Selecting Every Top European Team's 'Jenga Piece'
Every team has a player they can't function without. He's the one piece that, if removed, sees the tower come toppling down—structurally, tactically and perhaps even motivationally.
Your mind might immediately jump to a team's star striker—where would they be without the goals he scores?—but often the key man plays further back. He's more integral to the formation or the overall approach, not just the final-third happenings.
Here, we select every top European team's "jenga piece"—the one they simply cannot do without.
Atletico Madrid: Koke
Whenever he's fit, Koke plays.
Diego Simeone has gone through an incredible amount of players throughout his tenure at Atletico Madrid, and in particular he has utilised a number of central midfielders. However, Koke always takes to the pitch—and for good reason.
He's the man Simeone trusts to execute his tactical system, the one who sits at the heart of the formation and carries out a list of fairly demanding instructions.
Diego Godin is crucial to Atleti's defensive line, Antoine Griezmann similarly so in the forward areas, but the action starts and revolves around Koke constantly.
Barcelona: Lionel Messi
Some of you may be screaming the name "Sergio Busquets" here, and his impact at the base of Barcelona's midfield is undoubted; his ability to mop up loose balls and close passing lanes is elite.
But this season Ivan Rakitic has occasionally deputised in that holding role and done pretty well. Losing Busquets would be difficult, but his Croatian colleague's good form means it's not a lost cause.
Things would start to seem impossible if Lionel Messi was missing, though—particularly in the Champions League, where Philippe Coutinho isn't eligible to play.
We saw against Chelsea just how heavily Messi is relied upon in manager Ernesto Valverde's system; at least 75 percent of the attacking lift falls on his magical shoulders.
Bayern Munich: Javi Martinez
We can only speculate as to the first name on Jupp Heynckes' Bayern Munich teamsheets, but a safe bet would Javi Martinez.
The Spaniard's playing his best football since, well, the last time Heynckes was in charge of the team, which was 2013. It's no coincidence that when these two combine, elite performance levels are reached.
Martinez's smart, aggressive style melds beautifully with the balanced outlook Heynckes strives for, and the manager has said himself he will always yearn for "a reliable player who plays intelligently and holds his position," per Kicker (h/t Bundesliga.com).
We hear your suggestions of "Robert Lewandowski," but in Heynckes' blueprint, the midfield is the most important zone and Martinez is therefore the most important player.
Borussia Dortmund: Mario Gotze
Borussia Dortmund sit second in the Bundesliga and some might feel that indicates a successful season, but under the surface things have gone wrong at almost every turn.
That makes finding their jenga piece extremely difficult, as each possibility is similarly underwhelming.
Mario Gotze gets the nod almost by default, as he's played well when he's been able to take to the pitch; he's one of the few who hasn't simply downed tools and given up attempting to set things right.
Chelsea: Eden Hazard
We'd be intrigued to see how Chelsea might fare without N'Golo Kante, but his near-flawless attendance record means the sample size just isn't there. We suspect the midfield might fall apart, but we can't be sure.
What we can be sure of, though, is that even with Kante on the pitch this season, the Blues have staggered dramatically between excellent and terrible, and when they're in the latter mood, there is only one person who can save them: Eden Hazard.
Playing badly, lacking confidence or being held at arm's length by a tactical plan? Just pass it to Hazard and see if he can bail you out with his brilliance. Quite often he does, and were he not there to do it, Chelsea's already-disappointing season might well have turned out even worse.
Inter Milan: Milan Skriniar
At the beginning of the season, when Inter Milan were consistently churning out wins, they weren't actually playing so well. Mauro Icardi's tendency to score a goal from nothing would settle tight games, and it was a stingy defence that kept things tight enough for that to make the difference.
The standout performer in that line is Milan Skriniar, who seems able to do anything and everything. He's a colossus at the back, has the speed to recover and drop, brings the ball forward well and, remarkably, is Inter's third-top scorer in Serie A this season with four goals.
Some might argue Icardi's goals dragged them through until he got injured, but they dried up a full month-and-a-half before he went down. Skriniar has been consistently brilliant, impactful in every third of the pitch, and the player Luciano Spalletti will now most fear losing.
Juventus: Miralem Pjanic
Juventus have dealt with injuries in every single area of the pitch this season but have always scraped by.
The defensive line changes so often it's hard to keep track, with manager Massimiliano Allegri utilising the immense depth at his disposal.
Further forward there haven't been too many issues, either. No Paulo Dybala? Gonzalo Higuain can pick up the slack. If he's also missing? Mario Mandzukic is still a more-than-serviceable option up front.
But there's a creative hole when Miralem Pjanic is missing that Allegri simply cannot fill. He has some talented midfielders at his disposal but none so accomplished in chance creation and set-piece wizardry as the Bosnia and Herzegovina international.
Lazio: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
"He takes over matches," James Horncastle wrote for BBC Sport when underlining why most of Europe want Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to be their next star. That's exactly the type of quality that makes you the jenga piece for your club.
Many of Lazio's squad are having seasons to remember—forward duo Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto being chief among them—but none can claim to be quite as influential as Milinkovic-Savic.
A physically imposing yet technically neat figure, he's impossibly good in tight spaces considering his size; and when games start to drift, he simply rifles a shot in from distance to turn the tide.
A player so involved in general play who can also produce moments of magic is going to have a big say in every game.
Liverpool: Roberto Firmino
It must be a joy for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to play alongside Roberto Firmino, who essentially combines the roles of a No. 9 and a No. 10 in one brilliant performance after another.
The spaces that open up for Salah to run into and for Mane to exploit, are usually thanks to Firmino's exceptional movement and link play, and the back-heel combinations we see start with him too.
Manager Jurgen Klopp has rotated his defensive and midfield troops consistently this season, but he rarely touches the forward line.
They're all important, but Firmino is central to what they do, and the reserve options (Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke) aren't anywhere close to his level of influence.
Manchester City: Kevin De Bruyne
Manchester City have experienced plenty of enforced changes to their XI this season, but rarely have they skipped a beat.
Benjamin Mendy's injury allowed Fabian Delph to emerge as an incredibly capable left-back, central defensive rotation has been heavy, the front three have chopped and changed aplenty, and David Silva has missed sporadic games for personal reasons.
That leaves only five players who have felt ever-present: Ederson Moraes, Nicolas Otamendi, Kyle Walker, Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne.
Each has brought something important to the team this season, but City's dominance has been sourced from incredible midfield play and De Bruyne is the key to this.
Manchester United: David De Gea
Where would Manchester United be without David De Gea? It's a question many fans ask, and then shudder when they realise the answers they get.
The fact of the matter is United's defensive line isn't impressive—or at least hasn't been this season since Eric Bailly went under the knife. Any clean sheets are pretty much solely down to De Gea's brilliance, and the statistics prove how valuable he is.
In January, Opta's xGoT (Expect Goals on Target) model revealed United have conceded 13.8 fewer goals than they should have done, per Sky Sports.
It was the highest differential in the league by some distance—Burnley came in next at 8.1—and we assure you, only one man's efforts are making this possible.
Jorginho is a man so many of Europe's top teams want, a man capable of changing the fabric of a midfield, and the midfield engine driving Napoli towards a potential Scudetto.
The death-by-passing system utilised by manager Maurizio Sarri means all 11 players on the pitch are incredibly important to Napoli's fortunes, but it's notable that the five cup games Jorginho has missed this season (Manchester City, Feyenoord, Shakhtar Donetsk, Atalanta, RB Leipzig) have all been lost.
Amadou Diawara, Jorginho's rotator, is a lovely player, but he can't quite bring the same level of control and calm that Napoli's blistering attack feeds off.
Paris Saint-Germain: Neymar
As a result of being significantly stronger than every other team in Ligue 1, Paris Saint-Germain don't drop points often, and they don't struggle to function often, so it's hard to pinpoint a key piece in their side.
However, it's notable that in two of the more disappointing displays they've endured this season—a 0-0 draw with Montpellier and a 2-1 loss to Lyon—Neymar was missing from the squad. It's a small sample size, but given they win so often, it's all we've got.
Last season, the jenga piece was most certainly Marco Verratti, but the rise of Giovani Lo Celso and improvement in Adrien Rabiot's game has made him just a fraction less important. That allows Neymar to claim this particular title.
Real Madrid: Luka Modric
The crucial goals on big occasions that Cristiano Ronaldo scores make him a worthy option in these stakes; if you make a habit of scoring hat-tricks in Champions League knockout games, you're going to be considered a key piece.
But those great positions he finds himself in, with the ball served up perfectly, and those fantastic moves Real Madrid put together in order to release Ronaldo? That's the work of the midfield and Luka Modric's impact on the pitch in particular.
The Croatia international and Toni Kroos are both crucial to keeping this team ticking in the centre, and Modric gets the nod as he's more consistent over the course of a season.
Tottenham Hotspur: Christian Eriksen
There's a reason Christian Eriksen never misses games—he's far too important to Tottenham Hotspur to be rested; no one else in the squad can do what he does with the ball.
Harry Kane's goals are vital to the club's strong Premier League and Champions League positions, and there's no doubting his place in the elite tier of strikers, but Spurs can win games without him if they absolutely must—between Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura and Fernando Llorente, they'll get it done.
Eriksen's clipped passes, game management, set pieces and ability to conjure a chance from nothing cannot be replicated. The one Premier League game he's missed this season saw Spurs trudge to a 1-1 draw with a Southampton side they had beaten 5-2 less than a month before.
All statistics via WhoScored.com