Samuel Umtiti arrived to Barcelona in 2016, offering privileged physical and tactical conditions. But an injury a couple of years ago changed his life. Still, fans hoped to see Big Sam shine again. Yet time passes, and that faith in the player disappears. Yesterday, against Celta de Vigo, Umtiti could have signed his potential departure from Barça.
Samuel Umtiti. That physical, reliable and solid defender who avoided countless times that the rivals scored a goal. That French beast that culés considered as their new Carles Puyol, and the next partner of Gerard Piqué. A centre-back who, from the first day, fans fell in love with, since, for his characteristics and security, he was entertaining to watch. However, a knee injury that sidelined him for 28 games in the 2018/19 season forced Umtiti to undergo a treatment.
After such treatment, Big Sam looked the same physically, but, when he was on the pitch, there was no trace of the old Samuel. Sure, there were games in which he did well, but there was no consistency or confidence to consider Umtiti reliable for the important clashes. Still, supporters continued to believe in him, having faith that the talent of a few years earlier was going to regain his level. Unfortunately, a long time has passed and we continue without response.
Since the return of La Liga, Umtiti had not made his debut yet, as the staff was not entirely sure of his fitness after suffering a slight injury during the break. Notwithstanding, the 26-year-old was in charge of defending the blaugranas‘ shirt against Celta de Vigo on Saturday, a game with a high level of demands and pressure since the league title was at stake. As expected, Samuel did not fulfil his duties and ended up being one of the main culprits of that draw, especially for the local’s first goal. A disappointing game, but one that could definitely change the footballer’s future.
Samuel Umtiti in the 2019/20 season
With just 18 games played this season, four of which came from the bench, it is clear that Umtiti has dramatically gone from being in the foreground to being a secondary option. He has only been part in 33% of matches. In addition, most of the teams that Sam has faced have been from the lower half of the table. Almost never against top La Liga sides. And, despite extreme measures with little rest after the pandemic break, Umtiti is also not an active part of the rotations, especially given the importance behind each matchday.
Moreover, with Clément Lenglet in the team, it is even more difficult for Umtiti to develop his confidence since his compatriot is an essential man for the defensive approach of manager Quique Setién. Although Samuel offers different things to Barça’s game, Lenglet is a safer bet. Clément is a physically healthy player, very unlikely to be injured, usually focused through the full 90 minutes, and working well under pressure. While Lenglet has all these features at the fullest, Umtiti has lost all of them.
Umtiti for Barça against Celta de Vigo
After having lost the top spot of La Liga against Sevilla, Barcelona faced a Celta de Vigo that had been playing fabulously at the hands of Rafinha Alcântara, Denis Suárez, Iago Aspas and obviously coach Óscar García. Furthermore, the match was held at Balaídos, a stadium where the blaugranas had had many difficulties in recent years. To everyone’s surprise, Quique Setién trusted Samuel Umtiti for this match against Celta. A duel in which the Frenchman certainly didn’t cover himself in glory.
Umtiti was out of position in the majority of Celta’s attacks, leaving a lot of space behind, pressing up when he shouldn’t, and lacking concentration. Celta de Vigo had multiple chances of danger for the simple fact of having Umtiti on the defensive line of Barça. Sam did not add, but subtracted.
A match to forget for Umtiti | Photo by Octavio Passos via Getty Images
Umtiti’s disappointing display gave extra work to Gerard Piqué, who did a great job in supporting his teammate when he made a mistake. However, there was an error that neither Gerard nor Marc-André ter Stegen could save. In the action of Celta’s first equaliser, Samuel wanted to anticipate and move forward when he left Okay Yokuşlu run behind him, leaving Piqué alone in defence against two attackers. As a consequence, Fyodor Smolov was able to open the scoring for the celestes.
And this did not end there. He kept making similar mistakes throughout the match. Fortunately, the resulting errors were fixable. Additionally, against an opponent like Celta and with so much at stake, these mistakes by Umtiti were unforgivable for a club as professional and demanding as Barcelona. Having rested in the previous game, he should have been an asset in rotations, but he was not. Umtiti was a liability that unbalanced the approach of Barça against Celta.
Is it time to say goodbye to Big Sam?
Samuel Umtiti’s first season at Barcelona was unbelievable. Full of physical power, and with the joy of seeing how rivals battled and struggled to beat him. It really was like having a defensive wall. You could see the faces of the attackers when they had to overcome Big Sam in a one-versus-one, in a counter-attack or in a build-up. They couldn’t be calm the day before knowing that on the following day they were going to face Umtiti.
Unfortunately, the years go by, players come, players leave and others lower their performance. The case of Umtiti belongs to the latter. The worst thing is that he surely tries hard, but a physical issue such as his dramatic knee injury forced him to make a 180° turn in his career. Undoubtedly a depressing situation, as culés will end up sad to see what it was to once watch the iconic Carles Puyol in the body of a Frenchman that finished being a set of poor performances.
Barcelona fans thought they had found their rock at the back for many years to come | Photo by Alex Caparros via Getty Images
After two seasons full of bad moments, at Balaídos it was time to realise, or rather confirm, that there is no turning back. We can assure the faith to get Umtiti back is over. With the return of Jean-Clair Todibo, the good displays of the young Ronald Araújo, and the irreplaceable Piqué and Lenglet, Umtiti would not only have fewer minutes, but would practically not be considered.
Now, what should Barcelona do? Selling Umtiti sounds like the most logical option. In 2018, before his injury and in his prime years aged 25, Barça received multiple offers for him, whose release clause was of 60 million euros. A fair price. However, currently, his market value is half of what it was two years ago, if not less. Of course, there is a lot of difference but, given the circumstances, it would not be wrong to sell him for that price. The problem is that no club may be willing to pay such high fee and wages.
For Samuel Umtiti, all that remains is to continue working and giving his all to recover his level. To keep smiling as on the day of his presentation, where he started spreading his happiness to the entire Barça entity. It hurts everyone to see his current situation, but for both the footballer and the club, the best thing for him is to finish his spell in Catalonia.
The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.