opinions | 2016-09-19
After a long journey Barça have found Piqué's definitive partner in Umtiti
The Frenchman has quickly established himself as the starter, a thankful surprise after years of waiting
FC Barcelona is a club known for their slick passing style and dominating the midfield through possession football. By having the best player in the world up front, Barça’s attack has also been dangerous throughout the last decade, now even more with the addition of Neymar and Suárez; Barcelona went on to make history by breaking records with the help of the trident, MSN.
But even being as strong and lethal as they are in terms of midfield and attack, the two time treble winners were lacking when it came down to defense.
On May 30th, 2014 came the retirement of Barcelona’s most decorated defender, Carles Puyol. In the season before he had already struggled with numerous injuries and Javier Mascherano had fully embraced the role of being the starting centre back alongside Gerard Piqué.
While Barcelona went to try signing Thiago Silva, who turned them down for another raise, and later the promising Brazilian at Paris Saint-Germain, Marquinhos. The rumors were strong, stating that the youngster wanted to join Barça and also skipped a few training sessions with PSG pushing for a move - But Barcelona’s attempt ended in failure as PSG did not agree to the transfer, and renewed Marquinhos’ contract instead.
No centre back signings were made. Mascherano’s temporary role slowly became permanent. But the combination of Mascherano and Piqué wasn't perfect, and defensive errors kept piling up; so much that Piqué’s dependable build-up form completely dipped, and the defensive line was shattered under Martino's tenure.
The not so unexpected happened and Barcelona went trophyless that season. The club realized it was the end for Tata Martino, thus they appointed Luis Enrique as the new boss - a former player of the club and previously worked as Barcelona’s B coach, making him the worthy candidate responsible for getting the team back up on track after the drastic drop off.
Everyone was aware of what was needed, so did Luis Enrique. Right after becoming the coach, Luis Enrique and the club’s sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta signed two new defenders in Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen, with hopes of them replacing the void both at the centre and left back.
Despite them being experienced, the signings were yet questioned. Mathieu was 30 years old soon to be 31, and even though Vermaelen was Arsenal's captain, he was injury-prone, barely featuring for the English club in his last season. Despite Barcelona's incredible success in two glorious seasons under Luis Enrique winning not only their second treble, but also a total number of eight trophies, back line still lacked stability.
Piqué slowly got back on track as one of the world's best centre backs and was matching up well with Mascherano, reinvigorated after the 2014 World Cup, meanwhile Mathieu had a couple of reliable displays but still prone to mistakes, even if he did score important goals vs Real Madrid and Celta. As for Vermaelen, he barely featured aside from that memorable goal vs Málaga.
There has been a hole at the back since the retirement of Carles Puyol in 2014, and nobody has been able to fill it up, until now. Luis Enrique, alongside Barça’s sports direct Robert Fernandez, decided to go for the Frenchman Samuel Umtiti.
Umtiti was known to have potential to become a world class footballer, but his abilities started to reach full bloom in the 2015/2016 season with his home club Lyon, where he had more an outstanding tackle success rate, being rarely dribbled past and even scoring a few goals, ending the season as one of Ligue 1's best, standing out above Thiago Silva, and Marquinhos, who continued to be on the bench for David Luiz or feature as right back.
Being a defender at Barcelona isn’t easy, having defensive skills alone won’t do you good, you have to be an intelligent passer with vision and knowing when to keep the ball instead of just hoofing it - and that is what makes Samuel Umtiti a perfect fit for Barca’s philosophy. He’s not the kind of defender who will randomly kick the ball away when things get hard. Rushing things is neither in Barcelona’s philosophy nor in his. Umtiti hardly gets nervous on the ball; he likes to play it straight and isn’t afraid to move forward on his own if necessary.
Defensively, he is the type of player the fans love: intense, agile, quick, aggressive and strong - name it and you’ll have it all in Umtiti, matched with the clear dedication of not giving up much like Puyol once did.
Even though he survived two seasons and is playing his third, Mathieu’s passing, positioning and recovery skills were never up to the highest standards. Barcelona has conceded numerous goals because of misplaced passes, it should be noted that he's good on the air. Mascherano being as good as he is in terms of leading, passing, positioning and recovering the ball, lacks the height and ability to clear aerial threats. And the team did indeed suffer at some crucial games because of it.
If you add the amazing positioning skills of Javier Mascherano and the aerial abilities of Jeremy Mathieu, then you're likely to get Samuel Umtiti. Since signing for the club, his partnership with Piqué has turned out to be incredible, the Spaniard looks like he has found his match, as he plays with peace and ease with Umtiti alongside him.
Recently, Barcelona played against Celtic in the Champions League, and the centre-backs Piqué and Umtiti once again stood out positively alongside Ter Stegen at the back. Umtiti had 82 successful touches of the ball, 96% pass completion rate (76/79), 1 aerial duel won (100% rate), and 3 clearances. Which not only impressed the fans and his teammates, but also his coach Luis Enrique.
"To be honest, Umtiti’s adaption has surprised me a little because he has adapted really quickly. It's only been four or five games Umtiti’s played and he has completely adapted already.”
And the best part about Umtiti is the fact that he is already proven to be a fantastic signing at 22 years of age, leaving everyone to wonder how much more he can improve in the future at FC Barcelona.
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WRITTEN BY: Alveer
Born and currently living in Bangladesh, Alveer is a passionate culé who has been supporting FC Barcelona for nearly a decade. He loves everything related to the club, and has his own opinions on how things really should be to maintain the club’s philosophy created by Johan Cruyff.