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Barca's collapse without Pique proves his importance to the side

Wednesday 23rd March 2016
Barcelona dropped points at the weekend for the first time in twelve La Liga games at El Madrigal in a 2-2 draw against Villarreal.

A point away to the Yellow Submarine is a creditable result, of course, particularly given that nearest rivals Atletico Madrid had already lost to Sporting, and Real Madrid are probably too far behind to catch the Catalan giants now.

Despite this, the result and game itself proved to be noteworthy, and somewhat worrying as well, given the nature of some of Barcelona's defending in the second half. They were two goals to the good at half-time, thanks to goals from Ivan Rakitic and a rare successful penalty attempt from Neymar.
Perhaps with one eye on the upcoming El Clasico game against Real Madrid, Barca coach Luis Enrique substituted defender Gerard Pique who had been booked earlier in the game, presumably believing Pique's replacement Jeremy Mathieu and Javier Mascherano would have been sufficiently capable of holding on to Barcelona's advantage.

As it turns out, within ten minutes of Pique's withdrawal, Villarreal had scored two goals to pull themselves level and ultimately draw the game, taking full advantage of the Pique-shaped void in Barca's backline to earn a point.

It would have been concerning for Luis Enrique to see how fragile his side looked without Pique, and it is not the first time they have struggled in his absence. It is clear that Pique is of utmost importance to this Barca side, especially from a defensive standpoint.

In years gone-by there was frequent talk of ‘Messidependencia' at the Camp Nou, where many commentators believed Barcelona were overly dependent on Lionel Messi to win matches. The arrivals of Neymar and Luis Suarez, two other world-class forwards to supplement Messi in attack, has lessened any alleged dependence on Messi, as evidenced most emphatically in Barca's 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu when Messi was out injured.
Messi is arguably still the best player in the world, and Barcelona are of course built to play around the Argentine magician, but Pique's has developed into arguably the most influential player at the club (though Sergio Busquets could also lay claim to that.)

Pique's importance perhaps only became truly clear when Barca have fielded different central defensive partnerships not involving Pique, with various combinations of Mascherano, Mathieu, Marc Bartra and Thomas Vermaelen looking ragged without the leadership and ability of Pique to maintain a steady backline.

Individually, these players have all tended to look more assured when alongside Pique, and it is the tandem of Pique and Mascherano that is undoubtedly Barcelona's strongest defensive pairing, as it is has been since the retirement of former captain Carles Puyol.

Pique can now lay to claim to exert a similar kind of influence and leadership role in Barca's defence as club legend Puyol once did and has proved to be a worthy successor as the lynchpin of the Blaugrana's backline. Like Puyol of old, Pique now holds together the back four together seemingly single-handedly at times, due to the common presence of players you wouldn't consider to be ‘natural' defenders occupying the defensive positions at Barcelona.

The turnaround has been startling for Pique. After a relatively strong start to his Barcelona career during Pep Guardiola's glorious spell as head coach, Pique's career appeared to stall following Pep's departure.

A major drop in form raised questions about Pique's commitment and ability as a defender at the highest level, with many clamouring for the hierarchy at the Catalan Club to fork out on replacements for both of Barcelona's central defensive positions.
Pique was not at his best for much of the 2013-14 campaign, and after a catastrophic tournament for Spain at the 2014 World Cup after which he faced criticism from all quarters, Shakira's significant other found himself out of the Barcelona side at the start of the 2014-15 season under new coach Luis Enrique.

Pique had no complaints, publicly admitting that his performances were not good enough. Improvement was absolutely needed but the scale of the transformation in Pique's performances were enormous. He would go onto have his best season for Barca once he was restored to the starting line-up, and was a colossus as his side went on to win the treble that season. His form has been similarly good this season, with Pique's defensive performance key as Barcelona remain on course to repeat the feat and win the treble again.

Barcelona may have arguably the best player to have ever walked the planet in their ranks, and certainly the strongest forward line many can ever recall, but any success this season is more likely to be explicitly linked to the presence of Pique in their side. It is vital that their number 3 is available for the important games that await as the season draws to a close, because as the Villarreal game showed, without their reformed defensive rock, Barcelona appear to be much less daunting an opposition minus Pique in the side.
Michael Soloman
Journalist. Long-suffering Derby County fan, Lionel Messi and Barca bandwagon-er.

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