From internal instability to woeful squad-building, financial strains and underwhelming footballing displays, the 2019/20 campaign has been a wretched one for Barcelona – with the unprecedented finale of the Champions League next month ensuring the nightmare isn’t quite over for the Blaugrana faithful.
But amidst all the chaos, disputes and handing over of La Liga titles to your most bitter rivals, an assuming Frenchman has emerged as a beacon of hope.
Clement Lenglet is a name that is often overlooked at first sight in the discussion of Europe’s best centre-backs. His reserved nature and conservative playstyle ensure it’s relatively easy to pass Lenglet by.
Does he possess the dominant aura of say a Virgil van Dijk? No, not close. Does he play every game like it’s his last in a similar vein to Matthijs de Ligt, hunt opponents down at supersonic speed like Kalidou Koulibaly or ensure he’s the protagonist every time he enters the field, Sergio Ramos style?
Once again: no, no and an emphatic no.
Despite his rather unspectacular profile and understandable omission from Twitter centre-back debates, it’d be naive to downplay Lenglet’s rise at Barcelona and, dare I say it, into one of the finest centre-halves the continent has to offer.
It’s an ascent which predates to the French second-tier and AS Nancy in 2013, when Lenglet – born 75km from Paris in Beauvais – made his senior debut at the tender age of 18.
He shone as Nancy were promoted to Ligue 1 following the conclusion of the 2015/16 campaign and after just a half a season of strutting his stuff in the French top flight, he caught the eye of Sevilla – who spent €5m to acquire his services after favoured centre-half Timothée Kolodziejczak had departed for Borussia Monchengladbach.
As it turned out though, Lenglet was more than a mere replacement for his compatriot in Seville.
He swiftly evolved into a key spoke of Jorge Sampaoli’s wheel for the Andalusians, and all it took was 18 months of stellar centre-back play – which included an imperious showing in the 2017/18 Champions League round of 16 tie with Manchester United – for Barcelona to come calling.
The Catalans were more than willing to trigger Lenglet’s €35m release clause in the summer of 2018, with the club initially viewing the Frenchman as an optimal understudy for Gerard Pique, still one of best defenders around, and Samuel Umtiti – whose stock was at an all-time high following a magnificent World Cup campaign with winners France.
The instability of Umtiti’s knees, however, meant Lenglet was thrust into the limelight from the get-go, and the former Lyon man’s woeful injury record has proved to be a blessing in disguise for La Blaugrana – even if that blessing did take some time to shine through.
While Lenglet enjoyed a fine debut campaign under Ernesto Valverde at Camp Nou, many were still left unconvinced by the Frenchman’s capacity to be a long-term option for the club and of the requisite talent to be a shoo-in starter for a bona fide European giant.
Skeptics hinted at Valverde’s pragmatic style – which distanced itself from typical Barcelona ideals – suiting Lenglet’s conservatism to a tee and minimising his vulnerabilities. Under a manager who aligned themselves with the ‘Barça way’, Lenglet was destined to struggle.
Well, following the inevitable but perhaps hasty departure of Valverde at the start of 2020 with the Catalans sitting atop of La Liga, the aforementioned theory regarding Lenglet was set to be put to the test as La Blaugrana hired Johan Cruyff disciple Quique Setien as his successor.
It was a bold move by the seemingly incompetent Barcelona board and one which ultimately failed to pay off in the short-term as Real Madrid’s post-restart surge saw them lift their 34th Spanish title, but for Lenglet, the hiring of the 61-year-old may prove to be a watershed moment in his career.
However, the contrasting styles of Valverde and Setien ensured the start of the latter’s reign was a difficult one for the humble Frenchman.
With the advanced surges of full-backs so crucial to Setien’s attacking play as they challenge the horizontal compactness of opponents and facilitate the movement of Lionel Messi and co. infield, there’s a significant onus on the centre-backs to cover greater space in wide areas.
Due to his lack of mobility, there were a few teething problems to begin with for Lenglet; he was often caught out one-on-one when forced to defend the flanks and became a little too aggressive to overcompensate for his manager’s demands.
But despite his initial struggles and Umtiti, on paper, being a more harmonious systematic fit due to his natural aggression and superior mobility, Setien opted to stick by the former Sevilla man and the Barcelona boss was rewarded after the restart in June.
In his nine starts following La Liga’s resumption, Lenglet was arguably Barça’s standout performer who isn’t tagged as the best to ever do it. His willingness to adapt to the tough demands of his manager has been admirable, with vast improvements in previously vulnerable facets of his game laid bare for all to see. While he’s always been blessed with astute positioning and impressive anticipation, his capacity to sniff out danger down the flanks and outwit faster, stronger forwards has improved exponentially as of late.
Lenglet starred against target-man Luuk de Jong in a 0-0 stalemate with his former employers last month and the sequence in which he first denied Javier Eraso from cutting inside with some superb one-on-one defending before instinctively clearing Miguel Guerrero’s eventual shot off the line against Leganes in a 2-0 victory the game prior epitomised Lenglet’s post-restart form in a microcosm.
It’s almost a one-man band at times in the Barcelona defence.
Statistics may underwhelm due to Barcelona’s typical monopolisation of possession ensuring the defence is often resigned to simply sniffing out counter-attacks, but the eye-test strongly suggests that for all his other issues – including his job security – Setien has certainly helped Lenglet morph into a more complete centre-half, while the Spaniard’s ideals ensure the Frenchman’s ball-playing capabilities are laid bare.
Lenglet is capable of driving raking vertical passes through defensive lines with the utmost elegance and precision, as well as delivering long diagonals to penetrate a deeper defensive block.
While the Frenchman’s time with Setien may be limited, the Spaniard’s alternate way of seeing the game compared to Valverde has ultimately ensured Lenglet’s career remains on an upward trajectory.
Setien’s system ultimately exposed his glaring flaws but the rewards were swiftly reaped with stellar centre-back play to round off the campaign. Lenglet’s no longer a ‘good’ defender who defends the box well and looks tidy on the ball, he’s now a player who can adapt and adjust coherently to riskier demands – and has emerged into one of Europe’s most complete centre-backs because of it.
Overall, recent form would suggest Clement Lenglet is the man to build the Barcelona backline around as the club seeks to enter a new dawn following their Presidential election in 2021.