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Ones That Got Away: Gerard Pique

In the summer of 2004, a 17-year-old Spanish central defensive midfielder decided to leave the Barcelona youth academy to join Manchester United. His name was Gerard Pique.

Moved into central defence, over the next two seasons he would make a handful of appearances for United before being loaned to Real Zaragoza in 2006, scoring three goals in 28 appearances. He returned to United in 2007-08 and made nine appearances in the Premier League and three Champions League appearances (scoring two goals), earning himself a UEFA Champions League medal in the process…and then he was gone.

But what happened? How did such a talented young, centre back escape from what was arguably the greatest team in the world at that point? It was simple, he was third in the pecking order behind the greatest centre-back pairing in the world at the time Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

At the time Pique says he couldn’t see a way past the formidable centre-back pairing, as per the Manchester Evening News in 2015:

“The centre-backs, Rio Ferdinand, Vidic. I was really unlucky. They never got injured. Then I left and then they started to get injuries! This is football but I’m not really worried. It’s true that I was happy in Manchester even though I didn’t play as much as I wanted to.”

It makes sense, Pique was 21 years old and progressing into an amazing centre back, but there was no way he was dislodging such a potent partnership and, as with any good footballer, he believed in himself and wanted to move for first team football. According to Pique, Sir Alex understood:

“I’ll always be grateful to Sir Alex, who was like a second father to me, for letting me move back to Barcelona. He wanted me to stay and fight for a place, but he understood what Barca meant to me.”

And what a move it was. Pique was brought in at the start of Barcelona’s most successful dominance of world football, under the newly appointed Pep Guardiola and under the tutelage of Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique rose to become one of the greatest centre-backs in modern football, winning every trophy possible at club and international level (not to mention his own personal honours).

A thoroughly modern defender, Pique combined strength and aerial dominance with technique and fine passing skills, often being the man to start Barca’s tika-taka attacks from the back. He has often been compared to German legend Franz Beckenbauer (there’s even a Spanish beer named this in his honour!) and at the age 30 of he still has a few years left in the tank.

Was it a mistake for Sir Alex Ferguson to let Pique go? In hindsight, no. United were no weaker for his leaving, at the time. Vidic and Ferdinand continued to be a great first choice pairing for another five years before age and injury got the better of them and Pique would have never grown into the player he is now as their understudy for that length of time. It is only in recent years that United have been crying out for a top-class centre-back. Maybe if he had replaced either of the two as the first choice then things wouldn’t be as difficult in the back line as they are now but that’s a debate for another day.

All we can do is look back and admire Sir Alex’s eye for talent and wonder what the current situation of the club would be if Pique was still pulling on a red jersey and stepping out onto the Old Trafford pitch.

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