Umtiti was often though of as the future of the Barcelona backline with at least another eight years under his belt. Recurring injuries and depleted confidence have however made it a totally different case. At this stage, should Barcelona look to sell Samuel Umtiti?
The day was 30th June 2016. A young highly rated centre-back stood on the grasses of Camp Nou, proudly holding the world-famous blaugrana colours for the first time. That was a 22-year-old Samuel Umtiti coming from Olympique Lyonnais. After the departure of Carles Puyol in 2014, he was meant to be the active leader for the backline of the club. Certainly, he didn’t let the fans down. He terrorised opposition front lines with a combination of his daunting figure, impeccable confidence and french flair.
His career peaked at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where he won the coveted silverware with the star-studded French national team. After that, however, the path has only been downhill for him.
The career-breaking injury
Samuel Umtiti took a decision before the commencement of the World Cup in Russia that turned the course of his career. After being recommended a surgical intervention to get over a knee ailment, he chose to play through the pain for his country. After the event, he still opted against surgery, which he felt would keep him out a long time. Instead, he decided to go for a conservative treatment programme in Qatar to “take a step back and not choose the easy option. The easy thing would have been an operation”, as he confessed.
“I had to work on strengthening my quadriceps and a whole chain of muscles. It was a big imbalance. I had had it for quite a while, and I had to work three times harder to get back. During the World Cup, I didn’t necessarily do what I needed to. Or rather, did things I should have avoided”
The old Sam never returned
Umtiti was undoubtedly a fan favourite. People had them on their dream teams for ten years down the line, expecting him to be one of the key figures in Barcelona’s post-Lionel Messi era. Expectations on him rocketed sky-high after his triumph at the biggest stage but came crash landing soon after. It has really been hard to watch such a steep fall for such a talent-laden young footballer.
Nevertheless, it was always expected that he would eventually make a complete recovery and return to compete for his position. The issue never subsided, in fact, continued to recur at regular intervals. Lack of continuity and constant impediments slowly ate at his confidence. He continued to play under the habitual fear of overstraining his knee and aggravating the injury.
While choosing to sacrifice the World Cup over his fitness could be understandable, it may have been a career-defining decision | Photo by Franck Fife / AFP via Getty Images
Eventually, a young and determined Clément Lenglet, arriving from Sevilla in 2018 lunged in and made the most of his opportunities. Having won the trust of coaches and teammates alike, he easily displaced Umtiti from what once used to be his undisputed starting position.
The matter at hand is not about Umtiti not being able to find his old self, but that he isn’t able to do so consistently. He has delivered some standout performances that got fans wondering if the same old next Puyol has found his way back to the Camp Nou.
Notwithstanding, he has never found his rhythm again. Every time it appears he has finally hit the ground running again, a new setback pops up that rules him out of the next few games. This inconsistency along with his massive depletion in confidence has brought up speculations regarding his future at the club.
The rebuilding of the club
Needless to say, the next few years threaten to be pivotal for the future of FC Barcelona. The last players of the golden generation are coming to the twilight of their careers. It is indeed time for the next buds to blossom in this grand estate. It is at this point that the question comes up: Is it realistic to expect Umtiti to be a regular starter for the club in the future?
The answer keeps tilting more and more to the pessimistic side as each day passes.
As the club plans ahead, it certainly makes more sense to give opportunities to the young talents that may actually make it. Ronald Araújo and Jean-Clair Todibo are two such young prospects who have what it takes to become regular starters in the long run.
Still, with Samuel Umtiti is in the squad, they remain as fourth choices and hardly and match experience throughout the season. The club could also opt in favour of signing another young centre-back like former La Masía gem Eric García, now 19 years old at Manchester City and linked with a move back to Barcelona. Yet, Samuel would still be an obstacle between the player and the spot in the team. Unfortunately it looks like it might be the time to sell Umtiti.
What is next for Umtiti
It would be harsh to say that Samuel Umtiti’s career is done and dusted. He certainly still is a daunting presence on his day. If his injury conundrum can be resolved, he would be a major asset for any club in Europe. Given the current state of Barcelona, it doesnt make sense for them to keep him financially nor for sporting reasons.
The Catalan club already spends a major chunk of its budget on player wages. Umtiti earns a weekly wage close to £210,000, higher than the likes of Marc-André ter Stegen and Jordi Alba. Does it make sense for such a financially pressurised club to keep a footballer that can barely stay fit? Is it sensible to keep him in the squad, halting the development of other potential stars?
Umtiti has repeatedly been told to go under the blade, but he has no intentions of doing so even today. And with the conservative treatment repeatedly failing, it looks like the best thing to do would be to move him on. It will certainly be difficult to sell Umtiti,an injury-prone player with such a high wage bill. The demand in the market for experienced and young centre-backs, though, is very high.
It is possible that a potential buyer could be found in the Premier League. Given the current market situation following the pandemic, the azulgranas can hope to make 20 to 25 million for the 26-year-old. That said, purely in a sporting sense, it would make sense to sell him on a free transfer too. He wasn’t what he could be here, but there is no telling what is in store for him in the future.
Héctor Bellerín, a need or a double?
Héctor Bellerín, former Barça academy player, is linked with a move back to his fellow club. But with a right-back position that has been lacking a certain kind of consistency and solidity since the departure of Dani Alves, is Bellerín what Barcelona really need or does he leave open the same holes Semedo has been suffering? Let’s analyse who Bellerín is and what can he bring to the blaugrana cause.
The three-times FA Cup and Community Shield winner, Héctor Bellerín, has come to a crossroad. After six years of first-team football in London, he might have felt the need to change. And Arsenal’s eternal crisis and lack of high competitive seasons may have something to do with it. Especially when you are a talented, young footballer that is reaching his peak years. But at the end of the day, it is all too relative to talk about motives for a divorce, since both the North London club and the Spanish player are taking the path back to the light, really slowly but effectively.
As Arsenal is beginning its journey back to success with Pep Guardiola’s alumni, Mikel Arteta, Bellerín came back from yet another series of injury that have, until now, compromised much of his career. Perhaps, taking aside those fitness issues, he may already have been in a big club and we would not even be talking about a potential transfer for him in this stage of his career.
Unfortunately for him, he has been heavily influenced by injuries throughout his whole professional life. After he had his breakthrough season with Arsenal, in the 2014/2015, nobody would have thought the unfortunate series of events that would have characterised him later on.
Up until 2018, Bellerín’s only fitness problems had been a couple of groin strains and ankle injuries, which resulted in a mere four weeks away from football in four years. As his talent was developing in what has always been a great place to play entertaining football, his body had always responded well to the Premier League’s workloads. Until the 2018/2019 season.
While that campaign opened with the same continuity he showed in the previous ones, the problems began to show their marks just before Christmas. In a league game against Southampton, Héctor Bellerín sprained his ankle. Nobody knew, but that was going to be the start of a new delicate, unfortunate era for the Spaniard. And after the return on the pitch, a month later, Bellerín’s knee couldn’t take it anymore. Against Chelsea, the tragedy came to a sad reality: cruciate ligament rupture, meaning the end of the season for the footballer and the beginning of a long ordeal.
Héctor Bellerín already was a strong option to sign for Barça in 2017 before they went for Nélson Semedo | Photo by Julian Finney via Getty Images
Beginning last season still as injured, he slowly recovered from the trauma, getting back to full fitness around late October 2019. But the lack of luck followed him furthermore. After a month of benches and a small number of minutes on the pitch, he got injured again. This time, hamstring. But will has never been an issue for Bellerín, as he eventually got back onto the pitch a month and a half later and felt enough trust and faith from Arteta, who rarely left him out of that starting eleven spot until the end of the course.
Héctor Bellerín’s career has been a journey. As much as he has always shown character and determination, he has always been one of the most talented players Arsenal has developed over the last decade. Offensive and aggressive on the pitch, his dynamism and speed form a phenomenal conjunction down the right-back side. But apart from physical aspects of his game, even his technical ability has shown improvements year after year, as he has registered 25 assists in his 205 appearances in a red shirt. Just imagine what some pure Barça style training could do to him and to his overall affinities.
He has always been a pure talent, but at the same the risk of getting another Nélson Semedo or Ousmane Dembélé is huge. What do I mean by that? Barcelona’s problems in the last few years have always been the defensive system. Not the defensive players, but the collective all together. How a team defends is the representations of a group’s effort, rather than the individual brilliance, which can help in moments but not in a long-term vision. And next to this very problem that has been afflicting Barça ever since Dani Alves’ departure is the fact that lots of players bought by the Catalan club have resulted in a false promise, due to technical misconceptions or injury addiction.
Without pushing too much against Semedo, the Bayern Munich game emphasised yet again how fundamental the full-back positions are in modern football. It is no surprise that Guardiola has spent a lot on those kinds of player: Danilo, Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and joão Cancelo.
At the same time, it is just the same with the likes of Liverpool, who completely changed the way football is perceived through the wings and the quality brought by both Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Bayern Munich, who found in Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich the foundations of another complete and powerful wing work combo with Leroy Sané and Serge Gnabry up down the line. Full-backs are the present and the future of football, both defensively and offensively, but especially tactically.
While Barcelona has never shown much interest in reinforcing those full-back positions – apart from Semedo –, football was evolving and the Catalan club has found itself in a blind spot. After many consider Nélson Semedo’s time has come to an end, the question on whether to begin to improve such a crucial yet difficult position to fill starts to arise. And without thinking too much of the similarities between the Portuguese international and Héctor Bellerín, Barça seems to be set in changing names, but not concepts.
Would Bellerín really be a big upgrade to Barcelona’s current options? | Photo by Naomi Baker via Getty Images
Bellerín can be extremely talented and exciting for both the future and the present, especially if he really ends up in a place like Barcelona, where he could refine his technical and offensive movements skills. But the doubts in whether his defensive work will ever improve to such heights will always be there, as Barcelona has shown not to care much about improving their full-backs¡ defensive positioning.
As much as Jordi Alba and Semedo can have excellent offensive movements and ball abilities, they have rarely shown improvements on the other end of the pitch. That is the risk that signing a player like Héctor Bellerín for Barça could bring. A talented full-back, but without a prior defensive foundational work behind him. And injury prone. Does Barcelona really need to make such a bet, again?
There are lots of opinions regarding this latest rumours on Bellerín. Many are against it for fitness reasons, many for footballing ones. Other are in favour because it would bring some new flavour to the Camp Nou. But there are really not many who think it would bring a bettering of the team.
As much as having such talented players on a Barça side should excite every football fan because of what Barcelona itself represents and its technical bible dictates, the only reason behind such a transfer would purely be of a renewal. Changing faces, bringing in some new players, rebuilding around new personalities. But even with a bargain deal in the region of €20 or 25 million, in many ways, Héctor Bellerín would bring to Barça the same features Semedo currently provides. Nothing better, nothing worse.