Gerard Pique Bernabeu (we'll forgive him for the surname) is, in my opinion, the essence of the modern day central defender.
He is a ball-playing centre half who is genuinely comfortable with bringing the ball out of defence, a commodity which is becoming rarer and rarer in today's game.
Aside from question marks over his defending of the high ball into the area, which I shall demonstrate later, he has impeccable timing in the tackle and, I would suggest, is far from shoddy when venturing forward to join the attack.
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GIF: Gol Gerard Piqué | Málaga 1-2 #FCB [@Emenderk] #BarcaGif http://t.co/yAn71sFp2013-1-25 03:04:51
It was on 27 May 2008 that FC Barcelona did some of their best business of recent times when former La Masia canterano Pique was repatriated to the club of his youth for the relatively small sum of just £5 million from Manchester United.
Pique would go on to form an integral part of the all-conquering Barcelona side of 2008/09, and cement an outstanding partnership with club captain Carles Puyol.
Despite the defender having been a fixture at centre back ever since his return to Catalonia, he suffered from a noticeable dip in form during the 2011-12 season.
Many theories, including his relationship with pop star Shakira, were suggested as the reason why the elegant Catalan had lost focus on the pitch.
It also recently came to light that Pep Guardiola had detectives follow Pique during the latter part of his tenure, one would assume to ascertain the level of outside influence on the defender's substandard performances at that point in time.
Now, as we come to the business end of this season, let's see how Pique has shaped up over the last eight months.
If we start by taking a look at the defender's passing game, it's pleasing to note that we've not really seen a drop in quality in this department.
The graphic below evidences that Pique's distribution has been sound over the course of the season as a whole with 91 percent of his passes finding their intended target.
Pique's natural wanderlust, his need to break free from the shackles of defence, has often had to be reigned in simply because of the quality of the opponent.
The second game of the season versus Osasuna is an early example. We can clearly see from the heat map just how busy Pique was kept in the defensive areas of the field, which is also evidenced by an almost complete lack of attacking foray.
A pass completion rate of 86 percent in the match compares favourably with other games across the season.
His best match of the season so far was the first morning kickoff at Camp Nou for 28 years, a 6-1 thrashing of Getafe on the 10th of February. Pique completed 75 out of his 80 passes, a 94 percent success rate. He also made three crucial interceptions, won all of his headers and scored a 91st-minute goal to round off the scoring.
Perhaps the areas where Pique has continued to struggle, however, are from the high ball into the box and keeping focused for the full 90 minutes.
You only have to look at his positioning for Raphael Varane's goals in each game of the Copa Del Rey semifsinals by way of example.
For both goals Varane makes an almost identical run to get goal-side and easily outjumps an almost static Pique, who is ball watching in both instances.
There have been similar noticeable lapses in his concentration when up against the cream of Europe.
In the lead up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal during the Champions League quarter final, the 6'0" Pique, having followed the flight of the ball from PSG's free kick, still allows Thiago Silva to rise above him with ease.
And for Thomas Müller's first goal for Bayern Munich earlier this week, the defender was not only out of position, but as the following picture shows, he was marking precisely nobody and had turned his back on the danger from behind him.
If we look at a YouTube clip of that goal, as seen from the stands, Pique's ill discipline affords Mueller the privilege of time and space for the free header at the back post—a crime at this level of football.
In the nine Champions League matches he has played over the course of this season, Pique has not created a goal nor scored one himself, his work being concentrated exclusively in the defensive areas of the pitch.
His passing against the German champions was still on point with a completion rate of 92 percent, and six out of eight clearances successfully dealt with.
Tre Atkinson has noted clearly before that when looking at the pairings at centre-back, Pique performs better when club captain Carles Puyol is alongside, marshalling his defence and keeping Pique on his toes.
The conclusions I can draw from reviewing the performances over the season are that Gerard Pique is beginning to find his old self again.
He hasn't reached the heights of two or three years ago but is certainly not playing as poorly as last season.
His all round play is generally satisfactory, but he has been found wanting at the highest level.
For someone of his height and quality, I would expect to see a marked improvement on the defending of set pieces and balls into the box from next season.
A great ball -player he may be, but he must master the basic art for which he is handsomely remunerated.