Luis Enrique has made it clear what he thinks Barcelona’s best option is when it comes to picking his centre-backs. It’s always Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.
When the Catalans head into a big game, the coach has a regular side he turns to, known as his Gala XI. The only flexible place in the team is goalkeeper, with Claudio Bravo selected in La Liga and Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the cup competitions.
Otherwise, if everybody is fit, it’s his core team. That’s Jordi Alba and Dani Alves at full-back, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta in midfield, the holy trinity of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar up front and Pique with Mascherano at centre-back.
It means the other central defenders at the club don’t get much of a look in toward the back end of the season, barring injury or suspension worries.
There are three contenders Pique and Mascherano are holding off: Thomas Vermaelen, Jeremy Mathieu and Marc Bartra.
Each of them has his own merits and, on occasion, has impressed.
Mathieu’s physical speed is hugely impressive, with the defender eating up the ground in front of him as he closes down opponents who thought they had more time.
Vermaelen, on the other hand, is usually calm and assured, bar one recent poor performance away against Malaga—the reverse of the display he put in during the clash against the same opponents at the Camp Nou in August, when he scored the winning goal.
Bartra came through the youth system at the club and is probably the best of the three at bringing the ball out of defence, a key attribute at the club.
None of the five are bad at that, though. It’s why they are where they are.
Asked whom he would prefer to partner, Vermaelen told Bleacher Report you can’t choose one player because all the Barcelona centre-backs are impressive—and have been instructed to play the same way.
“They are all good players,” he said. “Everybody can play with each other. We have to know each other's qualities. The boss has an idea of how to play, and we all have to play the same way. So it doesn't matter if you play with, say, him or with him.”
However, despite a tide of games that hasn’t relented since the Club World Cup in December, Lucho’s preferred duo has taken up most of the minutes.
Pique because he is the best defender at the club—perhaps even the best defender in the world.
From a low ebb in the first half of last season, when he was run ragged at the Santiago Bernabeu, to being a champion of the world—Pique has been bounding forward rapidly.
It feels like a long time ago, but after only starting seven of Barcelona’s first 14 league fixtures in 2014-15, Pique has earned his way into Enrique’s team with consistently outstanding performances.
When he doesn’t play, you really notice. That was the case recently against Malaga, when he was suspended. Barcelona were under the cosh, and each Malaga attack felt like it may end up in a goal.
Vermaelen, who had up to this point played extremely well when called upon, didn’t have a great day and was unable to provide any leadership at the back—despite being the former captain of both Ajax and Arsenal.
Mathieu was brought on in his place and provided this in the second half, although when Pique is around, that’s his job.
The defender played next to good friend Carles Puyol for years, and the Barcelona legend’s leadership traits clearly rubbed off on the former Manchester United man.
So taken for granted that Pique must start, Enrique must decide who plays alongside him. The only considerations being what qualities must this player possess that harmonise well with Pique’s, right? Wrong.
There is another factor at play, which tilts the balance heavily in Mascherano’s favour. He has abilities that go well with Pique’s, but so too do Bartra, Mathieu and Vermaelen.
Being quick to snuff out danger, versatile enough to fill other positions when necessary, being able to use the ball wisely and getting to the second ball after a shot is blocked or a cross knocked down—anticipation.
Arguably Mascherano isn’t top of the list in any of these facets, although he is good at all of them.
So why is he always in the team, alongside Pique, and why is that Barcelona’s best central-defensive partnership?
The answer starts with Sergio Busquets. The midfielder is the world’s best in the holding-midfield role and completely essential to the way Barcelona play. In an ideal world, Mascherano would play as the anchor man, but thanks to Busquets there is no space for him.
"I knew I wouldn’t take Sergio Busquets’ place," he recently told Sid Lowe of the Guardian. "Impossible, impossible. Think of another player anywhere who could do what Busquets does for this team...there isn’t one."
It’s why he’s been recycled as a centre-back. But the reason he’s still there after some years in which his weaknesses have been exposed is because of the intensity he has and the respect he commands among the other players.
Immediately after he was announced as manager in May 2014, Enrique said Mascherano "has all the qualities to be captain,” per the Guardian.
Mascherano puts his heart, soul and anything else he’s got into every game.
His performances are sometimes erratic; if Barcelona get pinned back, he can be taken advantage of in the box because he’s not tall and struggles against big strikers.
But for the most part, that doesn’t happen to Barcelona. And if it does, he’s often the man to drag them out of shaky periods by snapping into tackles like his life depends on it. Sometimes you think it does.
When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain raced down the right in the first half of Arsenal’s 2-0 Champions League last-16 first-leg defeat by Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night, Barcelona's alarm sirens started blaring.
And their policeman came to investigate. Mascherano flew in, wielding his metaphorical truncheon, ready to sort the men from the boys. And he did.
The Arsenal man took a heavy touch, and that was when Mascherano struck, piling in to take the ball before both players collided at high speed.
Pfff 2017 🔂 @iTom44
Ox with great pace on counter but loses ball to Mascherano. Forgot his brain ? #AFCvFCB 🙄 https://t.co/Xr6pWEQWbL2016-2-23 20:31:17
It was one impressive moment of a complete display by the Argentinian, having one of his best nights in Barcelona colours.
And it showed why Enrique has such faith in him as Pique’s partner. No other player in the squad could offer so much gumption, measured out in sweat and blood, often quite literally.
On the touchline, sometimes wearing his dark-green jacket, Lucho looks intimidating. And on the pitch, Mascherano is the man who can physically transmit the coach’s vibes.
It feels like Enrique needs him out there—anywhere. It can’t be in midfield because Busquets has that role neatly stitched up, so defence will have to do.
And even if you might find Vermaelen, Bartra and Mathieu to be better centre-backs than Mascherano, not one of them is a better partner for Pique when considering the team, tactics and unit as a whole.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.