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Samuel Umtiti and the perks of going unnoticed

The center-back has become a key figure for Barcelona

FC Barcelona v Olympiakos Piraeus - UEFA Champions League Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

The month is April and the year is 2016. Barcelona have just lost to Atlético Madrid on aggregate in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, conceding two goals in the second leg, with the ageing Javier Mascherano along with the overwhelmingly cold feet of Gerard Pique bearing the brunt of the blame.

The extent of the blame being the problem though, as some of it should go to the MSN, having 13 chances but with all of them off target, even with Barca having most of the possession (78%).

Bear in mind, however, Atlético were absolutely ruthless at the Calderón. They have always played in a remarkably narrow line while still scoring goals on the counter, just as a well-drilled machine should.

They had the pace and the experience (Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres respectively) to break most European defenses, never-mind the shambled and excessively laidback style of Pique and Mascherano. They beat us, straight up and we had no answer.

Club Atletico de Madrid v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Three months on and the spotlight is on the new and expensive coveted signings of André Gomes and Paco Alcacer. However, between this new Josep Maria Bartomeu project of investing in high potential young players, was a signing that went mostly ignored and there is a reason why.

Signings of Ligue 1 players often go unnoticed (see: N'Golo Kanté at Leicester) and the signing of a 22-year-old center-back from France is bound to be one of those.

France has, over the last half a decade, produced some fine young talents with the center-back position never out of re-inforcements so when the signing of Samuel Umtiti went through, it went largely unnoticed due to the already media-heavy attention on the young and up and coming French defenders such as Raphaël Varane, Aymeric Laporte and Kurt Zouma.

This led to the cult hero status of a one-time capped French stalwart, Samuel Umtiti. It is ironic now to see that the presentation ceremony of Umtiti was accompanied by an almost empty Camp Nou whereas André Gomes’s was accompanied by an excessive line of Catalan reporters and media frenzy. Most of those reporters must be biting their nails off now.

In just a few months, Umtiti had become a starter in the first team and there has been no stopping him. Barcelona have always been hailed for their absolute control of the game with their midfield and attack being held in high regard with the defence being treated as a secondary unit.

CA Osasuna v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Umtiti’s quality is neither in his Mascherano-esque sliding tackles nor his Pique-like towering aerial battles but in his subtlety. He keeps the defense organized and is willing to put his body on the line for the cause.

If there is, however, a close comparison, it is that he is almost like a modern version of Carles Puyol. He’s a true leader but not by bumping chests or parading, but through his ability to lead by example.

In Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-0 demolition of Barcelona, the only man who could come out without a chip on his shoulder might be Umtiti. He kept Edinson Cavani in check for most of the match, denying him space and even covered up for the two wing-backs’ inability to track back for most of the match.

FC Barcelona v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The one moment he gave Cavani any space was to cover Thomas Meunier who was given the absolute freedom of the pitch by Gomes and this led to Pique again allowing Cavani to put one past him.

However, he soon proved his mettle in a fortnight’s time when he led both his more experienced team-mates, Pique and Mascherano, proving an ability to lead even beyond his years.

This season however, a fire has been lit and Umtiti has become the absolute backbone of this current team.

With only three goals conceded and zero defensive errors made in seven appearances, Umtiti has made this once fragile defensive team into an absolute powerhouse.

If Barcelona challenge for some serious silverware this season, you now know one of the main reasons why.

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