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.
Koeman’s system in the Barcelona 4-0 Villareal
With a 4-0 victory at the Camp Nou, Koeman’s side has started the season on a positive note. Find out more about the tactical aspect of the match in this tactical analysis of Barcelona’s match against Villareal.
La Liga is finally back, and it’s back in full swing. We saw many high-scoring matches, with even Atleti scoring 6 goals against Granada. A very entertaining start to La Liga was capped off by Barcelona’s 4-0 Victory over Villareal. Koeman’s first La Liga game in-charge of Barcelona was a resounding success. The mindset of the players involved was clearly different from the mindset under Setien. With many players looking rejuvenated, Barcelona put in a performance which was desperately needed considering the fact that the wounds from Lisbon haven’t yet healed. Find out just how Barcelona managed to dominate a strong Villareal side in this tactical analysis.
Barcelona started out in a 4-2-3-1 as expected. The only surprise was that Messi’s starting position was more central than usual and Griezmann occupied the right-wing. Messi does eventually drift towards the centre anyway but the starting position is usually wider.
Villareal were in a 4-4-2 which later transitioned into a 4-4-2 diamond in the second half after the substitutions. Right from the start, Villareal looked to press from the front, with Chukwueze and Moi Gomez cutting out passing lanes to the full-backs and the two Villareal strikers pressing Barcelona’s center-backs. Here, an advantage of the 4-2-3-1 Koeman deployed was immediately visible. De Jong would drop back to receive the ball and then play it forward to Busquets, who was the other pivot. Had Barcelona played a 4-3-3, the pivot would have dropped back to receive the ball and build-up from the back in this case. But the midfield would be stretched vertically which we saw many times last season.
In midfield, Barcelona were prevented from playing through the centre by Parejo and Coquelin. The distance between Villareal’s midfield and defense lines was not much which forced Barcelona towards the wings. This strategy came back to bite Villareal in the form of Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old left-winger was unplayable against Villareal. Gaspar was unable to contain him. Jordi Alba was much better than in a long time. The work-rate Koeman demands and the many extra training sessions were really showing. After a 2019/20 season which wasn’t the best for Barcelona, yesterday’s performance was very impressive.
Both wingers would regularly tuck-in between the full-backs and center-halves. This allowed Barcelona’s full-backs to advance up the field much more. With the full-backs attacking and the wingers tucking in, the Villareal defensive line would be occupied. This allowed Coutinho more space than usual. Along with this, Busquets and De Jong would be available to either stop the counter, or to act as passing options. This assortment of many attacking roles allowed Barcelona to have sustained attacking possession.
Villareal had a clear game plan as well. Considering the fact that their two strikers are performing well and are well-synchronized, the wingers were instructed to cross the ball often. The full-backs would advance, but not overlap frequently. This could either not be a part of the game plan or because of the attacking threat, Barcelona posed from the start. With Dani Parejo in midfield, Emery would ideally be able to continue playing the possession-based football his teams play. Coquelin would offer a bit of dynamism in midfield along with the Spanish midfielder.
However, Koeman took an interesting decision and gave Busquets the role to man-mark Parejo. Though both were surprisingly not the best on the ball on the day, Busquets did well to restrict Parejo to lateral and back passes. In the second-half, Vilalreal’s game plan was executed better in the 4-4-2 diamond. This allowed Parejo to get on the ball more, wit him playing a major role in the build-up. Emery knows his players’ strengths very well. Parejo in the defensive mid role, with pacey wingers on either sides means fast transitions. For Barcelona s well, the transitions were key. Coutinho’s mediapunta role and the freedom Messi has both contributed to this.
We already saw the many benefits this formation has offered, taking the strengths of the players Koeman has into full consideration. The ease during build-up with one pivot dropping back, being able to sustain the attack with the mediapunta getting more space, the freedom Busquets had to man-mark Parejo, which would have been difficult in a single pivot, etc. Another one of the advantages is in defense.
Barcelona were vulnerable in defense throughout last season. Jordi Alba looks like refreshed and fitter than usual, and with Dest potentially joining the Blaugrana, the full-backs are looking promising. In case that Barcelona does get caught on the counter, Koeman does have a solution to one of the problems. When Barcelona are on the backfoot, De Jong and Busquets would need to make sure their positioning is immaculate. They were instructed to plug the gaps between the center-halves and full-backs, which would have a two-fold purpose. Firstly, through-balls against more creative players would be much more difficult, with the gaps being reduced and Coutinho and Griezmann helping in defense. Secondly, the opposition would be less likely to crowd the box, since Barcelona can now afford to get at least 4 players into the box if the pivots were to position themselves as such. However, this would be very dependent on the split-second judgment and whether the players decide to press or track-back.
For Koeman’s first La Liga match, the performance was quite promising. Barcelona looked better tactically and in terms of hard work than Villareal as we saw in this tactical analysis. The latter being something that Barcelona desperately need, what remains to be seen is how Barcelona will fare against teams that rely on individual ability more than Villareal and the unpredictability that follows. Apart from this, will the players be able to sustain the intense work ethic Koeman demands? If Barcelona do decently in these conditions and some others, we might see a much better season from them than expected.