuso brought in more and more firepower into the dynamics. The introduction of Matteo Politano, Hirving Lozano and Arkadiusz Milik in the second half too was met with a stepped-up showing from both Lenglet and Gerard Piqué. There might have been a few nervy moments, but the Frenchman barely put a foot wrong. His composure and presence of mind along with the experience of Piqué denied the Neapolitans any hopes of a revival.
The road ahead in the Champions League
Barcelona travel to Lisbon on Thursday, ahead of their clash against Bayern Munich. It is an exceedingly rare sight to witness the Catalan giants head into a clash with the underdogs’ tag. This time around, though, that is the case. The Bavarians have been unstoppable across all competitions since the appointment of Hans Dieter-Flick. The team has looked rejuvenated and deadlier than ever. Particularly in attack, the team has never looked bland against any opposition.
There has been no single go-to tactic in offence. Over the season, they have resorted to diverse systems to menace different opponents. While they are experts at peppering in pin-point crosses from the wings, they are equally adept at breaking lines from the centre of the field.
Barcelona need to be cautious on all fronts. The German champions can shift between attacking systems within a matter of seconds. Facing such a versatile attacking side mandates an immaculate performance from the defence. And this is where Clément Lenglet will be key once again for Barcelona.
Clément Lenglet will be decisive against Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich would prefer to dictate the flow of the game to their liking. Their comparatively younger and more exuberant squad gives them the upper edge in winning the ball back and maintaining the possession. It would be but natural to expect a major chunk of the game to be seen out near the blaugranas‘ 18-yard box. Serge Gnabry, Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski and Co. just need half a chance to find the perfect run into a one-on-one situation. Given Piqué’s considerable loss of pace in recent times, Lenglet will have a substantial role to play in combating these menacing runs.
In Bayern Clément Lenglet will face one of, if not the, most deadly strikers in the world: Robert Lewandowski | Photo by Tobias Schwarz / AFP via Getty Images
Undoubtedly, Bayern will first look to target the wing play. Barcelona does not have the most pleasant memories of defending repeated crosses. There is no doubt in the fact that the German clubs’ full-backs are a notch superior, both in recovery and attacking edge. Nullifying these continuous crosses will all be up to the centre-backs. It would be a tremendous boost for the azulgranas if Lenglet can maintain his aerial superiority and physicality.
The Frenchman’s role doesn’t end there. Against a side that presses so high, it will be vital to take every half chance. That not only involves the corners but feeding the ball to the strikers. As was seen in the game against Chelsea, the best way to catch Bayern off guard is to capitalise on the high line. That includes the fact that the centre-backs must be vigilant at all times for runs behind the opposition’s defence, to feed the forwards. Lenglet has proved to have this vision in the past too. It is only a question of execution to see the quick counters launched.
Lenglet has grown into an irreplaceable part of Barcelona in a ridiculously short time. He is one that will be in the system for years to come. With every game being a must-win at this stage, the margin for error is extremely feeble.
To be the best, one must beat the best. Up against one of the best strikers in the world on Friday, Clément Lenglet will be put to the ultimate test in Bayern. A large part of the responsibility rests on his shoulders. One hopes that he thrives and not cracks under the pressure, which he never does.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.