Umtiti & Ter Stegen the reasons why Barcelona now have best defence in Europe
It is Barcelona, just not as you know them. While defensive discipline has played an important part of the Catalans' spectacular success in recent years, the team have been known more for their attacking might. This season's version, however, is built from the back.
The signs appeared ominous when Barca shipped five goals in two matches against Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa back in August. However, Ernesto Valverde's side have conceded exactly the same amount in their 13 fixtures in La Liga since, and only one in the Champions League in 2017-18.
No other team in Europe's top five leagues can match that. Atletico Madrid, renowned for their excellence at the back, are the next best with six goals conceded in the Primera Division this term, although Diego Simeone's side have let in three in Europe.
- A blessing in disguise for Chelsea? Lukaku & Werner injuries should force Tuchel into a tactical change
- Liverpool, Bayern, Inter or elsewhere: Where should USMNT star Pepi go next?
- Inside Mertesacker's Arsenal academy revolution: From matching Chelsea to overseeing transfers
- Matias Soule: Juventus wonderkid dubbed 'the new Di Maria'
In the Premier League, second-placed Manchester United have conceded eight times and twice in Europe, while leaders Manchester City's goalkeeper has been beaten on nine occasions, plus three in the Champions League. And in Italy, top-of-the-table Napoli are the best team defensively, also with nine let in, although they have shipped the same amount in just five games in Europe.
In Ligue 1, seventh-placed Montpellier have conceded only eight goals from 15 games, but have scored only 12), while leaders Paris Saint-Germain have let in just two more and only one in the Champions League. Bayern Munich, meanwhile, are Germany's best defensive side with 10 conceded, although they have shipped five in Europe.
Barca's biggest rivals, Real Madrid, have conceded 11 times in La Liga and on five occasions in the Champions League. Zinedine Zidane's side also conceded twice in the Copa del Rey against Fuenlabrada on Tuesday, while the Blaugrana kept another clean sheet in a 5-0 win at home to Murcia the following day.
Both Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and Samuel Umtiti were rested for the Copa clash, but those two will be back in the team as Barca meet Celta Vigo in La Liga at Camp Nou on Saturday.
Say it quietly, but Ter Stegen may just be the best goalkeeper in the world right now. The German has helped Barca to the best Liga start by any team since Atletico in 1995-96 and, having cut out some of the mistakes from early on in his Camp Nou career, he has been virtually unbeatable so far this season.
The 25-year-old has made some superb saves when needed, notably against Juventus, Valencia and in the recent 3-0 win at Leganes, when his interventions at key times saw Barca prevail comfortably despite several scares and a relatively poor performance in that game.
"For me, Ter Stegen is the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment," defender Lucas Digne said after the recent 0-0 draw away to Juventus in the Champions League, in which the German made a stunning stop to deny Paulo Dybala. "He is playing at an extremely high level."
So too is Umtiti. While Gerard Pique has been below his best for Barcelona this season, the France centre-back has been an absolute rock for the Catalan club and, in only his second season at Camp Nou, he already looks like one of the best defenders the club has ever had.
The 24-year-old has featured in 11 of Barca's 13 games in La Liga, plus all five in the Champions League, and it is his solid showings at the back that have helped Barca build the best defence in Europe this season.
"He's a fundamental player," Valverde said of Umtiti in October. "He's extraordinary. We are absolutely happy. He is aggressive, he can bring the ball out of defence, he is strong in the air and he's very young."
In that respect, Ter Stegen and Umtiti are very much modern players who are ideally suited to this team. Both comfortable with the ball at their feet, these two play their part in creating from deep in transition from defence to attack. But, most importantly of all, they are ensuring that this team is built on extremely firm foundations.