“Too slow” “lacking aggression” “Grandson of influential club director”.
It is very easy to assign blame when a team once so dominant is no longer operating at the peak of its powers, and the tall, elegant centre half has quite simply become an easy target.
Over the past two or three seasons, it is no secret that a remedy for the high-pressing, possession-obsessed style of football resurrected by Pep Guardiola and his late confidant/successor Títo Vilanova, has been unearthed in the form of deep lying defensive and midfield lines who look to break quickly and allow their quicker, more athletic strikers to overpower the Barcelona defence, which is not renowned for its physicality.
This neutralisation of the Barcelona attack is far easier stated than executed, as evidenced by the clubs record 100 – point haul throughout the 2012/13 La Liga season. However when one looks at rivals who are capable of competing with the resources of the Catalan club (Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, perhaps even Borussia Dortmund, had the stars aligned), it can be put into practice and used in a devastating manner.
It should be noted that while winning the domestic league comfortably, Barcelona were soundly beaten away from home by a Real Madrid team that elected to cede possession to their fierce rivals and look to break quickly having recovered the ball, or hurt them in set piece situations where conditions favoured Los Merengues.
Similarly, last season’s Champions League Semi Final exit, at the hands of an unstoppable Bayern Munich side, was an even more crushing blow to a style that had dominated world football between 2008 and 2011.
Naturally, Blaugrana keyboard coaching experts/ fans, rather than face up to clear signs that their team must evolve tactically, to meet and exceed the challenges presented to them at the highest level of competition, or bolster an ageing squad, rounded their criticism upon the central defence which had been left so exposed once rival teams had played long passes forward to players with the quality of Cristiano Ronaldo or Arjen Robben. One of the most popular topics of these outcries was that Piqué must be sold.
Message boards have been jammed with fans demanding the player be released, stating assuredly that he is now surplus to requirements at Camp Nou – very few taking into account that the defender had formed the most successful partnership in the clubs history with legendary “Capitá” Carles Puyol, who for three seasons now has been dogged by the injuries brought on by his all-action style of defending.
Javier Mascherano was chosen to partner Piqué in the absence of his best friend and captain, undoubtedly a world class defensive midfielder, but in truth, not physically suited to the demands of a central defender. The two performed well together in the Champions League Final of 2011 and have done so on many occasions since, however it is a partnership that has been exposed when tested at footballs highest level over the past two seasons (notable exceptions – this season’s win at the Bernabéu and competitive league draw at Estadio Vicente Calderon).
The reason for this is simple, the former La Masia product plays his best football when partnered with an aerially aggressive ball-winner style of centre half. For so long, Puyol embodied perfectly these qualities, but the inspirational captain leaves at the end of the current season and must be replaced. Culés everywhere have beat the drum loudly for the likes of Mats Hummels of Dortmund (bizarrely ) and Thiago Silva of PSG, the latter of whom fits these qualities perfectly but is unlikely to be bought out of his current contract.
In recent years, F.C Barcelona has subscribed to the dogma brought to the club by Dutch legend Johan Cruyff and the club has been at it’s most successful when adhering to that style of play. The youth system educates its players to value possession of the ball almost religiously and whenever and wherever possible, to play out from the back.
It seems almost blasphemous to think that the club would abandon this philosophy entirely and one can think of few central defenders more capable of starting attacks in defence and being on hand to finish them, than Gerard Piqué. Not least, one who has achieved tremendous success with the club he has supported since childhood, a player who is currently entering his physical peak and who understands his role completely within the Barcelona starting eleven.
This is a player who will play at the heart of the Spanish defence at the upcoming World Cup as the nation attempts to retain the title, and should have (at least in this fans eyes) a massive role to play at the heart of the Barcelona defence for many seasons to come. Far from being sold, Piqué needs the right dance partner so he can once again flourish and show his finest form. Over to you, Zubizaretta…