While Gerard Piqué remains an undisputed starter as the right centre-back, Barcelona has two capable left-footed defenders to pair with the Spaniard. But how distinct are Samuel Umtiti and Clément Lenglet from each other, and who deserves the starting role?
Barcelona’s centre-backs not only need to be excellent in the usual prerequisite defensive duties, but also be good with the ball. The reason why Barça purchased Samuel Umtiti in 2016 was to have an excellent left-footed centre-back to sit alongside the undisputed Gerard Piqué. However, Umtiti’s time at the Camp Nou has been far from ideal, especially in the past two years. Time has continued to test the blaugranas and Samuel’s patience when it comes to his fitness levels.
To cover for his continued absence, the Barça board bought Clément Lenglet from Sevilla in 2018 for a fee of €35 million. Today, that decision seems to be one of the most fruitful ones taken by president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s regime. Lenglet may have well been the club’s best defender amidst this testing period. Even Piqué has faltered on several occasions, while the Frenchmen has covered for the backline’s anomalies.
In addition to the goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen, Lenglet has been the glimmer of hope for providing defensive stability. Unfortunately, he cannot play every game. And so, manager Quique Setién needs to take care of his fitness and not have another situation similar to that of his French compatriot.
What went wrong with Samuel Umtiti?
When Samuel Umtiti joined from Olympique Lyonnais, there were massive hopes pinned on him to be the ideal left-footed partner with Piqué. But sadly, in every player’s career, there comes a time where he must take a crucial sporting decision for his own good. And in Umtiti’s case, the decision he made for not opting for knee surgery to take part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup has changed the course of his career.
We are well aware that his muscle and knee problems began to emerge towards the end of the 2017/18 season. He had the option to undergo surgery to solve the problem looming over his knee. But instead of taking the medically prescribed route, he decided to find another way. His decision might have seen him win the world’s most coveted trophy with France, but he now faces the ramifications that came along with it.
“The easy thing would have been an operation, but I’m not like that. I’m strong mentally, and I don’t give up, even when it’s tough.
There were times when I said I should give up and have an operation. But I held out. During that time, I was quite cold and closed. I wasn’t happy. I just wanted to get out of that nightmare”
on his decision to avoid surgery prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup
Umtiti has not been the same player since that fateful decision. He has missed a total of 38 games since the beginning of the 2018/19 season, which amounts to an entire season’s worth of games. Even if the Frenchman had the potential to be one of Barça’s best centre-backs, he now sees himself far from it.
With yet another setback to his left-knee ruling him out for an unspecified time, the fans are left fuming. The azulgrana supporters have seen enough, and want him to be replaced. With rumours of the club intending to bring back 19-year-old Eric García from Manchester City, Samuel’s time at the Camp Nou could be well over.
Clément Lenglet: a step up at the time of need
Ideally speaking, the Barcelona board would have never gone to sign Clément Lenglet if Samuel Umtiti had had no fitness issues. The former Sevilla man’s release clause was triggered with the sole intentions of having a defensive option incase Umtiti’s knee gave in. At least in the case, the directives’ farsightedness must be appreciated for bringing Clément in.
Since joining at the start of the 2018/19 season, Lenglet’s timely arrival has allowed him to get more games. Due to his fellow countryman’s injury crisis, he got to impose himself into the first-team. Lenglet grew into the role he was given with ease, and slowly became the club’s best defender. Particularly this season, he has been fantastic whenever relied upon. Tracking runs, winning defensive duals, fighting every aerial battle, Lenglet has even been a more proactive centre-back than Piqué who is senior to him.
Clément Lenglet seems to have taken up the spot of Samuel Umtiti in the French national team too | Photo by Imago
He has earned praise from the fans for being alert at all times. Albeit the backline’s overall inability to stay focussed throughout the 90 minutes, the critics have noticed Lenglet’s performances. He has rarely faltered, and also suits the club’s style of building from the back. Even if he can’t cover for everyone’s mistakes, he can ensure that he is not at fault, reducing the risk of error.
Lenglet is now on course to becoming the main man at the back. He still needs to work on his leadership qualities as at times he appears to be silent. A complete centre-back must have the vocational ability to have an imposing control over the entire backline. As he is clearly the club’s best defender at the moment, he must learn to command the back four. Still only 25, he has a lot of time to gain the experience and grow more into his role.
The unbecoming comparison
One man’s loss is another man’s gain. Umtiti hasn’t been anything close to what he was before his knee began to let him down. The issues have had a permanent effect on his overall game. His pace his dropped down massively, his positional awareness seems have diminished, and he’s now a shadow of his lost self. The reality of Umtiti’s situation was clearly seen in his disappointing performance against Celta de Vigo. That massively disgruntling outing has seen the fans run out of patience.
The reason why Quique Setién wanted to rely upon Samuel was that he was excellent going upfront. At his best, Umtiti can play a massive role in the build-up play. In addition to that, his physicality, pace, and defensive awareness made him a threat at both ends. Notwithstanding, these are the expectations that the manager and fans have on him when he is in form.
Despite the brilliant first two seasons from Samuel Umtiti at Barcelona, Clément Lenglet seems to have definitely won the race to his fellow countryman | Photo by Cristina Quicler / AFP via Getty Images
He has lost all the qualities that made him a really skilled defender. Even if he aims to work hard and regain his past shape, certain footballing skills need to be honed by playing regularly. The ability to defend is something that can’t be harnessed without consistent match time. To play more, he needs to improve his fitness. Everything seems to be intertwined in Umtiti’s case. With aims of achieving immediate results and silverware, the club can’t be patient with Samuel.
In contrast to Umtiti’s stance, Lenglet’s development seems to be consistent and more well-rounded. He poses a more calming presence in the back. With a more disciplined, patient, and controlled output, he continues to remain a successful player. The advantage with him is that he is down to earth and patient enough to wait for his chance.
At times, both Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién tried to use Umtiti more due to the belief that he has a higher potential. Unlike the usual dressing room politics that has been increasing lately, Lenglet is pure and a wonderful professional. Clément poses a contrasting attitude to the preconceived notions on French players in regards to their overall discipline.
Clément Lenglet deserves to be in the position where he is. He has been patient, calm, and used whatever opportunities that were given to him. On the other hand, Umtiti’s future at Barça appears to be bleak. The club is bound to run out of patience with him and sell him when he is in demand. He could have been Barcelona’s first-choice centre-back for the years to come, but alas it wasn’t meant to be.
Fortunately for the culés, they already have his replacement in the form of Clément. He has the support of the fans and the drive to go on to remain a crucial component in Barça’s team. With numerous problems looming over Umtiti’s fitness and on pitch capabilities, the manager is bound to rely more on Lenglet. Even if Samuel were to sort his knee issues and regain his defensive qualities, the board will have to choose between him and Lenglet.
The chances of Umtiti making a comeback are less. Nevertheless, it’s not like he wouldn’t be supported by the fans if his efforts were bearing fruits. At some point, even he would understand that the club isn’t wrong to move on from him. After all, he knew the risks and consequences that he’d have to face for avoiding surgery. He was aware of how his career may be shortened if he prioritised the World Cup.
It is a decision that appears to be fatal to his Barça career, and there is nobody to blame but himself. With Clément Lenglet successfully taking over, it wouldn’t be surprising if Samuel Umtiti was sold in the coming window.
Ronald Koeman and the 4–2–3–1: A new system at Barcelona
During the three preseason games, Ronald Koeman has opted for a change in formation at Barcelona, as a 4–2–3–1 line-up has been implemented by the Dutch coach. This article looks at some of the strengths and weaknesses of the formation so far.
The 4–2–3–1 formation has been used by many top teams around the world. It offers a defensively strong set-up as well as providing good width. In the first three games since his appointment, Ronald Koeman has chosen this set-up. This is a change for Barcelona, who usually play in a 4–3–3 formation.
Thus far, players seem to be adapting to the change, but the first real test for Koeman will be on Sunday 27th September against Villareal. During the pre-season friendlies, there was a lot of rotations, so it is not clear who the favoured starting eleven is yet. However, it looks as though the manager has found his formation for the season, unless something major changes.
The new change in the system could have several benefits for the current team. One of the positives to the new formation is that it allows players to be played in their favoured positions. Frenkie de Jong is one player that could excel in the double pivot role.
After a mediocre season, De Jong will now be moved to his best position. At Ajax, and for the Netherlands, the barça midfielder produced his best performances when given a free-roaming role as a double pivot. He is most comfortable in this position as the Dutchman thrives in the defensive and middle areas of the pitch, but not so much in the final third.
Two other players that could improve under the new formation are Philippe Coutinho and Antione Griezmann. The 4–2–3–1 formation plays with an attacking midfield or second striker. This is Coutinho’s and Griezmann’s best position. Under the 4–3–3 formation, they were forced to play out wide, and it did not suit either of them. Playing them centrally will be key in helping them find their best form again this campaign.
Philippe Coutinho, named Man of the match in the Trofeu Joan Gamper game against Elche, could be one of the most benefitted players by Koeman’s change of formation | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
The set-up of the formation also provides more defensive stability than the usual 4–3–3. Having two holding midfielders helps to limit teams counter attacks. It strengthens the centre of the pitch too. The two midfielders in front of the centre-backs make it difficult for the opposition to break through this area.
In an attacking sense, the full-backs can be more confident in pushing forward. There will be an extra midfielder available in defence if they get caught out positionally. Furthermore, a more dynamic attack can be formed with players like Lionel Messi, Griezmann and Coutinho all being interchangeable. Having that extra attacker should allow Ronald Koeman to play with a pacey winger such as Ansu Fati or Ousmane Dembélé. The Catalan side’s lack of pace in attack has been an issue for several seasons now.
Though there are positives, there could also be some downsides to the change in formation. Most notably, a lack of opportunities for Barça’s young and talented midfielders. Riqui Puig, Carles Aleñá and Pedri may have less minutes, according to the manager. This is due to their natural position, as interiors in midfield, no longer being used.
“Him [Riqui Puig], [Carles] Aleñá, Pedri…I have told them that it’s difficult for them and there’s lots of competition. At 20 years of age, the young players have to play”Ronald Koeman, after leaving Riqui Puig out of the squad for Saturday’s Trofeu Joan Gamper against elche
Though they could adapt to the pivot role or the number 10 role, it seems Koeman would prefer others who are natural to these positions. Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanić and De Jong will play most of the minutes as the defensive midfielders. Additionally, Griezmann, Coutinho and Messi are likely to occupy most of the minutes in the attacking midfield role. This is a huge blow for the Barcelona youngsters who deserve first-team minutes.
Another issue that has already highlighted itself is the removal of a midfielder for an extra attacker. This can leave large pockets of space in the middle section of the pitch. This can either be exploited by the opposition to attack into or limit the options for the blaugranas in the build-up play. For example, if the two pivots get dragged over to one area of the pitch, this can leave large gaps on the other side.
This could cause problems if Barça want to transition the ball quickly to open the game up. What Koeman has essentially done is to take one of the links in the deeper build-up play and move it into the final third instead. Only time will tell if this pays off as Barcelona start the new campaign soon.
The new formation implemented by Ronald Koeman will shake things up at Barcelona. Though the main principles will likely remain the same, such as high pressing and dominating the ball, some parts will change. The formation helps some players find their best positions in the team while also sacrificing others. Defensively, it should help Barça become less open to counter attacks.
Going forward, the team looks more fluid and comfortable. Although, players will need to be spatially aware. Large areas of space have already emerged in the middle of the pitch during preseason and could cause issues for the team later on.