It’s hard to maintain composure in one of the biggest games in football, especially in enemy territory with the fans jeering and whistling your every touch.
It takes a combination of experience and unprecedented confidence to drop a 10/10 performance in a crunch fixture with a skillful 18-year-old, virtually twice as fast as you, breathing down your neck.
Gerard Pique, however, managed to pull it off and ensure that Barcelona defeated eternal rivals Real Madrid twice in a span of 72 hours, without conceding a single goal.
Pique is not the one to constantly slide into tackles, show raw aggression in the face of the opposition or sprint 40 metres to commit to a last-ditch tackle. He’s not a player who needs to score an injury-time header to cover up a poor defensive performance.
The Spaniard is slow, not the greatest at reacting to body-feints and changes in pace of the attacker and hence susceptible to being beaten comfortably by a fast winger with quick feet and good close-control.
On Saturday, he was up against a player of exactly the same profile on Saturday – Vinicius Junior. With Sergi Roberto burdened with offensive duties and Vinicius dropping into the half-spaces (the space between the flanks and the centre of the pitch), Pique had to regularly come in contact with the Brazilian.
The World Cup winner was aware of the fact that he would not be able to keep up with the youngster’s dazzling pace. But he is an experienced player who has heard hundreds of full-time whistles more than Vinicius and was hence handed an outside chance to win the battle.
Pique avoided confrontation with the winger by ensuring that the ball does not reach him. He was always in the right position at the right time to cut out passes or clear the ball out, whatever seemed more suitable.
It’s his amazing sense of positioning and reading of the opponent’s moves that helps him when his legs and stamina fails. With these tools, he prevented a direct interaction with the Brazilian at all times.
At one point, Vinicius managed to skip past Pique and create a goal-scoring opportunity for striker Karim Benzema. Eventually it was Pique who slid in to provide a crucial block just seconds after he was down near the touchline.
His incredible form this season is really not talked about enough.
Last season, he had to chip in with a tackle once in a match, intercept once, foul at the rate of 0.8 times per game and clear the ball approximately 4.1 times in a game. This season, he has notched all those number up, but reduced the number of fouls he commits in a game, showing that he is getting his positioning right more consistently.
This season, the Spaniard is averaging 1.3 tackles per game, fouling just 0.6 times and clearing the ball 4.3 times.
Numbers never tell the whole story, especially when we are talking about a defender. But the fact that it is in line with what meets the eye is encouraging.
His defending aside, Pique has also been a massive influence in the team. He has helped new-signing Clement Lenglet gel into the squad easily.
You can hear the centre-back shout out instructions to the Frenchman, encourage him and drop deep to allow him the freedom to venture forward and get some confidence.
While everything seems okay, things were not so perfect a couple of years ago. The Spaniard had strings of off-day, meaning Samuel Umtiti was making the defence look good.
He always said that he would either leave the club or retire when he felt that he is not able to provide much to the team and at one point, it looked like it was on the horizon.
But the 32-year-old turned it around this season, peaking in the last couple of weeks.
He was never a favourite to shut out Vinicius, mainly because of the vast difference in their pace.
Pique teasing Benzema by playing the ball around inches in front of the goal, while Santiago Bernabeu roared with insults, serves as measure of the amount of ice in his veins.
Despite his obvious shortcomings, the well-composed defender has been one of the best defenders in Europe in the world this season along with Giorgio Chiellini and, of course, Virgil van Dijk.
Matthijs de Ligt can probably stay put at Ajax, at the moment, as Pique isn’t done yet.
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