Lyon's exciting young stopper who could partner Koscielny for club and country
It was a goal fit for any game The majestic sight of Samuel Umtiti’s perfect left-foot shot gliding into the top corner at White Hart Lane was replayed over and over via social media. It shocked the home crowd – even if it wasn’t enough to stop the English side progressing in the Europa League – but the goal also shocked regular watchers of Ligue 1.
- Date of birth: November 14, 1993
- Place of birth: Yaoundé, Cameroon
- Height: 5ft 11in
- Position: Centre-back
- Club: Lyon (122 apps, 4 goals)
- International: France U21 (7 caps, 1 goal)
At the time, February 2013, it was only his second-ever goal for Lyon and came playing slightly out of position at left-back. It was a strike that demanded attention, but it would be Umtiti’s speedy ascent to becoming one of Ligue 1’s most impressive centre-backs that brought scouts from all over Europe to Stade Gerland to watch the 21-year-old in action.
It is testament to Umtiti’s progress that he has recently been linked with moves to Real Madrid, Arsenal and just about every other Premier League club with the means to make a bid. By the end of the current campaign, Umtiti will have played his 100th game for Lyon in the top flight. Even though the France U21 international only broke through in 2011, it feels like his name has been mentioned with a move away for a number of years.
Umtiti's debut under Rémi Garde in the 2011/12 season wasn’t a late cameo off the bench, but a start against Montpellier in Lyon’s first game back after the winter break. The young defender's first five games were a baptism of fire, with Lyon losing three of them.
As part of his development, Umtiti was regularly asked to play at left-back. Faced with smaller, faster opponents, his speed kept him from getting exposed, while his physical attributes also helped cover team-mates in the centre.
Defensively he always impressed, but it was clear his future did not involve raiding the channels. In a similar way it has benefited team-mate Alexandre Lacazette, however, the decision to play Umtiti out of position in his earlier years has paid off. Now, under coach Hubert Fournier, the 21-year-old is already deemed one of the club's senior players and one of the first names on the team-sheet.
Fournier, speaking at a post-match press conference at the start of the season, believes the defender's continued development will come from playing regular first-team football. "It is important," said the Lyon chief. "Sam is young, he has yet to change some things in terms of concentration. But besides that he plays at a high level, is quick, powerful, and has a good left foot. This is why he is in great demand these days."
But for a minor injury at the start of this season, Umtiti has been thriving in the first team, playing in 26 of Lyon’s 28 league games. His progression has been plain for all to see. The Cameroon-born stopper has all the characteristics you would want from a modern centre-back: athleticism and power in the air, making crosses into the box his bread and butter. Promisingly, his positioning is rarely brought into question.
With his pace and ability to pick out a pass, Umtiti is accomplished at bringing the ball out from the back. And that's useful, given that part of Lyon’s game plan depends on their centre-backs' accurate long diagonal balls upfield. Against Montpellier on Sunday, he was halfway inside the opponent's half before he picked out Nabil Fekir in the area. The winger was fouled and Lacazette put away the penalty.
Young shoulders, old head
As Fournier said, there is still room for improvement, but you would worry if Umtiti had reached his peak at just 21. His aerial ability can’t be denied, though sometimes he can switch off and get caught napping.
It happens less frequently when he has someone like the experienced Milan Bisevac beside him, and he is not the senior centre-back in the partnership.
It is a small criticism and is perhaps clutching at straws a little. The academy graduate has an impressive all-round game, and it's hard to find any flaws that he hasn’t worked on over the past four seasons.
His leadership abilities will improve with age, and the more he plays in top-level competitions, improving on his three Champions League appearances to date, he will only continue to develop at his current rate.
The links with some of Europe's top clubs, plus Lyon’s position atop Ligue 1, means there is little doubt that Champions League football is again on the horizon. But even being linked to Spanish giants Real Madrid is not enough to faze the young defender.
"It's flattering that one of the best clubs in the world pays attention to my performances," Umtiti admitted. "It's good, but it makes me want to work harder and play better. Frankly, that's it."
His modesty will only boost his burgeoning reputation, but it doesn’t come without ambition. As well as club success, Umtiti – who could also play for Cameroon, and represented his birth nation at U17 level – has his sights set on a future place in Didier Deschamps’ France side. In a recent interview with L’Equipe, he conceded there was still work ahead to make his dream a reality.
"I know what I want, I am very ambitious, and for me it is still a dream," said the 21-year-old. "Training and consistency can lead me to the France team. For example, I know I didn’t start enough last season.
"I've had some good times, but it was not enough, I can do much better. But if I keep pushing, it will happen sooner or later. And I do not set myself a deadline."
Umtiti impressed against Montpellier, winning 6 of 8 tackles and spreading play with some neat passing.
There is a huge competition for places at the centre of France's defence. Raphael Varane, Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho won’t be easy to displace, not to mention the likes of Eliaquim Mangala, Kurt Zouma and Aymeric Laporte who all fancy their chances of making the squad for the 2016 European Championship.
To harbour any real chance of making Deschamps' squad, Umtiti needs to be playing Champions League football on a regular basis. Lyon will likely offer that avenue next season, but in reality he might not make it that far with Les Gones.
Leaving regular guaranteed first-team football is always a risk before a major championship but, unlike Lacazette, it would be a surprise to see Umtiti given the nod by Deschamps while playing for Lyon.
The defender is young without being inexperienced at a decent level, and a move to somewhere like Arsenal, playing under Arsene Wenger next season, could be an ideal move for the 21-year-old.
He wouldn't come cheap, though: Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas has consistently stated that Lyon are in a much stronger financial position than in previous years, and is confident his star players will all still be at the club when the new Stade des Lumières opens in January 2016.
However, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and if Lyon were to receive a satisfactory bid for their gifted centre-back this summer, then letting Umtiti move could go some way to helping the French table-toppers hold onto their exceptional attacking talents.
Nevertheless, losing Umtiti would be a huge blow to Lyon and Fournier. But no matter how much the club's financial position has improved, every player has their price, and a summer switch could be perfect timing for an ambitious star with big things in sight. Now it’s up to his suitors to cross Aulas’s palm with silver...