Since the retirement of the beloved Carles Puyol, Cules have begged and pleaded for a new centre-back for the next generation. Over the last few seasons, Paris Saint-Germain’s Thiago Silva was often rumoured to be a Barcelona target, but the price always seemed too steep. More recently, PSG’s Marquinhos, Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte and Everton’s John Stones have all been linked on more than one occasion to the Blaugrana. Yet, asking prices seemed uncomfortable under the pretense that these young stars may not live up to their lofty price tags.
Five years after the departures of Puyol and a certain French centre-back who could also deputize at left-back named Eric Abidal, Barcelona have finally decided to stake their future on the backline with another Frenchman who plays centre-back but can also deputize on the left. 22-year-old Samuel Umtiti is a gamble, as he is more of an unknown to the world-scene as opposed to Laporte or Marquinhos, but a finer look shows that Barcelona’s gamble isn’t that risky at all.
The world was formally introduced to Umtiti quite recently in France’s quarterfinal Euro 2016 match-up with Iceland when he started at centre-back for the suspended Adil Rami. His debut was a success, as he connected on all 76 of his passes and looked more than capable in the air.
While he is still quite young, Umtiti is no stranger to the competitive world of football. After ten years in the youth system of Olympique Lyonnais, he made the substitutes bench for a Champions League match with Rubin Kazan and went on to play 170 matches and scored five goals.
According to whoscored.com, Umtiti also stacks up fairly well statistically against the other young defenders that Barcelona assessed. When compared to Marquinhos, Stones and Laporte, Umtiti averaged the most passes per game last season with 64.3. He averaged 4.8 clearances per game, one more than any of the other three. He also won more than three aerial duels per contest, which is more duels won by Stones and Marquinhos combined. As for passing completion, he was successful on about 87% of his passes, and while that is a few percentage points less than Stones and Marquinhos, it is a full seven percent greater than Laporte.
These statistics help to paint the picture of the player that Barcelona will be getting. His high number of clearances may reveal that he will need to be taught how to better play out of the back, but his passing ability provides the confidence that he will be up to the task. Winning the number of aerial duels that he does indicates that he could help Barcelona’s battle in the air, especially on set-pieces. Having scored five goals in his career, Umtiti could be the third option on Barcelona corner-kicks behind Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez.
His five career goals are not a lofty total, but it is five more goals than Javier Mascherano has at Barcelona. Mascherano’s role is not to score goals and he should not be criticized for his unselfishness, but Umtiti could provide more of a threat because of his height and strength alone.
As a 22-year-old, Umtiti is not expected to immediately replacing Javier Mascherano. He may be the long-term option to pair with Pique, but he should be afforded the time to mature and get acclimated to Barcelona’s system, a process that can take multiple seasons.
With Marc Bartra now at Borussia Dortmund, Umtiti will surely take his playing time. In addition, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen, if they choose to remain at Barcelona, should except that the young defender may take most of their playing time as well. Mathieu’s versatility may ensure that he can continue to back-up Jordi Alba when the situation arises, but Vermaelen’s situation may be just dire enough to complete a transfer this summer away from the Camp Nou.
Much like Bartra, Umtiti’s success will be dictated by how he fits into the plans of Luis Enrique. Bartra may have solved the issue of a quality young defender, but not being in the Barcelona manager’s plans meant that he would never be able to really be the solution. Therefore, Barcelona brass looked elsewhere for the future.
It's hard to imagine that the €25 million Barca invested on Umtiti’s transfer will end up being a mistake. While it is almost half of Barcelona’s transfer budget for the summer, they finally did capture the young defender that Cules were pining for. Critics may cite another young defender that Barcelona signed for the same price a few years back in Ukrainian Dmytro Chygrynskiy as a harrowing tale of what could happen to Umtiti. However, while Chygrynskiy didn’t make the grade in Pep Guardiola’s squad, he was still sold for €15 million, making him a gamble that eventually cost €10 million.
Umtiti’s remarkable career at Lyon has confirmed his abilities. The current market for other centre-backs of his caliber are close to double the cost so the Frenchman's signing makes perfect sense for Barcelona.