Saturday 24 February 2018

Why didn't Arsene Wenger try to sign France whizz kid Samuel Umtiti before Barcelona?

France's Samuel Umtiti has been a star of Euro 2016 so far
France's Samuel Umtiti has been a star of Euro 2016 so far

Matt Gatward

Tournaments always throw up the odd unexpected star, bringing to the attention of the wider football viewing public those that have hitherto been lurking in the shadows. They then usually sign for Real Madrid. Think James Rodriguez from the last World Cup in Brazil.

But Real have been beaten to it this time around. Although Antoine Griezmann has captured the French nation’s hearts and taken all the headlines for his two goals that led France to semi-final victory over Germany in the Euros – and rightly so, the second goal was a beautifully clever finish, poking at the ball early rather than waiting for it to drop and running the risk of being beaten to it - Samuel Umtiti has emerged as a class act.

Barcelona, Real’s bitter rivals, are in advanced talks to sign the 22-year-old centre-half from Lyon for around £20m which seems a steal. He was exceptional against Germany: organising, tackling, blocking, heading everything that came his way. And he is comfortable on the ball too. Barca through and through.

Umtiti had been criticised for his performance in the second half against Iceland in the previous round – Rio Ferdinand talking on the BBC prior to kick-off questioned his positioning for both Icelandic goals. That is up for debate, but against Germany he barely put a foot wrong.

The irony is that Umtiti was not even in the original French squad. He was called up by the French coach Didier Deschamps when injury struck Jeremy Mathieu, the slightly cumbersome central defender who is already at Barcelona and who often looks out of place in the silky Spanish side.

Despite Ferdinand’s reservations, Umtiti must have impressed Deschamps against Iceland – it was his international debut let’s not forget – because he stuck with him against Germany instead of bringing back Sevilla’s Adil Rami who had been suspended for the quarter-final and who had been well and truly first choice as the tournament began.

For such a young player Umtiti’s defensive discipline against Germany was superb – he refused to be dragged out of position by the roaming Thomas Müller - and he has already struck up an understanding with Laurent Koscielny that would (or should) make Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling blush. The Arsenal defender was brilliant against Germany too. Only occasionally did he get sucked out of his defensive line by Germany’s movement and he, like Umtiti, got a head, shin or boot, to everything Joachim Löw’s side threw into the box.

The partnership was so excellent, so natural, it is hard not to wonder why Arsene Wenger – who used to dominate snapping up young French talent - had not been in for the player as a long-term replacement for the wooden Per Mertesacker whose best days are long gone. He already looks more assured than the hot-headed Gabriel who has failed to cement that spot alongside Koscielny at the Emirates.

Umtiti, too, seems to be level-headed for one so young and was far from overawed by such a daunting occasion as a European Championship semi-final on home soil. “I felt good, simply put,” he said afterwards. “I tried to be calm once again and play on my qualities, as I know how to do at my club. You have to raise your level for a game like this, and it takes you a while to get your bearings. But playing alongside these players, it's not complicated. You adapt easily and quickly.”

Has his sudden ascent not left him out of breath, though? “I'm still pinching myself,” he admitted, “but I won't let it go to my head. I don't get carried away in general. I live from day to day. It has been an amazing month, a sacred July, for me I hope it will continue like that.

“As the match went on I felt better and better,” he added. “It wasn't an easy game to have for my second match at this level. We expected not to have the ball. We were prepared for that. We knew that, technically, they are very strong. We had to be very good defensively. That's what we did and it paid off. We told ourselves we had to go into war with them.”

OK, so his analogies could be better. But that was Umtiti’s only error of a memorable night.

Independent News Service

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