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.
Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?
Work rate is a crucial element in a successful football side, but which Barcelona players have put in the most effort this season?
While FC Barcelona has always been renowned for their technical ability and tactical intelligence of its players, their work rate on the pitch has also played a key role in the club’s greatest triumphs.
The concept is simple, but that does not detract from its importance. Players who track back to win the ball, make bursting runs to create space and passing angles, and constantly apply pressure out of possession are incredibly valuable.
While it may be impossible to quantify a player’s effort with full accuracy truly, the available data can still reveal some prominent trends. With that in mind, which Barcelona players put in the highest amount of work rate statistically?
First things first, time to establish a methodology. Using data from FBRef, the dataset will be filtered down to outfield players who have played five or more 90’s in one of the big five European leagues in the 2020/21 season. That means each player has at least a decent sample size under their belt, so there will not be anyone with only a few ten-minute appearances off the bench.
Then, which metrics can be used to quantify effort best? With the data available, it seems like the most viable option is to try and identify box-to-box players. For that, we can use the different areas of the pitch in which players take their touches.
Each player’s percentile rank for touches per 90 minutes in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, middle third, attacking third, and attacking penalty area was found. The average of those five percentiles became each player’s “attacking average.”
These averages were then scaled between 0 and 100 for the final “Offensive Coverage Rating.” This is how the top five came out for all clubs:
- Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
- Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
- Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
- Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid) – 92.4
Elsewhere in the top 20 are names like Andrew Robertson, Reece James, Luke Ayling of the intense Leeds United system, Ander Herrera, and Frenkie de Jong. There seems to a solid set of players who work their way up and down the pitch, either down the flank as full-backs or as energetic centre-midfielders.
How does the Barça squad stack up in particular?
As previously mentioned, the full-backs are the main standouts. The never-ending stamina of Jordi Alba is especially on display. Frenkie de Jong sits as the top non-full-back by a solid distance, reflecting his ability to drop deep in the buildup and provide dangerous runs forward.
A bit lower down the list, though, things start to look a bit weirder. It should be noted that this methodology can be a bit biased towards centre-backs. They rack up many touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, and middle third in a possession-based system, and the additional touches they get in the attacking penalty area off of corners and free-kicks can drive their scores pretty high.
Looking at Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite all the way at the bottom brings up another limitation. While we can track players who are active in many different areas of the pitch, we can not do the same for players who move and work a lot in the same area.
Watching Braithwaite and Griezmann definitely shows how active they are making runs in behind or across the attacking third, but because they do not drop off very often to pick up the ball, they rank low in the team.
However, those top names prove this offensive coverage metric is able to quantify box-to-box play in possession. Additionally, incorporating defensive metrics will clean things up even more.
On the other side of the ball, the process is very similar. The same players and methodology will be applied, only this time with pressures instead of touches.
StatsBomb, who collect the data displayed on FBRef, define pressure as, “…applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.” These pressures are just broken down based on the thirds of the pitch, not the penalty areas too, so only three metrics go into each player’s “defensive average.”
Once again, those averages are then scaled between 0 and 100, creating the “Defensive Coverage Ratings.” The top five performers in these ratings were:
- Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
- Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
- Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
- Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
- Maxence Caqueret (Lyon) – 97.2
Midfield workhorses like Fred and Adrien Silva, along with high-pressing forwards such as Diogo Jota are common throughout the rest of the top 25.
Given that Barcelona are a possession-heavy side, and one that often presses at a lower intensity, one would expect these defensive work-rate ratings to be a bit lower. Still, though, which players stand out?
Pedri comes out as the clear leader. Impressively, the teenager’s score is one that would be respectable in any side. Let it serve as just another testament to his work rate and ability to perform a variety of different tasks on the pitch.
With Sergio Busquets in second, even as he ages, he is still one of Barça’s most active players in terms of closing down the opposition. In third is another newcomer, as Sergiño Dest’s tendency to press aggressively puts him much higher than most of the other defenders in the squad.
The tallies for the other members of the backline are quite low because they defend in a more reserved nature. This can also be attributed to the fact that Barcelona give up fewer opportunities than many teams.
With both of these two ratings in place and some solid results for top-ranking players, it is time to combine them.
Here in the endgame, we will be combining all eight metrics to create one “Overall Coverage Rating.” That means touches in each third, touches in both penalty areas, and pressures in each third are all included. This way, we can see the players who cover most of the pitch overall.
The top five is comprised of:
- Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
- Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
- Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
- Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 96.2
Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dani Carvajal, Joshua Kimmich, Renan Lodi, Arturo Vidal, Maxence Caqueret, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedri, Reece James, Mason Mount, and Mateusz Klich are among the top names as well.
Now, for the final Barcelona squad rankings:
The numbers still involve the same intricacies as those discussed for the separate offensive and defensive ratings, but at least the top five names seem to match an eye test evaluation of the squad.
Pedri has joined the team and impressed everyone with his work rate and movement. He will track an opposition runner back to the defensive third, win the ball, combine in midfield, and then get forward to be an outlet for Messi.
While not as youthful and agile, Busquets still serves as a metronome in the possession and an active defender. He will move and reposition to rack up touches in the deeper thirds and engages in defensive duels very often.
The right flank has been slightly ignored at times this season, leaving Dest isolated, but the American always brings energy. He has all the skills and the mentality to be a great modern full-back.
Dest’s counterpart on the left, Jordi Alba, performs a much greater portion of his work offensively. His countless runs down the left wing have made him a key target for through balls and switches of play over the last few seasons.
Lastly, Frenkie de Jong backs up his reputation as an all-round midfielder. This season, the Dutchman is settling in more at the Camp Nou, and his surging runs forward to the penalty area have been awe-inspiring as of late.
Rivaldo (on De Jong): "It is being shown that near the area it seems that he is capable of playing better as an offensive midfielder and that he can even play a role similar to what Messi does when the Argentine is away. This is great news for Koeman." pic.twitter.com/r8aIrdMWSg— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 15, 2021
Griezmann and Braithwaite are probably the hardest done by these metrics. However, their energy, work rate and volume of runs they can provide off the ball is noticeable when watching them play, and invaluable for Barcelona.
There is no perfect way to quantify how hard a player works in-game, especially with these limited statistics. What this attempted to do, though, is focus on effort in terms moving to a variety of areas, being as involved in the match as possible, and doing so in different ways.
While not perfect, this methodology was successful in identifying some of the busiest players in the side. It should serve as a reminder of the value these players, like Pedri or de Jong, can offer beyond even their brilliant technical ability.
Given that 32-year-old Sergio Busquets and 31-year-old Jordi Alba were also near the top, it is a reminder of the potential replacements the club will be forced to make eventually. How long can these two continue to exert energy at this level? Could younger players be doing even more in those roles? How will Barça fill those holes when they move on? These are questions that need answering.