Barcelona's quest for Umtiti competition amid De Ligt, Mina, Tah links
In a summer of many surprises at Camp Nou, one of the bigger surprises was the news that Barcelona were close to signing Real Sociedad's Inigo Martinez.
Even before Neymar's move to Paris Saint-Germain, the Catalan club were being linked with midfielders and forwards. Once the Brazilian left, everyone expected them to go on an attacking spending splurge.
That did happen, with Ousmane Dembele eventually arriving for a club-record €105 million plus a reported €40m add-ons, but there was also a move made for Martinez. La Real's sporting director Loren Juarros confirmed as much.
"It's true, Barca have spoken with us [about Martinez]," Loren said in August. "They've been in contact to show their interest in the player. But so far there is no offer on the table. That's all we can say. La Real have no intention of facilitating Inigo's exit to any club. He is irreplaceable. We do not want to sell him."
Despite the Basque side's reluctance to sell, there was little they could have done if Barca had triggered the defender's €32m release clause -- which they had briefed some local media they were set to do. However, at the last minute, they ducked out of a move for reasons which have not yet been made clear.
It seemed to make sense at the time. New coach Ernesto Valverde was said to be the person who had pushed for Martinez, but his defensive options seemed well-covered.
They still seem well-covered now. After conceding five times against Real Madrid in the Super Cup, Barca have embarked on a 16-game unbeaten run which has seen them concede just five in 16 games. Samuel Umtiti and goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen have been among their best players. The defence does not seem to be causing too many problems.
Barca took five centre-backs to the United States on tour and on the face of it, it wasn't an area they seemed to be urgently seeking to strengthen. But when they came back, Marlon Santos was allowed to leave on a two-year loan deal, which left just four -- one of them being the perennially injured Thomas Vermaelen and another Javier Mascherano, who has been and is still very reliable, but he's dropped hints this will be his last season at the club. Vermaelen is unlikely to be around next season, either.
That leaves Valverde facing the prospect of having just two centre-backs by the end of the season (albeit very good ones): Umtiti and Gerard Pique, who's 31 in February. Perhaps he was on to something with his pursuit of Martinez.
An exhaustive search of the local media since then suggests 10 central defenders (including Martinez) have been semi-reliably linked with the club. In all likelihood, that number is probably higher.
Meanwhile, there's a deal in place to sign Colombian international Yerry Mina after the World Cup -- although Barca have been urged by the defender's agent to hurry up and make a decision -- but Valverde may prefer to go back in for the more experienced La Liga option in Martinez, whose buyout clause remains just north of €30m.
Elsewhere, Barca have been scouring the German market for bargains and Bayer Leverkusen's Jonathan Tah, RB Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano and Borussia Dortmund's Dan-Axel Zagadou have come up. Completing the list of players are Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly, Lyon's Mouctar Diakhaby and Athletic Bilbao's Unai Nunez.
A good number of them may have been written off. A good number of them may never have been considered. But the sheer number of reports -- and from local, well-connected media -- would suggest there is something in the hunt for a new centre-back.
And, despite the surprising nature of the original Martinez chase, it does makes sense. To say Barca don't need a new centre-back would be ignoring the pretty-near future. That Valverde recognised as much so quickly is a sign succession planning may be about to improve under him -- they weren't quick off the mark to cover the losses of Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez. And with a number of players in the squad now around the 30 mark, succession planning is something which is going to be very much needed in the coming years.
Valverde has suggested in recent weeks a centre-back may not be needed in January. If Vermaelen leaves, one almost certainly will be needed. Next summer, though, if one doesn't come in the winter, it won't be a surprise if (when) Barca strike a deal for a new defender to compete with Umtiti and Pique.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.