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Samuel Umtiti: The unheralded linchpin of Barcelona

Wednesday 15th March 2017
Whenever Barcelona is mentioned, their famed front three, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar immediately comes to the fore.  But as unlikely as it may seem, French defender, Samuel Umtiti, has equally been as influential as the team's attacking trio thus far this season.

It came as a huge surprise last summer when Umtiti opted to join Barca from Olympique Lyonnais for around £21m - considering the luxury of English clubs interested in his services. Relatively unknown outside France, the 23-year-old had already developed a reputation as one of Ligue 1's finest defenders. Despite his youth, Umtiti had totalled 170 appearances in five years for Lyon, winning two titles. Last season was by far his most impressive where he played 32 times in all competitions scoring twice which earned him the club's Best Player of the Season award, ahead of Alexandre Lacazette.
But for Umtiti it was Barca or none other. With an exit looming, the 23-year-old already had his eyes firmly fixed on the Spanish champions.

"It was always a dream for me to play here [at Barca]. I must be the happiest man in the world. There was another club other than Barca, there were English clubs too. I could have earned a lot more money, but I wasn't interested. For me, it was Barcelona and not another team."

And it hasn't come much as a surprise to see the young defender sparkling for the five-time Champions League winners thus far. Barca's front three has routinely earned rave reviews for their superb attacking proficiency which has seen them notch an unbelievable 82 goals between them. But it's also interesting to note that Luis Enrique's team has struggled anytime the Cameroon-born defender isn't in action. Barca has won all 16 La Liga games with the former Lyon defender on their side. However, in his absence, they've managed just two wins out of 11; a further three of those games culminated in defeats - as was the case with Sunday's shock 2-1 loss at Deportivo. In all 31 games played this season, Barca has won 26, drawing two and losing just three with an incredible 84% win rate.
Although Neymar was missing for Sunday's defeat, it was Umtiti's absence which hit hard, with both of Deportivo's goals coming from set pieces. Javier Mascherano botched an attempted clearance that led to Joselu's opener, while Umtiti's replacement, Jordi Alba, was left rooted to the spot as Alex Bergantinos out-jumped him to head the winning goal.

Furthermore, Umtiti radiates supreme confidence for a 23-year-old and relishes attacking responsibilities as much as the defensive ones. Strong in the air, he has proven to be extremely comfortable on the ball and can take it past opponents to find the right angle for a pass to help build attacks from the back. This isn't a surprise owing to the fact that he started his career as a forward while at Lyon. His manager, Enrique, has been left amazed by the Frenchman's exploits in Spain, admitting that "to be honest I am surprised by Umtiti's quick adaptation, it's a position where the club has always had handicaps."

But Umtiti's significance didn't just start at Barca. Over the course of the last three seasons, encompassing two years with Lyon, his teams have won 67.9 percent of their games when he has been playing and just 18.1 percent without him. With such remarkable performances, the young defender will most definitely continue to play key roles for Barcelona and the French national team in years to come.
Toby Prince

If the sport has 11-men on each side, a ball and lasts for 90 minutes then I'll write about it. Simply put, I'm an unrepentant soccer freak that other freaks will, however, call a geek. I do find time for music when not watching the beautiful game, though and have been known to produce the odd track. 

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