Solid is a word which often draws negative connotations at Barcelona. It’s also one which has become synonymous with Ernesto Valverde’s side this season. In 29 league games, Barca have conceded just 13 goals and one of their biggest strengths has been their ability to keep their shape and see out spells of pressure while minimising the quality of their opponent’s chances. The latest example, the second half of the recent one-goal win against Atletico Madrid.
Even the Catalan media, spoiled by Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, have begun to accept that the word solid doesn’t have to be frowned upon or reserved for teams that don’t want to play football and would prefer to park the bus.
“Finally, it’s being understood that you can’t always be brilliant,” the journalist Xavier Bosch wrote in Mundo Deportivo this week.
“Finally the adjective ‘solid’ deserves a positive interpretation. Finally, moving away slightly from [Barca’s] vaunted DNA is not a mortal sin.”
Valverde gets the credit for shaking up Barca’s system, albeit with the help of Neymar’s departure, but none of it would have been possible without the players he has at his disposal. Two of them, in a world where Lionel Messi doesn’t exist, would perhaps be competing for the club’s player of the season award: Samuel Umtiti and Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
However, solid as he has been, it’s not the go-to adjective to describe Umtiti, who has lost just one of the 46 league games he’s featured in since he signed from Lyon for €25 million in the summer of 2016 — a fee which looks more ridiculously cheap with the closing of each transfer window.
Umtiti, still just 24, would have been equally at home in Cruyff or Guardiola’s Barca sides. Rarely without a huge smile on his face, there can’t be many more entertaining centre-backs in the game at the moment — or better ones for that matter. Against Valencia in November at Mestalla, to cite one example, in a game between La Liga’s unbeaten top two, he was phenomenal. At one point in the first half, he intercepted a Valencia cross with his chest in the area before scooping an outrageous pass over the head of an opponent and into the path of Paulinho. It was pure Umtiti and moments like that have been copied and pasted throughout the season.
As well as reading the game as if it was a children’s book, timing his challenges to the millisecond and putting his body on the line in the name of a block, the France international is a daring defender. He’s completed 91 percent of the 1443 passes he’s attempted this season (third best in La Liga among players who have attempted 500 passes) but it’s the nature of his passes which make him stand out. As Xavi Hernandez goes to pains to point out, statistics can be futile if you’re not taking risks or if you’re constantly giving the ball to your teammate under pressure. That’s not Umtiti. He takes risks, feeding the ball between the lines, and rarely picks the wrong option.
Basically, he knows what is demanded from a Barcelona player. So much so, in fact, that after the Champions League win against Chelsea earlier this month he even complained that the Blaugrana had not played as much front-foot football as he would have liked].
Off the pitch, he’s quickly become a huge character, too, with his huge grin following him everywhere he goes. Club officials have even used him as an example for Ousmane Dembele, who has not had such immediate luck when it has come to adapting to a new club, culture, country and language.
No wonder, then, that Premier League clubs are drooling at his €60m release clause. If Virgil van Dijk and Aymeric Laporte can go for around €70m and €60m respectively, then Umtiti at €60m is an absolute steal. Manchester City were linked in the past but may cool any potential interest after landing Laporte from Athletic Bilbao, leaving rivals Manchester United at the front of the queue.
Sources at Barca have told ESPN FC that they don’t fear losing Umtiti, though. The club are working on a new contract (his current terms run until 2021) and hope he will sign before the World Cup — or at the latest before the start of next season. Valverde, meanwhile, points out that a player has to want to move before a buyout clause can be exercised.
“We’re really happy with Umtiti and we think that he’s happy in Barcelona and hope that he’ll be here for a long time,” he said when confronted with United’s interest in January.
“These clauses exist but for them to be taken advantage of the player has to want to leave, too.”
Valverde is right. It’s unlikely Umtiti would want to leave. Why would he? But the club were stung by Neymar last summer and should be careful not to be too naive here. Money may not be Umtiti’s primary objective but there’s a danger of undervaluing a player by not offering him what he’s worth. United — or a handful of other clubs — would presumably offer more than Barca, who are fighting to keep their wage structure balanced after handing Lionel Messi a rise.
Of the six summer signings Robert Fernandez made in 2016, Umtiti has proved the sporting director’s Mona Lisa and there’s been plenty of boasting about the deal they secured for the centre-back. But even the Mona Lisa was stolen once, so as confident as they are, Barca should make sure they follow through on their threat to up their security on a player who has the potential to not just keep improving, but who could lead their defence for the next five to 10 years.