The defensive lapse that led Piqué on the road to stardom
Ahead of the Champions League Final on the 28th May…
Defensive mistakes are the norm in football. You make one, you get up, dust yourself off and not let it affect you. However, the story of Gerard Piqué’s remarkable rise to stardom since his move from Manchester United to FC Barcelona is an extraordinary one. For the man they call “Piquénbauer”, the first, rather unforgettable, chapter of this story takes place in Bolton in the 07/08 season, at the Reebok Stadium.
Here, on a cold and dismal November afternoon, he was making only his second start of the season. A little over ten minutes had been played in what started a cagey affair, and an out-of-sorts United had just conceded a free-kick. Bolton’s Ivan Campo had prepared to deliver. His cross, perfectly flighted into the penalty area, had to be dealt with. It wasn’t.
“I misjudged a header and Nicolas Anelka scored for them, and we lost 1-0,” Piqué recalls. “I looked back at that day when Ferguson lost some confidence in me. He didn’t say so, but I sort of felt then I would be moving on.” It was this simple mistiming of a header that had ultimately lost the game for the beleaguered Red Devils, and appeared to signal the end for the Spaniard.
“From that day, everything changed,” writes Piqué in his autobiography El Viaje de Ida Y Vuelta (literally, ‘A back and forth trip’). “Sir Alex stopped trusting me. He has always denied that point, but it is one of those feelings one has and I know it is true (translation from Guillem Balague).” Perhaps, you can dismiss this story (it is a translation, after all). The words ‘always denied that point’ is a revelation that will surprise a few; and so we can never tell for certain how true his claims are. However, many agreed – even before Piqué released this autobiography – that the Bolton game spelt the end of his four-year tenure at the club.
The defender could not see any way through and despite having spent the past season in Spain with Zaragoza, still regarded himself naive, finding it difficult in such a competitive environment. He says he “was too young, and barring my path were two of the best centre-backs in the world in Rio and Vidic, who Sir Alex Ferguson rated more highly.” In truth, he was right to leave – as proven anyway as Guardiola continues to mould his team into the finest the game has ever seen – because he was always third choice, perhaps lesser. “Vidic and Ferdinand were, and are, such an excellent pairing that I could not see a way past them, and there were also Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Jonny Evans and Mikael Silvestre,” Piqué reflects.
Gerard Piqué’s rise has been unprecedented since he left United. Within a couple of years, he became a World Cup winner and part of Barcelona’s all-conquering treble winning side under the guidance of Pep Guardiola. However, it would be foolish to say that his meteoric rise as one of the world’s best defenders was all down to his move to Camp Nou, and Piqué recognises as much.
There are very few places that can develop players quite like Old Trafford, and although no longer as renown as Barça’s La Masia, Piqué prospered from the wealth of expertise that surrounded him (“I think that, for me, [Sir Alex] was a really helpful person. He will always be a second father.”) and the physical nature of the game enabled him to become a better player, allowing to him become more agile and aware “I never regretted my choice because my time in England made a man of me,” he says. “It was another way of playing, more direct and physical. I learned how to defend without the ball at United, I got a real wake-up call the first time some big bloke beat me to a couple of headers.”
He is thankful for his time at Old Trafford; there was even a moment where, so desperate was he to play a game, he ‘lied’ (his own words) when asked by Sir Alex if he had experience playing as a full-back: “I said, ‘Oh yes, lots of times in the Barça junior teams’. So I got drafted in at right-back for a game against West Ham. Fortunately, I did okay.” You can decide for yourself if that was desperation or just a lack of respect. Or a bit of both. But that no longer matter – Piqué can prove again on Saturday night, like he did in 2009, of just what United let go of – yet regardless of what happens, the 24-year-old is destined for even greater things.