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Analyzing Gerard Pique’s legacy at Barcelona: The occasional villain of a story incorrectly told

Time to set the record straight

Real Madrid v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Over the past several years, very few topics have divided Barcelona fans like that of Gerard Pique. Both on and off the pitch, the 35-year-old has made headline after headline, and usually not positive ones.

On Thursday, Pique announced that he is officially retiring from professional football, and Saturday’s match against Almeria will be his last at the Camp Nou.

He leaves Barca an eight-time La Liga champion and a three-time Champions League winner, with seven Copa del Rey trophies to his name as well. This is without even mentioning his Supercups, Club World Cups and of course, his World Cup and European Championship trophies with Spain. So why does he get so much stick from his own fans?

Real Madrid v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Pique was born a socio. His parents were passionate Barcelona fans, with his grandfather even being the club’s vice president, and they instilled Blaugrana values in him from a very early age.

When he was ten, he joined Barca’s youngest academy team at the time. After coming up through La Masia, he made the move to Manchester in 2004, and he returned to Barca in 2009 as an English and European champion.

Very few people would’ve left the dynasty created by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson for a certain former player just promoted from managing the B team. But Barcelona was in Pique’s blood, and everyone knew it.

Now back at home, he hit the ground running and didn’t look back. Partnered with captain Carles Puyol at the back, Pique was a crucial element of the Barcelona powerhouse that took the world by storm under Pep Guardiola, who actually ended up making a decent name for himself.

Barcelona’s capitain Carles Puyol (L) an Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

Once Guardiola left and Puyol retired, it was his turn to take the mantle, effectively marshalling Barca’s backline alongside Javier Mascherano and helping to lead the club to another treble in 2015. Throughout this time in his career, Pique was among the best in the planet and universally beloved by the fans. However, then things began to unravel for the Catalan.

In the years, and Champions League humiliations, that followed, it became clear that something was fundamentally wrong with the way Barca was being managed as a club. This became even clearer after losing Messi, the ultimate form of damage control who so often papered over the cracks.

A lot of the blame was (rightly) placed on former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who drove the club not just into economic shambles, but also further and further from its footballing identity.

At the same time, though, many fans began to blame the “old guard”, the players left over from Pep’s golden generation. Among these names were Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto, Sergio Busquets and of course, Pique.

After the 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich, a scathing indictment of a broken club, Pique said that Barca needed deep, structural change, and that he’d be the first to leave to make room for the next generation. Despite what many fans seem to think, this is exactly what he’s done.

It’s no secret that Pique isn’t the player he used to be (far from it in fact), and yes, in ideal circumstances, he would’ve left the club several seasons earlier. But people are so busy comparing him to his former glory that they completely miss the point that really matters.

Since he returned to Barcelona in 2009 up until this season, Pique has always been part of the best centre-back pairing available to the manager. I’ll say it again: not once, until this season, has he not been the first or second-choice central defender.

FC Barcelona v Valladolid - Liga Photo by Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images

He went from partnering Puyol to Mascherano, to Samuel Umtiti, then Clement Lenglet after Umtiti’s disastrous injury woes, and finally Ronald Araujo as he rose through the ranks to become the club’s best defender.

The first time Pique has truly fallen down the pecking order is this season, where Araujo, new signings Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen, and an improved Eric Garcia all bring more to the table than the 35-year-old. And now that he is no longer needed, he is leaving.

The fact of the matter is that none of the players who were on the bench while Pique continued to start would’ve done a better job, and it’s a lot easier to blame Pique for all the defensive struggles over the years than it is to accept that Barca was becoming accustomed to mediocrity, both on and off the pitch.

The argument is always made that legends like Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta left when they felt they were no longer at the top of their game. Meanwhile, Pique chose to stay out of his own vanity and is dragging the club down with him. But these legends had able deputies, or what looked like able deputies, to fill their roles in the team.

Puyol had Mascherano, one of the most underrated Barca players ever, Xavi had Ivan Rakitic, a Champions League final goalscorer, and Iniesta had record signing Philippe Coutinho. While Coutinho, and to some extent Rakitic, did not live up to the hype, they provided some sense of security to the team at the time. Pique had absolutely nobody even considered potentially capable of filling his role until this season.

Garcia last season was an unmitigated disaster, and continues to show inconsistency despite clear improvement. Lenglet and Umtiti became liabilities. Players like Jean-Clair Todibo and Yerry Mina never stood a chance. Even Oscar Mingueza, who showed promise, faded away very quickly. And I’d also like to point out that even with these new signings, we still have Marcos Alonso, the man considered too unreliable defensively to play as a left-back for Chelsea, playing at centre-back.

If Barca had performed better in the transfer market or developed better, Pique would’ve been able to leave earlier. But they didn’t, so he didn’t. Why is Bartomeu’s ineptitude Pique’s fault? He was very simply the best available, and let’s not forget he was absolutely crucial in securing a top-four spot last season, all while playing with a nasty adductor injury nearly all season.

CA Osasuna v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Personal issues aside, Pique also took pay cut after pay cut off the pitch to help the club register players and was key in securing Rakuten’s sponsorship in 2018 that allowed Barca to extend Messi. His final act of kindness towards the club he loves is to renounce all of the remaining salary the club owes him (around €30 million).

Despite all that he has done for the club in over a decade of service, he continues to be a hotly-contested controversy among Barcelona fans. Pique is often associated with the recent failures of this current team, but correlation does not equal causation.

At the end of the day, he did the best that he could, for as long as he could, for the team that has been his lifelong home. Now, it’s time to move on and he knows that. It may have been time to move on years ago, but there was no plan in place for that to happen and that shouldn’t be held against him.

Pique should be remembered for all that he has achieved on the pitch for Barcelona: a key part of one of football’s greatest-ever dynasties. And like he said in his farewell, he will be back. His playing career might be done, but his story at Barcelona is far from over, and that should be universally seen as good news.

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