8th November 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
Barcelona’s transfer dealings over the last couple of years have left a lot to be desired, with overspending on under-qualified new arrivals, the unfortunate and unexpected enforced sale of superstar Neymar, and an apparent lack of joined-up thinking within the club’s hierarchy regarding player acquisitions.
But, despite a series of transfer market missteps, there is one recent Barcelona signing that can only be regarded as a stellar piece of business.
He didn’t arrive to any great fanfare and, aside from Ligue 1 aficionados, many would have had to resort to a Google search to find out exactly what Barça were getting for their €25 million outlay, but, since his arrival in the summer of 2016, French centre-back Samuel Umtiti has become the bedrock of the Camp Nou backline.
“He passed all the filters,” Barcelona sporting director Robert Fernández said upon signing the 23-year-old defender from Lyon. “He has a maturity out of the norm.”
For the uninitiated, there was a glimpse of Umtiti’s vast qualities offered by his performances with France at the 2016 European Championship, with his move to the Catalan giants confirmed while the competition was already under way. Uncapped ahead of the tournament, the Cameroon-born star only made Didier Deschamps’ 23-man squad when then-Barcelona defender Jérémy Mathieu was forced to withdraw with an injury.
Adil Rami’s suspension meant Umtiti was thrust into the fray for his international debut in the quarter-final against Iceland, playing all 90 minutes of the home nation’s 5-2 win. Immediately the new man looked at home, confidently sweeping up alongside Laurent Koscielny and exhibiting his remarkable range and accuracy of passing.
He went on to feature in the semi-final victory over Germany and the disappointing defat at the hands of Portugal in the final, and has been a regular for Les Bleus ever since, accumulating 12 caps to date and netting his first international goal in a 3-2 friendly win over England in June this year.
Umtiti took to life at Barcelona as readily as he adapted to his role with France, too. It has long been a prerequisite of any Blaugrana defender to be as capable in possession as they are without the ball, and the former Lyon academy graduate is no exception. Indeed, in his initial displays with his new team, his incisive forward passing, breaking the lines of the opposition and springing attacks from deep, was starkly apparent, quickly becoming a major asset for Luis Enrique’s side.
The 23-year-old’s superlative technical skills are perhaps owing to the fact that he began life in the Lyon academy as a centre-forward, gradually moving back down the pitch until settling into his central-defensive role.
Standing 6ft tall, Umtiti is not especially imposing physically for a player in his position, but he is a tremendously gifted athlete, able to turn quickly, call upon searing recovery pace and spring into aerial challenges, making him more capable in headed duels than many defenders much taller.
But beyond his athletic prowess, Umtiti is an immensely intelligent defender, whose ability to anticipate how opposition attacks progress has allowed him to make an impressive average of two interceptions per 90 minutes since arriving in La Liga, a figure only truly appreciated when considering that Barça enjoy more than 60 per cent of possession on average, meaning defensive tasks are less frequent yet demand increased concentration levels to carry out effectively.
In possession, Umiti’s influence on Barcelona’s ability to build from the back often goes underestimated, but the part his plays is key, and is increasing. Last term, he attempted 72 passes per 90 minutes in La Liga at a staggering completion rate of 92.9 per cent. This term he is averaging 81.4 passes per 90, while maintaining an accuracy of 92.1 per cent.
This is not only evidence of Umiti’s growing role in Barcelona’s passing moves, but also of his developing confidence and comfort within new coach Ernesto Valverde’s system, feeling increasingly at home under the intense expectations of the Catalan footballing cathedral that is the Camp Nou.
It’s just as well that Umtiti has proven himself unfazed by his step up from Ligue 1 challengers Lyon to the La Liga giants, who are expected to contest major honours domestically and in Europe year on year. Had he required a long adjustment period, as is regularly the case when young defenders move to new clubs in foreign leagues, the flaws of those around him would have been fatally exposed.
Umtiti’s addition to the Barça side has enabled the 2015 treble winners to transition away from needing to use 33-year-old Javier Mascherano every week, with the former West Ham United and Liverpool man’s physical gifts declining, as errors of judgment slowly creep into his game.
Gerard Piqué, too, has benefitted from Umtiti’s presence. The Spanish international, jeered by large sections of La Roja’s support, is adored inside Camp Nou, and even sees himself as a future club president. But the 30-year-old ex-Manchester United centre-back, who has unquestionably been one of the world’s foremost defenders over the last decade, has struggled for form for some time now. Partnered by the dependable and unassuming Frenchman, Piqué, and Barça, have an ever-ready insurance policy, adept at dropping off when required or bailing out the errors of others with his blistering speed across the turf and quickness of thought.
Umtiti’s success since joining Barcelona should perhaps not come as too much of a surprise when considering he has been receiving advise from the best possible source in former club captain Carles Puyol, a man who knows a thing or two about what it takes to thrive as a Barça defender.
“I speak with Puyol a lot. It’s flattering because he’s an example for me,” Umtiti told Telefoot last season. “I feel really good in this team, I’m having fun.
“I didn’t expect to play as much in my first season,” he added. “I’m trying to play as well as I can.”
With the level of consistency he has shown since swapping Lyon for Catalonia, Umtiti is arguably La Liga’s best defender right now, and he’ll be crucial to Barcelona’s hopes of wrestling domestic superiority back from Real Madrid.