Not too long ago, Samuel Umtiti was on his way to becoming one of the best defenders in world football. That was about 18 months ago- when he took France to the pinnacle of the game in the FIFA World Cup 2018. Down to bad luck and fortune, things have now changed for the central defender. He finds himself at the fringes for club and country.
That is certainly unfortunate for anyone. But very few will witness a similar sort of plummet as Umtiti. Back in the 2017-18 season, he was fit and firing. He had made 40 appearances in all competitions for Barcelona, playing regularly alongside club icon Gerard Pique.
Even in the 2016-17 season, he had done well for the club. He had made 43 appearances and started every Champions League game bar two that he was out of because of injuries. But last season, Umtiti missed 28 games due to a knee injury. This season too, the same knee has been giving him problems.
His first-team spot has been taken away to Clement Lenglet, with Jean-Clair Todibo also waiting in the wings. Despite constant injury troubles, Umtiti has made seven appearances in all competitions for the Catalans, with six of them starts. He usually takes Lenglet’s place and it shows that somehow, he does have a place in the side.
Pique, Lenglet, Umtiti and Todibo are Barca’s four central defensive options. Todibo has been linked with a move to AC Milan and it could yet happen too. Him leaving will leave the club with just a single back-up defender in Umtiti himself- unless they don’t take a dip into the market and do what they did last winter. The club brought in Jeison Murillo on a temporary basis.
Considering how likely Todibo is to leaving, Barca can’t allow the same to happen for Umtiti. He has been used well more than his young compatriot. Ernesto Valverde has previously shown that he does trust Umtiti as a player. He was a regular before the injuries came. And whenever he’s fit, he does feature.
Former boss Luis Enrique had seen Umtiti’s ability to adapt early on. Back in 2017, he told reporters: “He’s adapted well because of his technical and tactical qualities, not just his physical attributes. In looking at his performance – it’s only something you can find out when you come to play for Barca. In overcoming different situations on the field and the things that he’s done. You can only see when he’s here. ”
Indeed, the way Umtiti has played in some games this season has been impressive. In Barca’s 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund, Umtiti got a crucial start. He won 100 percent of his aerial duels, playing 62 passes in total- the second-highest for the club on the day. He made an interception and clearance each.
Even in Barca’s 3-0 win over Eibar, Umtiti was impressive. The Frenchman won four aerial duels and made three interceptions. He made as many as nine clearances, boasting of a passing accuracy of 91 percent.
Even against Celta Vigo, Umtiti completed two dribbles and wasn’t dribbled past even once. He made two interceptions and three clearances. He was arguably Barca’s best defender on the day, despite Pique playing beside him.
Performances like these show clear promise and progress. This is a player who is still 26 and being a defender, he is yet to reach the peak of his powers. He’s been a key part of the side before and knows what it takes to play consistently for the club.
While fitness is an issue, the aforementioned games show that Umtiti is a very useful defender on his day. Barcelona can’t even consider letting him leave unless he gets more injury problems soon.