Barcelona boss Quique Setien has taken a liking for Samuel Umtiti, but that does not change his poor form and constant injuries. We take a look at three players who can replace the Frenchman in the heart of defence.
Samuel Umtiti’s arrival at Barcelona was rather spectacular as he quickly replaced Javier Mascherano as Gerard Pique’s partner in the centre of defence. He rapidly earned comparisons with Carles Puyol because of his aggression off the ball and 100% commitment.
However, it was only downhill from here for the World Cup winner who suffered a series of dangerous injuries to the knee, the first one coming against Celta Vigo while chasing Iago Aspas off the ball. Umtiti was ruled out for nearly 2 months in the 2017-18 season, which was followed by more knocks.
Umtiti’s incredibly impressive first half of the 2017-18 season didn’t end quite the same way. His injuries had started to become a matter of concern since these were the same injuries to the knee that forced Puyol into retirement in 2013-14.
The Blaugrana were lucky to get a defender who was as talented if not more in Clement Lenglet the next season. He took Umtiti’s place in the starting lineup last season and has not been displaced since. That was, until the arrival of their new gaffer, Quique Setien, who is still unsure about his best XI, juggling between the two French centre-halves.
If rumours are anything to go by, the 26-year-old’s time in the Catalan capital is over, with Manchester United and Chelsea ready to secure his services. Umtiti is still young and has a lot of time to resurrect his career at a major club.
The Hard Tackle will take a look at 3 players who can replace him in Barcelona’s backline. The players that have listed match a certain criteria: left-footed ball paying defender; will cost less than €50 million; 25 years old or younger.
The Ideal Replacement: Pau Torres
After spending 2 seasons in the third division of Spanish football with Villarreal B and then a season on loan in the second division with Malaga, Pau Torres has finally received his big breakthrough this season. The 23 year old has been undroppable and is one of the biggest reasons behind the resurgence of Villarreal who finished 14th in 2019. Pau has been undroppable in the heart of defence partnering alongside Raul Albiol.
Pau’s style of playing is rather common among centre-backs recently, yet stands out because of how pleasing to the eye it is. His style best resembles the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Gerard Pique or Virgil van Dijk, which revolves heavily around possession-based football, composure on the ball, neat footwork and the ability to play precise lane-cutting passes from deep.
Torres boasts of an 84% passing accuracy, which may seem low compared to the aforementioned players, but he also completes over 6 long passes per game, which is at least 2 more than each of them. He has also created 2 big chances, of which 1 has been converted successfully.
📰 [SPORT] | Villarreal central defender Pau Torres, in Barça's transfer list
🔶 The Blaugrana club seriously values signing the left-handed central defender from Villarreal
🔷 He is young at 22years and has a release clause of 50 million euros pic.twitter.com/Py7sN10Zfs
— BarçaTimes (@BarcaTimes) March 22, 2020
One major reason why the partnership of Umtiti and Pique worked so well is because Umtiti does not rove into the opposition half without the ball. Pique, on the other hand, can be constantly found ahead of Barcelona midfielders, looking for a way to be a part of the attack, while Umtiti would stay behind with Sergio Busquets to stop any counters.
Lenglet, meanwhile, does not defend well against counter attacks, since he, too, likes to move ahead of the defensive line. This is a major reason why the tandem of Pique and Lenglet does not quite work as well. It is also one of the main causes as to why Pique’s partnerships with Puyol and Mascherano worked so well, while he struggled to team up seamlessly with Sergio Ramos.
That being said, Torres is a calm player who only pushes up when the Yellow Submarine are in need of a goal. He plays no more than 14 accurate passes per game in the opposition half, which makes up for less than 30% of his total passes. Pau, who had been linked with Arsenal in January, is currently on Barcelona’s radar, and should the club consider him and bring him in, he can give Lenglet, and even Pique a good run for their money.
In-House Recruit: Jorge Cuenca
Left-footed centre-backs a rare breed in football at the moment, and Barcelona might have to dig deeper, specially into South American clubs if they want to source a decent player with a high ceiling. The other option is to go into the market with a high budget and sign someone who is going to cost upwards of €60-65 million like Presnal Kimpembe, Mario Hermoso or Aymeric Laporte, who has been linked with a move to Camp Nou.
They do not need to do that, however, when they can promote a long term solution from within the club. We’re talking about Barcelona B centre-half, Jorge Cuenca. Standing at 6ft 2in, Cuenca is quite the physical specimen. He is incredibly quick, strong and dominates in aerial duels.
On top of that, the Spaniard is gifted with brilliant abilities on the ball. He possesses splendid dribbling technique and passing range and is more than capable of playing as a defensive midfielder. Cuenca has quickly risen through the ranks since signing for the club as a 17-year-old.
He may be extremely talented in most aspects of the game, but Cuenca lacks composure off the ball. The 20-year-old is very impulsive and trusts himself to go in for tackles if and when he loses the ball. This does not cost them a lot since his partner in defence, Ronald Araujo reads these situations very well.
The latter is probably a better defender than Cuenca but the Spanish youngster is a more sought after prospect because of his ball-playing skills and a gem of a left-foot.
He is at a critical stage of his career as a 20-year-old, and has finally earned the starting spot over Chumi for Barcelona B, but is subject to a move away from the Garnet and Blue in the next year if he is not given chances.
Barcelona have not produced any world-class centre-backs since Pique, and the ones that do have the potential to become great move in a lookout for more game time, like Eric Garcia who moved to Manchester City. Cuenca could follow suit if first-team chances aren’t forthcoming.
An Interesting Alternative: Gabriel Magalhaes
22-year-old Gabriel is a graduate from Avai’s youth academy, but completed a transfer to Lille at the age of 18. Since his arrival in 2017, he was sent on consecutive loans to Troyes and then Dinamo Zagreb, but ultimately found a place in the team in the 2018/19 season, playing the role of the third-choice centre-back. However, Gabriel has displaced captain Adama Soumaoro, who has now been sent out on loan.
The Brazilian is a good passer of the ball, but prefers to keep the ball grounded quite like the man in question, Samuel Umtiti. His way of playing resembles the former Olympique Lyonnais defender in other ways as well. They are both aggressive off the ball, and supplement their game by sliding interceptions.
Otherwise, the 22-year-old is a rather clean defender who does not dive into challenges or fights on the pitch. His 3 yellow cards in 24 appearances this season are a proof of the same. Moreover, he averages no more than 0.8 fouls per game, which means there have been games this season where he’s gone without fouling single player. For context, he has been fouled more times this season than he has committed them.
Even though he is in the mould of an orthodox ball-playing centre-back, Gabriel can gloat of some really impressive footwork, which probably comes naturally when you’re Brazilian. However, he is a defender who likes to take risks when on the ball and risks being closed down by opposition forwards. This pays off for him more often that not, but has cost his team 1 goal this season.
Gabriel is linked to a move away from France after having a stellar campaign with Arsenal and Chelsea among the clubs interested. Barcelona will want to avoid a bidding war for the Brazilian who is going to cost €40 million at the bare minimum.