Barcelona's second-most important player isn't who you think – and finally deserves plaudits
Shock to the system
To persecute him directly as a cause of Barca’s fall from grace, though, is a disproportionate accusation. On-field matters are rarely discussed when it comes to the former Manchester United man.
That Barca integrated a new system once Guardiola left, and went through different transitions that put more pressure on the defence, is rarely brought up.
With midfielders in decline and not adequately replaced, Pique and Javier Mascherano have taken on more responsibility. It’s taken considerable adjustment, and also tested Pique’s particular skill set.
Driving out of defence with power and energy to thwart attacks is not his forte. Instead, the Spaniard reads the game and anticipates moves from his opponents. Being thrusted into a system that required him to be more physically committed to the cause was always going to present issues.
Fortunately, there's been a turnaround this term. With renewed focus and motivation under a familiar face in Enrique, Pique appears to be taking on the responsibility of not only leading the defence, but also the club itself, in his graceful stride. Talk of Hummels has been quelled, and those who were so sure of the German being the answer might be advised to focus on his Bundesliga form this term. And besides, if another defender was to eventually arrive at the club, it should be to complement and not replace Pique.
Therein too, lies another issue. Pique has been hung out to dry by a lack of competent partner since Puyol’s exit – something entirely out of his hands, and in those of Barca’s muddled board. While Mascherano has purveyed himself as an excellent solution, albeit a stopgap, there is still the need for a more long-term fix.
His on-pitch relationship with Sergio Ramos began to falter in the summer too, as Spain fell foul of similar problems to Barca at the World Cup: a midfield losing its weight and unable to control the ball like they used to; giving way to opponents who were leaner, meaner and had wised up to their every move.
"I never had a personal problem with Pique and I don't think I ever will," said Ramos, a similarly easy target for abuse. "Having spent more time with him, he's a great lad with a good heart."
Pique needed a Puyol word in his hear in Brazil, or an arm around his shoulder. But his ex-skipper couldn’t save him. "By your side I felt protected and I knew that if one day I made a mistake you’d always be there to save me," sobbed Pique after his colleague's retirement (not death). "You were my guardian angel."
That was then, however, and now it feels like Puyol has, in part, returned when watching Pique this season. There is an extra degree of maturity there. The jokes still exist, and the smile has returned.
But Pique has found the focus again. He strides out of defence with the confidence of a man boasting Champions League and World Cup medals. Pretenders come for the crown, but does anyone move out of defence with more grace and purpose than ‘Piquenbauer’? Praise will be lavished upon Barca’s attacking prowess this season, but it should be equally put on Pique. Despite reports to the contrary, he deserves it.