However, a minor story on the night was the continued success of the center-back pairing of Marc Bartra and Carles Puyol.
The fearless captain and the young, new star combined brilliantly to fend off constant attacks and deal with the pressure of Real Betis. It was Bartra again who put in a dominant display to bail out the Catalans several times while Puyol was reserved to more of a minor role as he was the vocal leader.
This was not the first time that this particular pairing has worked wonders. In fact, the penalty goal scored by Betis was the first goal conceded by this specific defensive pairing.
The issue is not if Bartra and Puyol work—that much is obvious. The real problem is if this pairing can be relied upon in the most important matches of the season.
Just who makes up Barcelona’s best center-back pairing for the biggest games of the season? Let’s discuss it.
It is no secret that Gerard Pique is Tata Martino’s go-to guy in the back line. He has started all four Champions League matches and has made 16 total appearances this season.
Last year was a nightmare for Pique. The 26-year-old was a true blooper reel, making constant mistakes, but things have been much better this season.
Pique has not been perfect by any means, but he also has not made many clear errors thus far. He is averaging two tackles and interception per game and just over six clearances as well.
It isn’t time to say Pique is back to his best, but Cules can rest assured that he isn’t the mistake waiting to happen that he was last year either.
Martino has most often selected Javier Mascherano as Pique’s partner in the biggest matches this year. The Argentine is also having a much better season than in years past but arguably should not be a first choice in this situation.
Mascherano is averaging just over three tackles per game and nearly as many interceptions (2.8) but does not clear the ball as often with only 3.3 per match.
Both Pique and Mascherano are being beaten off of the dribble nearly the identical amounts of time, yet the Argentine seems to recover a bit better from it.
That brings us to captain Puyol.
The 35-year-old isn’t what he used to be. His pace is fleeting and his body is breaking, but his leadership on and off the pitch cannot be questioned.
Puyol has only participated in three matches so far this season, and his numbers have actually been a bit odd.
The Blaugrana captain is only averaging about two interceptions per game and only 0.7 tackles. He is clearing the ball over eight times per match and surprisingly hasn’t been beaten off the dribble a single time.
It would seem as though Puyol does not have to make tackles because he is always in the right positions. However, Bartra was forced to make a last-man tackle more than once against Betis due to Puyol’s lack of speed.
Our final possibility in Barcelona’s first-choice center-back duo is Bartra.
The 22-year-old has been stunning this year to say the least. To many, he has been by far the best defender for La Blaugrana, and he continues to prove it every match.
Bartra is averaging nearly three tackles and interceptions per game while clearing the ball just over four times. His pace has been immense and his ability to stay calm under pressure has been a breath of fresh air.
The Catalan has also proven to be very capable at defending set pieces and his passing accuracy of 95 percent shows just how strong he has been at bringing the ball out of the back.
It is also important to note that Bartra is beaten off the dribble more than his three defensive teammates (1.1 times per match), but he tends to be the very best at recovering from it.
So the question remains: What duo makes the most sense for Barcelona when the Catalans need to put their best XI on the pitch?
The answer may be a bit controversial, but it seems to make the most sense.
The height, tackling ability and pure communication of Pique and Bartra has produced the best defensive displays this season and is Barcelona’s best center-back duo for the biggest games of the season.
Mascherano still struggles with his positioning ability while the age and pace of Puyol could be costly.
Bartra and Pique offer the best pairing as far as how well they have fit together this season and seem to be very comfortable when beside each other. It is a pairing that could last for many years to come but still has room to improve.
Martino continues to insist on Pique being his undisputed starter at the back. It only makes sense that he pairs him with the best defender in the entire squad in Bartra.
All statistics are courtesy of WhoScored.com
So who do you think makes up Barcelona’s best center-back combination? Is Marc Bartra the best defender in the squad? Leave your thoughts and comments below!
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