Since the 2018 World Cup, Samuel Umtiti has gone from being considered one of the best defenders in the world, to being put in the transfer market by Barcelona. Will he ever be back to his best level?
In the summer of 2016, Barça acquired the services of a young and talented Samuel Umtiti. Having displayed some momentous potential at Lyon, Barça were quick to discern his strengths as a center back. For a fairly cheap sum of €25M, the Frenchman had completed the biggest move of his career.
Umtiti, upon arrival, was supposed to play second fiddle to the ageing Mascherano. However, he took no time in steadily replacing the veteran in the squad as his performances seemed far more consistent and admirable. Eventually, his impact on results became increasingly noticeable and his rise to the first team was surprisingly swift. Despite not being perceived as a big signing, Samuel almost instantly won the fans’ approval.
Umtiti hasn’t been the same since the 2018 World Cup | Photo by Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images
His first season under Luis Enrique didn’t end with an adequate amount of silverware as Barça crashed out of the UCL and were unable to win the League. However, it was under Valverde’s tutelage that Big Sam enjoyed a relatively illustrious season. Although Barça, in recent years, never seemed reputable at the back, Umtiti, alongside Gerard simply revolutionised the back-line. The blaugranas had much to owe for his capabilities at the back.
The World Cup winner had arguably his best season and was an indisputable starter. Never did Barcelona seem so composed and stable at the back, but Umtiti brought a whole new dynamic to the Catalan defence. Umtiti’s distribution on the ball, his awareness and intelligence allowed him to always be one step ahead of opponents. He wouldn’t just rush into reckless tackles, but positioned himself with perfection. He certainly wasn’t the most physical or athletic defender, however, what made him stand out was the fact that he fulfilled the basic principles of defending with an awe-inspiring level of efficiency.
Umtiti ended the 17/18 season on a very high note, he won the La Liga and Copa Del Rey, journalists in Spain were recognizing him as the perfect heir to Puyol and many regarded him as one of the best center backs that season. Samu was practically at the top of the world, but that glory was woefully shortlived.
Unfortunately, it all went downhill in the next campaign. After Umtiti, admittedly, pushed the barriers to help his national team secure a World Cup, his knee injury took a huge toll on him. In spite of being a first choice defender, the new signing, Clément Lenglet quickly took his place in the squad. Umtiti had to spend most of his times recovering, while Lenglet was making a name for himself in the starting XI. Even when he would be declared fit enough to feature in the lineup, his French compatriot would overshadow him and force him to linger on the sidelines.
Once deemed to be the future of Barcelona’s defence, Samuel Umtiti currently is in the azulgranas’ transfer list | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
After barely spending any time on the field that season, fans were worried and losing faith. Stepping up in the 19/20 campaign was of utmost importance for Umtiti, and with the season already past the halfway mark, has Umtiti lived up to his expectations? Not quite.
Setien’s faith in Umtiti at the start of his tenure was encouraging to see. However, it’s hard to really ignore the fact that the Frenchman has, for most periods, been nowhere near his best. It’s understandable that Quique prefers him over Lenglet since he always remains comfortable on the ball and doesn’t resort to unconventional methods such as sending in long balls blindly. When it comes to playing out from the back, the 26 year old can actually play a crucial role. Though, Umtiti is just a shadow of his former self; he’s extremely slow when it comes to tracking back and makes errors on such a consistent basis. He is also easy to beat in the physicality aspect now. Lenglet hasn’t been at his best this season, but his importance can be seen when it comes to winning the ball back and challenging the opposition attackers. Umtiti almost completely gives up when forwards find spaces to exploit. His injury has severely affected him and no matter how much superior he may be than Lenglet in his prime, his current form is what has to be considered.
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Technically, Umtiti is a better defender as he can anticipate passes well. But his legs aren’t doing his intelligence and awareness justice anymore. We’re seeing a rusty version of the former Lyon wonderkid, one that lacks fine-tuning and finesse. Barcelona fans’ love for Samuel knows no bounds, but it’s evident that his prime was sadly momentary. While getting to see him back at his best would be any culé‘s dream, he has persistently been a victim of recurring injuries. Seeing Samuel Umtiti depart the club in the upcoming transfer window is certainly on the cards.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.