Barcelona have started July by announcing Samuel Umtiti and Denis Suárez as the club’s first summer signings ahead of the 2016-17 season. Although culés did have an idea of Denis’ game, with the Galician having starred with Barça B in 2014, Umtiti’s capture for €25 million did raise a few eyebrows, given that the Frenchman was an unknown quality to many.
That’s exactly why Thursday’s EURO 2016 semifinal meeting between Umtiti’s France and world champions Germany was mightily important to Umtiti’s future in the blaugrana shirt. In his second start for the national side, Umtiti literally had 90 minutes to win the hearts of the most demanding set of fans in the world. And boy how well he did.
There are not many defenders in the world who can boast a CV that includes a debut with the senior national side of their country in the quarterfinals of the European Championships on home soil. For new Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti, last Sunday’s meeting with Iceland was a baptism by fire with Les Bleus. The French media lauded the performance by Didier Deschamps’ side, but did not exactly seem to rate the performance by debutant, whom they accused of being at fault for Iceland’s goals. All this for a centre-back who wasn’t even supposed to be in the hosts’ final 23-man squad, and who only made the cut due to an injury to man who is now meant to be his future teammate, Jérémy Mathieu. It seemed a bit harsh for a central defender who had just completed 100% of his passes on his debut.
We all know though, even after Sunday, that we could not possibly judge Umtiti’s abilities from a match in which the whole French team relaxed after securing a seemingly unsurmountable lead over the tournament’s biggest surprise package, Iceland. The French had a game against world champions Germany coming up. Joachim Löw’s group were just what culés needed to see whether Barcelona have struck gold.
Against Germany, there was always going to be a possibility of the French having to surrender possession. That happened to an extreme extent, with the French recording their lowest possession percentage in the tournament. Inevitably, their defence, which did not exactly have a reputation for being the most reliable around, was tested for real, perhaps for the first time during the tournament.
At times during the semifinal, the French had to live through a similar situation to the one Barça experienced in last May’s Copa del Rey final against Sevilla. The French weren’t playing with a man down, but they did have to defend en masse. The Germans, playing without a pure centre forward in the absence of Mario Gomez, tried to break the French up with some clever movement into the box by Thomas Müller and surprise pick Emre Can.
In previous games, such moves did wreak havoc in the French defence, as the hosts midfielders seem to struggle to track such runs. Yesterday, that was not the case. Samuel Umtiti’s proactive approach to defending meant that the new Barça man was constantly on top of things, aided of course by yet another assured performance by his partner, the more illustrious Laurent Koscielny. In few words, Umtiti’s marking suffocated any German moves into the box, simply because the former Lyon man was reading the game exceptionally well.
However, Umtiti was also called to do some real defender’s work. Just after the half hour mark, Bayern’s Thomas Müller looked set to stab home from inside the six-yard box. The Germans were ready to celebrate, but Umtiti had other ideas. The new Barcelona recruit placed his body correctly and made a Mascherano-style last-ditch intervention to deny the goal-hungry German his first EURO goal. It was near perfect, and UEFA’s twitter feed certainly thought so.
The tackle was just exactly what Luis Enrique would expect from a partner to Gerard Piqué. A last-ditch, goalmouth intervention in a situation Geri would just be too slow to deal with.
The 1.81m tall Frenchman also showed aerial prowess, despite not being the tallest defender around. As the Germans understood that ground play was not actually going to help them, they resorted to aerial play. Men like Müller and Benedikt Höwedes, standing taller than 1.85m, positioned themselves into the box. The Germans served some pretty decent balls into the box, and the French did have some scares (with Lloris forced into some world class stops), but whenever the ball was in Umtiti’s reach, the home side was never really threatened. This will come as music to Luis Enrique’s ears, as Javier Mascherano, for all his ability with ground tackles and marking, often comes up short in the air. He now seems to have gotten a centre-back who combines Masche’s tackling with heading ability.
Umtiti’s night though was not just about shutting out the Germans. It was also about helping his side build from the back in a game in which they did not exactly manage to dominate midfield proceedings. Samuel did not shy away from trying to push forward with the ball at his feet, and even twice managed to dummy the Germans, on separate occasions. His ball-playing style does look quite similar to Piqué’s, and a passing record of 17 successful passes out of 18 on the night closely resembles the Catalan’s exploits, demonstrating that he’s got everything he needs to triumph at the Camp Nou.
Overall, the Germany-France semifinal was the perfect game by Samuel Umtiti. With 8 clearances, 7 steals and 2 blocks, Umtiti’s was a real rock at the back for Les Bleus. The fact that L’Equipe, notorious for being particularly stingy with player ratings, gave him a seven, the third highest score across both squads, speaks volumes of the quality of his performances. Rated as France’s best player by ESPN FC with a score of nine out of ten, bettering brace-getter Antoine Griezmann’s eight out of ten, Samuel Umtiti managed to paint a smile on many faces. There were headlines which talked about the birth of a defensive star, but it seems like a certain Robert Fernández saw something in Samuel Umtiti well before the rest did.