Unlocking the mystery that is Gerard Pique

Gerard Pique in action for Barcelona. (Emilio Morenatti/AP).

In September 2010, as Barcelona began a campaign that would see the club win both La Liga and the Champions League, manager Pep Guardiola had the Metodo 3 detective agency follow defender Gerard Pique to a pop concert.

Concerned with the then-23-year-old’s affection for the nightlife, Guardiola was later briefed on the number of drinks Pique consumed and the time the World Cup-winner had returned home. As Spanish outlet El Confidencial would end up reporting more than two years later when Metodo 3 went out of business, Pique realized he was being tracked but was reassured by the club that it was merely the paparazzi on his tail.

He would have believed them.

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His relationship with singer Shakira was still a secret, and it wouldn’t be until February 2011 that Guardiola would directly press him on the issue. By then Metodo 3 agents had discovered his favourite bar and had frequently watched him return to his parents’ house in Sant Just Desvern in the early hours of the morning.

It’s hardly a coincidence that Pique’s playing time diminished notably the following season, which would be Guardiola’s last at Barcelona.

More questions than answers

To unlock the mystery that is Pique, and get a handle on the reasons behind his increasingly erratic play and reduced importance to Barcelona’s first team, one must first consider Pique the person—though even then what remains are more questions than answers.

Well-born and well-educated, he is the grandson of a former Barcelona vice-president and has done post-graduate work in Economics through the University of Navarra’s IESE Business School. He has never shied away from commenting on political matters and is an outspoken Catalan nationalist.

He is also a prankster.

Whether chasing Bojan Krkic, half-naked, in front of rolling cameras or lighting off stink-bombs in airplanes and media rooms, Pique, over the course of his career, has tended to infuse his football with a bit of fun. No doubt his capers grated on the disciplinarian Guardiola or more recently on current Barcelona boss Luis Enrique, whose regime is even more dictatorial than that of his famous predecessor.

Enrique, who arrived at Camp Nou in May, has imposed strict rules regarding the use of social media, curfews and presentation. He will have been irritated when Pique revealed the summer sale of Cesc Fabregas to Chelsea, exasperated when he attended a late World Cup basketball game and outraged when he went through a pre-match warm-up with his shoelaces undone.

Add a lack of pace over the first one or two yards and generally deteriorating play to his antics and it’s little wonder Pique has started just four of Barcelona’s nine matches to date, while being an unused substitute in two others.

With a Premier League title, four La Liga crowns, three Champions Leagues, a European Championship and a World Cup already in his display case, has he lost the motivation to remain an elite defender? Has his personal life crowded out his professional one? Has he simply declined? Does he care?

On top again

Back in August, during Barcelona’s pre-season preparations, Pique admitted what had been evident to most observers for some time: that he—a UEFA Team of the Year member from 2010 to 2012—was no longer one of the world’s premiere defenders.

“Last year I wasn’t my best,” he said. “It’s a challenge to be the best again. With Luis Enrique, as well as myself, I’m sure I’ll be on top again.”

Enrique, however, has so far preferred the partnership of Javier Mascherano and Jeremy Mathieu in big matches against the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Athletic Bilbao, leaving Pique with lesser opponents such as APOEL and Malaga.

Mathieu, who is one of Barcelona’s few left-footed centre-backs, has settled nicely at Camp Nou following his €20 million acquisition in July and is clearly one of Enrique’s preferred defenders at the club. Mascherano, meanwhile, has followed up an impressive World Cup with a string of standout performances, in which his intelligence has seen him both distribute the ball accurately from high positions and contribute important interceptions.

But neither player is especially useful in the air—something that was painfully evident in last week’s 3-2 defeat at Parc des Princes. Mascherano, in particular, was well-beaten on the David Luiz opener, and the loss forced Enrique to give Pique an opportunity against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.

He took it.

In addition to playing the long, arcing ball to Lionel Messi for Barcelona’s opener, Pique looked as close to his old self as he has in months. And the display did not go unnoticed.

“We improved at the back,” admitted Enrique following the 2-0 win. “We conceded three [in Paris] while today we kept a clean sheet…I’d say we are on an upward curve.”

Pique will likely be handed a fifth start of the season later this month at home to Eibar, and if he again impresses Enrique a Champions League match against Ajax could follow three days later. Tie up his shoes and leave the stink bombs at home and he could suddenly be on good terms with his manager. That, and build on his showing at Rayo.

“I do not think I’m one of the best centre-backs in the world,” he conceded two months ago. “I have to get that title back.”

And he just might. If he wants to.

Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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