On 13 March, 2019, FC Barcelona will play Olympique Lyonnais at the Camp Nou in the second leg of the Champion’s League round of 16 tie. In preparation, I thought we could look back at Barça’s most recent transfer from the historic French club: Samuel Umtiti.
Before the Blaugrana
Samuel Yves Umtiti was born Yaoundé, Cameroon, on 14 November, 1993. When he was two, his family moved to France. At 9, after four years at Ménival FC, he joined the youth system of Olympique Lyonnais, where he flourished.
From a young age, Samuel had the It Factor. He was a natural leader, and gifted beyond his years. According to former Ménival President Said Intidam, “He was five-years-old and could already play in an 11-aside game without any problems.”
He made his competitive debut for Lyon at age 18 in a 3-1 Coupe de France victory over Lyon-Duchère on 8 January, 2012. Over the next few years, Samuel became a fixture in defense for the French club, making 170 appearances by the time he was 22, and even wore the captain’s armband despite his young age.
Even though he wasn’t a household name for many Barça fans at the time, it’s easy to see why the club chose to sign him in 2016.
Any Barça center-back must be not just a defender, but also good on the ball. According to WhoScored, he had a pass completion percentage of 87.2% during his final Ligue 1 campaign, averaging 64.3 passes per game and 4 long balls per game. This reliability on the ball was crucial.
Of course, the primary duty of a defender is, naturally, defending, and he also excelled there. During his last Ligue 1 campaign, he averaged 2.4 interceptions and 1.4 tackles per game, as well as 4.8 clearances. Despite being only 182 cm (just under 6 feet) in height, he also managed to win 3.2 aerial duels per game.
More than anything, though, his attitude and drive set him apart, ever since childhood.
Big Boots to Fill
As discussed in my profile of Ivan Rakitić, 2014 saw the departure of several club legends from the Camp Nou, including iconic captain Carles Puyol. The decorated center-back certainly left a big hole to fill at the heart of Barça’s defense, one that the club struggled to fill for several years.
The efforts to establish a long-term partner for Gerard Piqué was hit-or-miss to say the least. La Masia graduate Marc Bartra never truly managed to stake a claim (though happily he’s experienced a bit of a career revival at Real Betis), Frenchman Jérémy Mathieu had his moments but ultimately proved inconsistent, and former Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen, while talented, has unfortunately been plagued by injuries, missing all but one game in the 14/15 season with hamstring problems.
Piqué’s main partner post-Puyol ended up being Argentine Javier Mascherano. The ex-Liverpool man had spent most of his career as a defensive midfielder, but filled in admirably at the heart of the defense, bolstered by his unbelievable tackling skills and his fearless anus-tearing bravery. All this while being only 174 cm (just under 5’9″) tall! He was beloved by the fans for a reason, but unfortunately he was 3 years older than Piqué and his height was a disadvantage in aerial duels, only managing to win 0.8 per game in the 14/15 La Liga campaign, compared to Umtiti’s 3.2 that season in France.
Come the summer of 2016, Mascherano too was past 30, and once again the club needed to find a long-term solution at left center-back. I remember many rumors floating around during that time. Both Athletic star Aymeric Laporte and Everton sensation John Stones were linked (though they both eventually joined Pep Guardiola at Manchester City), now-Arsenal player Shkodran Mustafi seemed a realistic target with his exit from Valencia imminent, and of course Brazilian defender Marquinhos was always a major objective (though not particularly realistic given the nature of PSG).
One name that hadn’t really been, to my knowledge, at the forefront (at least in the media) was Samuel Umtiti, but he ended up being the chosen signing, somewhat out of the blue (compared to some of the drawn-out transfer sagas Barça has been involved with lately). Although some of the other targets were valued at up to €50 million or more, Umtiti was signed for a shrewd fee of €25m shortly before the 2016 Euro. And the timing couldn’t have been any better.
After soon-to-be Barça teammate Jérémy Mathieu suffered a calf injury, the then-uncapped Umtiti was called up to the national team squad for the Euro 2016. He didn’t play in the group stages or in the first knock-out round, but after veteran defender Adil Rami picked up a suspension against the Republic of Ireland, Umtiti made his international debut in the quarter-final tie against Iceland, in which France won 5-2. Notably, Umtiti completed all 77 of his passes that game, once again proving his skill on the ball.
He impressed Didier Deschamps so much that he earned a start in the semi-final against Germany, a 2-0 victory for the hosts in which Umtiti once again earned rave reviews from pundits, helping to shut out the World Cup holders and ensuring France a place in the finals.
Unfortunately, France was beaten in the end by Eder’s Portugal, but Umtiti’s star rose massively following his excellent performances, fueling mass excitement among the Barça fans who knew that, had they waited until after the Euro to sign him, he would have cost at least twice as much.
A Running Start
It’s often said that a player joining Barça needs to relearn their football, due to the club’s demanding and ever-important style and tactics. Many great players have needed at least a few months, if not a full season, to fully acclimate to the Camp Nou, including Neymar Jr., Ousmane Dembélé, Michael Laudrup, and Ronald Koeman. But not Umtiti.
From the very start, he fit in the squad like a glove, quickly establishing himself as the first choice for the left center-back position ahead of veteran Mascherano. Umtiti showed a beyond-his-years confidence and coolness, both on and off the ball, and didn’t seem to feel the pressure of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world. It was like he had been playing at Barça all his life.
The Blaugrana faithful repaid his stellar performances with endless praise, and he soon became a fan favorite, even drawing comparisons to the legendary Puyol, including a glorious photoshop that still elicits smiles from Barça fans online.
Off the pitch, Umtiti has a very different energy compared to Puyol. Puyol was in many ways the team dad, warm but stern when necessary. Umtiti, on the other hand, is more of a jokester, always pictured laughing and making his teammates laugh.
On the pitch he was spectacular even as Barça lost the Liga tittle to Real Madrid. His passing was stellar, with 92.9% pass accuracy and 5 long balls, with a knack for making line-breaking passes from the back. In defense, he had 1.3 tackles per game, 1.9 interceptions per game, and 1.8 aerial duels won per game.
Of Contracts and Trophies
In the first half of his second season, now under Ernesto Valverde, Umtiti established himself as one of the best center-backs in the world. According to CIES, he is currently the most valuable center-back in football.
At the end of 2017, Umtiti was an absolute wall. Valverde’s switch to a 4-4-2 formation added defensive stability to Barça, and Sam thrived. He was unbeatable as Barça won La Liga with only one loss, as well as claiming another successive Copa del Rey.
He finished his second season with excellent stats once again. 91.2% pass accuracy. 1.9 aerial duels won per game. 2 tackles per game. 1.5 interceptions per game. 2.8 clearances per game.
But the season wasn’t all roses and rainbows. There were murmurings of discontent underneath, related to his contract and injuries.
On the injury front, after an absolutely stellar few months, he was ruled out for 8 weeks with a hamstring injury in December, as well as 2 weeks out with knee issues near the end of the season that would continue to haunt him.
The main worry at the time was his contract. When he had signed, he’s release clause was set at €60m. Now, though, he was worth far more than that; €60m would be an absolute steal with the state of the market following PSG triggering Neymar’s €222m release clause, and Bartomeu knew that he needed to lock in the French defender on a better contract or risk losing him.
But the talks kept dragging on and on for months. Post injury, Umtiti’s form cooled a bit, leading to worries that his head wasn’t completely in the game. Rumors of a move to José Mourinho’s Manchester United surfaced. Things seemed to be teetering at the edge.
A National Hero
Luckily, Umtiti decided to renew with Barça before the World Cup, signing a new deal with a massive €500m release clause, and he joined the France squad in Russia in high spirits, partnering with Clásico rival Raphaël Varane at the heart of defense.
The tournament didn’t start out particularly well for Umtiti as he gave away a silly handball penalty against Australia in a game that saw France eke out a scrappy 2-1 win.
From there, though, things improved, with France making it through the group stages and beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Luis Suarez’s Uruguay in the knockout stages before facing Belgium in the semi-finals.
It was there he earned more comparisons with Puyol, as his headed goal in the 1-0 semis against Belgium mirrored the former Barça captain’s goal in the 1-0 Spanish victory against Germany during the World Cup 2010 semis.
Much like Puyol’s Spain, Umtiti’s France went on to win the World Cup, beating Ivan Rakitić’s Croatia 4-2 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Umtiti was crowned a World Cup winner, but at what cost?
What the Future Holds
Samuel Umtiti sacrificed a lot for his World Cup win. He worked extra hard to get back for Russia, possibly pushing himself too hard. The same issue was re-aggravated in the following season, and, with a controversial decision to seek treatment in Qatar rather than surgery, has missed a total of 183 days for Barça since the World Cup.
Even more concerning are the similarities between his condition and the one that forced Puyol to retire 5 years earlier. There are worries that his cartilage issues could bring an early end to his career. Even though Clément Lenglet has filled in excellently during Umtiti’s absence, losing the World Cup winner would be a huge blow, as many have been looking to him to lead the Blaugrana defense once Piqué retires.
Luckily, though, he has returned to the team, playing well against (if slightly rusty) in home wins against Sevilla and Rayo Vallecano in the past few weeks, staying on all 90 minutes in each game, even managing a perfect passing game against Rayo according to WhoScored.
What is certain is that, should his injury woes truly be put in the past, Umtiti is a world-class defender who has the potential to be a key player as the Blaugrana transition fully from the Golden Generation into the future. I think I speak for all Culés when I say that we wish the best for him and hope he continues to shine at the Camp Nou for years to come. Salut, Sam, txin txin!