It might seem strange to talk about defensive solidity, just days after Barca’s unforeseen collapse in their second leg Champions League semi-final tie with Liverpool. But the Catalan giants’ successful La Liga campaign has been largely underpinned by the return to form of central defensive rock, Gerard Pique.
At the beginning of the 2018/19 campaign, Spanish newspapers had already begun to write Pique’s football obituary, claiming that the 32-year-old had peaked and lacked the consistency to continue playing at such a high level. Defensive prowess often goes overlooked in sides like Barcelona’s that are so easy on the eye. But Pique’s new partnership with Frenchman, Clement Lenglet has been the basis of another La Liga title.
Form is temporary, class is permanent
All too often, the talk of Barca’s overreliance on Lionel Messi sees the likes of Pique left in the dark. However, he has certainly proven in the last nine months that form is temporary, and class is permanent. Pique’s remarkable return to form in 2018/19 may be largely due to the security and faith shown in him by the club’s hierarchy. In January 2018, Pique was awarded a new four-year contract, extending his stay at the Nou Camp until at least June 2022, with an eye-watering buy-out clause of €500m.
Pique has been a part of the Barcelona fabric since 1997 when he joined the club’s academy as a fledgling ten-year-old. Following a four-year stint with English giants, Manchester United, which taught him how to toughen up and deal with the physical rigours of top European football, Pique returned to the Nou Camp under the managership of Pep Guardiola in 2008 and hasn’t left since. After returning to the heart of the Barca defence, Pique’s success is there for all to see. He has three Champions League winners’ medals, six La Liga titles, five Copa del Reys, five Spanish Supercopas, three European Super Cups and three Club World Cups. An additional La Liga winners’ medal has been well and truly earnt in 2018/19 too.
Pique taking the “Puyol role” and developing Lenglet
A player with a steely, winning mentality yet someone with exceptional calmness and vision on the ball, Pique’s attributes have always stood him in good stead. His role in the development of the French centre half and Clement Lenglet should not be forgotten. Lenglet, who moved to La Liga in January 2017 after Sevilla paid €5.4m to French Ligue 1 side Nancy for his services, made a real impression in Andalusia. In fact, ESPN FC named Lenglet in their Champions League Best XI. Barca were so impressed that they triggered his €35m release clause, seeing him as a long-term replacement for Pique in the years to come. However, for the time being, Pique has forged a rock-solid partnership with Lenglet, contributing to Barca conceding less than a goal per game over the course of this season.
Pique’s partnership with Lenglet is reminiscent of when Pique was the up-and-coming star, playing alongside Barca’s former old-stager, Carlos Puyol. Pique struck up a close friendship with Puyol throughout his early years after returning from Manchester United. Puyol’s will-to-win and passion for the game rubbed off well on Pique, who still looks like he has plenty of stamina in the tank to win more trophies. After signing his latest four-year deal, Pique insisted it had always been his “desire” to “end [his] career here [at the Nou Camp]”. Outside of football, Pique remains just as competitive. He is a regular entrant to some of the biggest poker tournaments in Barcelona, notably the $10,000 High Roller. It’s that desire to battle and push himself to the limits that has seen him become a true Barcelona great.
With well over 300 La Liga appearances to his name and more than a century of Champions League starts, Pique is a Rolls Royce of a defender, built more like a cultured Bobby Moore than an aggressor like his former team-mate Puyol. It’s difficult to imagine Barcelona without Gerard Pique now. He has already intimated that he would like to go on and become the club’s president in the years to come, such is his affection for his boyhood club. In today’s finance-driven era of football, it’s truly refreshing to see a homegrown stalwart remain the fulcrum of arguably the best club on this side of the planet.