With usual starter Samuel Umtiti suffering from a persistent knee problem this year, relying on a Nou Camp newcomer with only a few years’ top flight experience to play centre-back could have been a problem for Barcelona.
Instead, Barça’s summer signing Clement Lenglet has looked consistently assured at the heart of their defence.
Lenglet has managed to pull off an odd feat: playing 38 games for Barcelona this season without really being noticed.
But far from a sign of mediocrity, for a central defender at Barça, it’s a good thing.
Asked to be brave under pressure, play in a high line, and spend more time in the opposition half than most centre-backs would dare, central defenders at the Nou Camp are just one mistake away from ridicule during their time on the pitch.
It is a vertigo-inducing situation with pressure that experienced, quality players have buckled under.
Lenglet, still only 23, looks like he has been doing it for years; like he has long been playing Champions League quarter-finals.
Just three years ago Lenglet was plying his trade in France’s second division with Nancy, stepping out at tiny grounds in Annecy or Dijon rather than the Theatre of Dreams or the Santiago Bernabeu.
When the French minnows gained promotion to Ligue 1, Sevilla’s ever savvy sporting director Monchi needed only half a season to judge that the young centre-back could be good enough to make the leap up to LaLiga straight away.
Monchi’s vision proved to be typically sound.
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Within 12 months Lenglet was the leader of another defence, this time at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, dealing with the pressure at one of LaLiga’s most ambitious clubs like it was nothing. Accustomed to trophies and European football, Sevilla fans demand strong performances from their players every weekend, all season long.
At 22, the centre-back looked completely unfazed by it all.
With that kind of head on his shoulders, no wonder Barcelona moved quickly.
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That said, when the Blaugrana last summer paid €35million to sign a player Sevilla had brought in for €5m only a season-and-a-half prior, reasonable questions were raised.
Was that really enough time in LaLiga to accurately judge how a young footballer would adapt to one of the trickiest positions at the Nou Camp? Wouldn’t he just be warming the bench anyway with Samuel Umtiti around? If he was that good wouldn’t someone bigger than Sevilla have noticed already?
Fast forward nine months, and Lenglet´s purchase has already proven pivotal in helping Barça cope with a persistent knee injury that has kept Umtiti, Gerard Pique’s main defensive partner from last season, out for much of the campaign.
The Catalans have a history of poor transfer decisions when it comes to the middle of the defence, but in Lenglet’s case they got it spot on.
Starting in wins over Tottenham, Inter, Real Madrid, Atlético and now Manchester United to name but a few, the effortlessness with which Lenglet has adapted to the biggest stage is rarely seen from newcomers to the Barça backline.
It’s likely his no-fuss approach to business that stops Lenglet getting more plaudits.
Though he likes to anticipate and step up to win the ball early, he is rarely caught out making rash decisions, and though he isn’t the quickest in a sprint, his positioning generally makes up for that, meaning he is barely ever exposed.
To complete the Barça-quality package, Lenglet is also tidy with the ball.
Against United on Wednesday, with the home side executing a calculated high press for long spells, the Frenchman even coped far better than veterans such as Sergio Busquets. As the last line of defence in a situation in which the slightest error could have been punished, he was impressively controlled.
“I think he looks great. Lenglet is producing a magnificent season with us,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde – who isn’t prone to superlatives – assessed last month. Wednesday’s clean sheet in Manchester was the latest benchmark in that campaign.
Appropriately enough, it was a similarly assured performance at the same ground in the Champions League knockout stages with Sevilla last year that fully convinced Barcelona to get a move on and pay Lenglet’s buyout clause.
Other clubs will wish they had moved as promptly.
Just over 12 months later, the Frenchman is edging towards a treble. And he’s doing so discretely, without anyone noticing.