As teams prepare for La Liga’s return, Quique Setién and his coaching staff will surely have spent the break examining the squad’s best XI.
Although injuries have hampered the club’s depth, centre-back is one of the deeper positions of the squad, offering three excellent options in Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti. The first two have earned the lion’s share of the starts this season, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best pairing.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll take a look at each player, investigating their strengths and weaknesses. After a player-by-player analysis, we’ll compare the three players with the aim of finding Barcelona’s best centre-back pairing.
As a Barcelona centre-back, attacking contribution carries nearly equal weight to attacking actions. Though Piqué is a fantastic passer of the ball and dangerous aerial threat, this section will focus on his defensive output.
While he rates lower than the other two Barcelona centre-backs in the defensive duels per 90 minutes category, registering just 4.88 engagements, his awareness of the opponent’s movement and anticipation of entry passes allows him to cut out threats before they materialise. With 5.87 interceptions per 90 minutes, he’s the most efficient Barcelona defender by one interception per game, a significant margin given the low number of opportunities available to them.
Piqué’s vision and awareness are foundational to Barcelona’s ability to cut out passes behind the lines. On film, Piqué frequently takes up a more conservative position, keeping play in front of him as much as possible. With this deeper position, he’s able to cover the backline while keeping a watchful eye on runners into his own zone. His positioning encourages opponents to play between the lines rather than sending a pacey player behind the 33-year-old. If they play in front of him, Piqué’s body orientation allows him to quickly move forward to contest the entry pass. Should the opponent dare to play over him, he’s rarely beat due to his positioning and anticipatory response.
In this match against Real Sociedad, Alexander Isak positioned himself off the back shoulder of Piqué. The Spaniard’s gaze is directed over his right shoulder, a data point he’d check each second in the lead up to the pass. Once Isak makes his run, Martin Ødegaard played the ball into his teammate’s path, but the awareness and anticipation of Piqué meant he arrived first, cutting out the pass and restarting the Barcelona attack.
Conservative positioning allows him to keep the play in front of him, which applies to his work in the defensive third as well. Starting from a deeper position might concede more space between the lines, but the Barcelona midfield is proficient in denying play in that area. That allows Piqué to cover depth.
In El Clásico, Marcelo’s pass split the Barcelona midfield, finding the gap between Nelson Semedo and Piqué. Within the first six yards of the ball’s travel, only two players on the pitch are in full stride to get on the end of the pass: 1) Vinícius Júnior, the second attacker, and 2) Piqué. As the veteran saw the gap between himself and Semedo increase, he prepared himself to cut out the through ball. The moment Marcelo initiated his approach to the ball, Piqué was hustling into the gap. He made the tackle, keeping the scoreline level for the time being.
Finally, when defending the box, watch for Piqué to again position himself slightly deeper. The objective here is preparing to step forward to cut out the pass. With his momentum carrying him forward, he’s better able to pick out a high target or simply clear the ball.
Since he’s cut off the pass behind the lines, the opposition typically plays in front of him. That degree of predictability narrows the pass endpoints in his zone, allowing Piqué to set his body orientation for quick movements into the anticipated passing lanes. Again against Sociedad, Piqué’s deep positioning at the six-yard box, a couple of yards behind his line, allowed him to quickly step forward and cut out the cross. With the exception of Semedo, all of the other Barcelona defenders are still backtracking. Since Piqué got to his spot early, he was able to move forward without the need for stopping his momentum and changing direction. Had he still been backtracking to goal, Isak would surely have beat him to the spot.
When he’s called into action to make the tackle, Piqué leans on his timing and tackling technique. Here you see him putting in an aggressive tackle on the Napoli attacker in a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match. A well-timed effort was the only thing keeping the attacker from bursting into the highlighted space behind the line.
Much like his Spanish colleague, Lenglet’s positioning tends to be more conservative. In fact, he excels when he keeps play in front of him. Unlike Piqué, opponents can get behind Lenglet, though he generally blocks off the central channel really well. Forcing opponents to progress via the half-space or wing, he routinely takes the right approach with his recovery runs. Unless he’s facing an extremely pacey forward, Lenglet’s backtracking is good enough to limit access to the goal.
He will struggle to cope with more physically gifted opponents if play shifts into the wings or half-space. His pace is average for the position, so he relies on his strength and ability to close down opponents to minimise their production. If he’s up against a strong forward, like Karim Benzema of Real Madrid, or a pacey winger in space, Lenglet will often just try to contain the opponent. If they force the issue, the opposition can find some against him.
Against Real Sociedad, Piqué’s long diagonal pass was headed forward by the defence. Since he and the Sociedad player are roughly the same distance from the ball’s endpoint, Lenglet set out to challenge the play in the wing.
Lenglet was easily beaten on the play. With no one around to provide immediate coverage, Lenglet lunged in with an aggressive tactical foul. Had he opted not to go to ground and commit the foul, Sociedad had a clear path to the box with Isak lingering in the central channel. With his average pace, Lenglet does struggle when moving from a central starting position out to the wing. Given that Barcelona’s attacking tactics require the outside-backs to move high up the pitch, the centre-backs are often required to cover the wide areas. Piqué’s approach is one of containment, delaying the opposition’s attack, thereby allowing his teammates to recover their defensive shape. Lenglet and Umtiti tend to gamble a bit more, getting caught in high-risk, high-reward scenarios.
That said, Lenglet’s proven himself a solid option at the back, unseating and holding off Umtiti’s bid for the starting XI. While opponents can expose his average mobility in the wider areas of the pitch, he’s incredibly strong when left to the central channel. In addition to leading Barcelona, he’s also one of the better players in the league with 0.51 shots blocked per 90 minutes. While the number itself doesn’t indicate an elite shot-blocker, that tally tells you more about the low shot total Barcelona concede per match. Lenglet is excellent in cutting out shots and crosses. His considerable distance from opponents takes away dribbling options behind him while being within range to block, or at least alter, the shot or cross.
It’s on the attacking side of the ball that Lenglet really shines. Accurate long diagonal passes are a key technical strength of his, which suits this Barcelona side really well. Given how frequently the side encounters a low block, Lenglet’s ability to play over the block and into the free space on the opposite wing is central to Barcelona’s tactics.
In the match against Eibar, we saw the away side in a middle block, a mistake they’ve surely learned from. With the three left-most vertical channels occupied by Eibar defenders, Lenglet and Piqué took deeper positions, offering an outlet to the midfield. With Barcelona unable to immediately play forward, the ball was played back to Lenglet, who picked out the run of Semedo. The pass was inch-perfect, sending the Portuguese 1v1 to the box.
While he possesses a great long diagonal passing range, he doesn’t have Piqué’s ability to play vertical passes over the opponent as the struggles to find the balance between chipping it over the backline and keeping the ball from running onto the keeper. He’ll connect on the occasional pass, but not with a significant degree of accuracy. It’s really his ability to help the team keep possession with short passes and that long diagonal where Lenglet excels.
Umtiti is the most interesting case among the three Barcelona centre-backs. Purchased from Lyon for €25 million, his valuation peaked in December of 2018 at €70 million. Since that extraordinary first season, one which led some to call him Carlos Puyol’s successor, injuries and loss of form have led to irregular playing time behind Lenglet.
When he plays, it’s generally in tandem with Piqué. The conservative approach of the Spaniard is coupled with the aggression of the Frenchman, offering a nice meld of talents. Of the three Barcelona centre-backs, Umtiti is the most likely to press high into the midfield. Like the others, he’s not the paciest player, which can lead to trouble as he moves into the midfield. If he’s unable to stop the opposition’s attack, he doesn’t necessarily have the ability to backtrack in time to close the massive gap he’s created.
For instance, in El Clásico, Benzema made a checking run deep into the midfield. Umtiti followed, but his countryman’s strength was enough to hold him off. Big Benz set to Casemiro, wheeled around Umtiti and received the return pass, allowing him to launch the Real Madrid attack.
Umtiti was unable to stop Benzema from playing behind the backline, forcing Piqué and the two outside-backs to defend in numerical equality.
Despite the nickname “Big Sam”, Umtiti stands at 182 cms and weighing 75kg, he’s strong, but certainly not going to manhandle the larger forwards in the league. His speed helps him get around some of the larger opponents, but he’s a player who’s most successful when he’s reading the game well, using his high football IQ to intercept passes. He’s a strong defender, winning 65% of his duels, as well as an elite aerial defender, that despite his size. In all competitions, he has won 74% of his aerial duels, better than Pique’s 70% and far better than Lenglet’s tally of 55%.
He’s a capable attacking player too, offering very comparable numbers to Piqué and Lenglet in most attacking categories, so why has his stock fallen so far?
Looking at his statistical output from each of his last three seasons, there’s some variability in his numbers, but mostly in the form of one or two outlier categories per season. For instance, his defensive duels in 2017-18 were elite, registering a 77% win rate. That number fell to 62% in 2018-19 before climbing to 65% in the current season, both very good numbers and in line with his teammates. In 2018-19, the outliers surrounded loose ball duels (battles in which neither player has possession of the ball). Other than those outliers, his number in the current season have either come close to or surpass his outputs from the previous two seasons.
The same goes for his attacking stats. He’s never offered much of a goal-scoring threat, which admittedly favours his two teammates, but his 2019-20 outputs in each of the other categories mark three-year bests. In fact, with the maximum and minimums based on La Liga’s best and worst performers, Umtiti ranks among the league’s best centre-backs in several of those categories.
A direct comparison
With a basic scout report on hand, it’s time to compare the Barcelona centre-backs in an attempt to lock in the best pairing. Each player brings different talents to the side, so a statistical comparison of the three will offer some insights into the concrete strengths of each.
From a defensive standpoint, the two Frenchmen, despite the difference in approaches, offer fairly common stats. Among the differences, Lenglet is the best loose ball defender of the three, winning 65% of those challenges. Meanwhile, Umtiti beats his countryman in the percentage of aerial duels won (74% vs 54%), recoveries per 90 (11.74 vs 10.7) and opposition half recoveries per 90 (2.9 vs 2.5).
The recovery stats show Umtiti with a slight advantage on Piqué, who recorded 11.36 recoveries per 90, 2.5 coming in the opposition’s half. Piqué is the best all-around defender of the bunch with the two Frenchmen offering a nice overall ability with a couple of above-average strengths.
On the attacking front, the three are very comparable in passes per 90 and accuracy. Their long pass success rate ranges from 62% for Piqué and Umtiti to 55% for Lenglet, but that lower percentage is expected given his greater emphasis on long passes. Lenglet also has goals and xG in his favour. Despite standing only a couple of centimetres taller than Umtiti, Lenglet has offered the most set-piece upside this season.
Turning to the right half of the radar, Umtiti rules the roost. He’s the most likely to dribble into the midfield, to win his attacking 1v1s and offensive duels and has the fewest losses per 90, both total and in his own half. His composure and ability in attack make him the best overall attacking player in this position. Since all three players offer comparable passing contributions, it’s really Umtiti’s contributions elsewhere that shine, especially since Lenglet’s goals and xG are good, but not great.
In terms of the best pairing, Piqué is still the best overall player. His contributions on both the side’s attacking and defensive tactics make him indispensable. As for his partner, a rotation based on the tactical matchup makes sense, playing Lenglet when Barcelona expects to defend its defensive third against open attacks, then Umtiti against counterattack based teams that look for targets between the lines.
That said, the aggression of Umtiti compliments the more conservative approach of Piqué so well. The relegated Frenchman offers a much better presence as opponents try to play between the lines, plus he reads the game well in the defensive half of the pitch. Ultimately, Lenglet and Piqué have very similar skill sets, so some complimentary variety at the back adds another dynamic to the squad.
Rumours of Umtiti’s exit show that the board don’t agree with my conclusion, but their loss is another club’s gain. If he leaves the club, for a reported bargain fee of €30 million, Lenglet would cement his place alongside Piqué, who turns 34 next season. The summer transfer window looks to be a busy one for Barcelona. With the club trying to simultaneously land Lautaro Martínez and balance the books, Umtiti is a likely victim of football’s cruel business.