Gerard Pique knows better than most that the life of a Barcelona defender is a perilous one.
“You have to make sacrifices here,” he mused only this summer, “especially playing at the back.
“Because of the way we play, sometimes you get the blame.”
This is one of those times.
As it stands, no player in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues has made more errors leading to goals this season than Pique (three). Furthermore, his mistakes have been as costly as they have been farcical.
He was at fault for both goals in the 2-2 draw with Girona at Camp Nou last Sunday, while his ludicrous attempt at a clearance gifted Leganes a shock 2-1 victory at Butarque on Wednesday.
Essentially, Pique has already been responsible for Barca dropping five points in La Liga.
Of course, Barca’s coach, Ernesto Valverde, and his players have refused to make the 31-year-old a scapegoat.
“We cannot speak about individuals,” Sergio Busquets argued after the dismal display at Leganes. “We should be focusing on why we’re making it so easy for the opposition to win.”
The midfielder’s stance was unsurprising, not least because he is no position to start pointing the finger of blame at anyone, given how poorly he has performed himself this season.
If Barca’s back four is looking more vulnerable that last season, it is partly because they are being offered less protection by the man stationed in front of them.
However, even Busquets conceded that, while Barca’s over-reliance on Lionel Messi’s goals remains an issue from an offensive perspective, the Catalans’ problems are rooted in the heart of their defence.
“We could not create chances after falling behind [against Leganes] but the main concern is how many goals we are conceding,” he acknowledged. “We need to rediscover our solidity.”
That looks like a big ask, and not just because of the error-prone Pique.
Samuel Umtiti is facing an undetermined spell on the sidelines with a knee injury, meaning Valverde could be without his best centre-half for some, if not all, of a spell in which Barca will face Tottenham, Valencia, Sevilla, Inter and Real Madrid one after another.
Then again, even the Frenchman has been shaky so far this season, as underlined by his dismissal for two yellow cards in the Blaugrana’s Champions League opener against PSV at Camp Nou.
On that occasion, Messi’s genius had already decided the game in Barca’s favour and, even with a brief numerical advantage, the visitors were unable to trouble the scoreboard.
However, Spurs, Barca’s opponents at Wembley on Wednesday, will be far more confident of exposing a defence shorn of the services of the suspended – and now injured – Umtiti.
Certainly, Harry Kane will be looking forward to going up against Pique. The World Cup’s Golden Boot winner has started the season sluggishly himself but will be confident of taking advantage of the lapses in concentration that have plagued Pique this season.
Of course, Pique has had problems with maintaining his concentration in the past. The poker lover admitted himself two years ago that he often found it difficult to get 100 per cent focused until the second half of the season, when the stakes were at their highest.
He has also regularly recounted a story from the first few years of his Barca career which begins with former club captain Carles Puyol furiously ordering him to maintain his concentration during a break in play.
Pique tells his veteran central-defensive partner to calm down, pointing out that Barca are 4-0 up with just three minutes remaining.
“So what?” Puyol barks back. “I know you. Focus!”
Pique has required less minding in recent years. Just as Pique helped Puyol enjoy life more, Puyol helped Pique become more serious. There are less jokes these days and more business ventures.
There have been worrying dips in form, as in 2014 when he fell behind Jeremy Mathieu and Javier Mascherano in Luis Enrique’s pecking order, but Pique’s drive on and off the field has played a pivotal role in Barca’s sporting and financial success (it was Pique who initiated Barca’s current sponsorship agreement with Rakuten).
However, there are those who believe he has become too distracted by affairs outside of football – such as his attempts to create a World Cup of tennis – and the club were disappointed in his involvement in the production of the documentary in which Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann revealed that he would not be joining Barcelona this year.
It was hoped that his decision to call time on his international career after the World Cup would benefit Barca. That hasn’t proven the case, though, as his high error count illustrates.
In addition, it must also be pointed out that Pique’s powers of concentration haven’t been the only factor in his poor performances.
His positioning has been poor, resulting in the exposure of a worrying lack of pace, which was very much in evidence as Portu blazed by him in the lead-up to Girona’s second goal at Camp Nou.
Had it not been for Umtiti’s injury, it is highly likely that Pique would have been dropped for Saturday’s Liga clash with Athletic Club. As it was, he started and played Oscar De Marcos onside for the Basques’ opener in a 1-1 draw.
Pique will likely play again at Wembley, with Barca desperately hoping that he can rediscover his composure and lead their defence through a treacherous run of games.
Before the season began, he mused, “It’s 10 years now so each new year is another to enjoy.
“But I am not going to be like Puyol and say I’m going to be here for another 10 years until I’m 40; the next year he had to retire!
“I’ll enjoy each year as it comes and, when it’s time, it’s time.”
Despite his current struggles, it’s nowhere near time for Pique to start considering his future.
But it is time to refocus. Barca’s Champions League hopes hinge upon it.