Ask anyone to make a list of the finest defenders on the planet and the chances are that Gerard Pique's name will feature. Boasting an exquisite blend of skill, strength and intelligence, the classy 24-year-old has proved himself one of the most complete performers around for club and country in recent years.
A serial medal collector with his beloved Barcelona and a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ winner with Spain, Pique’s fellow professionals have also voted him into the FIFA/FIFPro World XI for the past two years. In conversation with FIFA.com, the former Manchester United man took the time to tell us about his extraordinary recent success and the challenges that lay ahead in 2012.
FIFA.com: Gerard, how does it feel to be chosen as part of the FIFA/FIFPro World XI again?
Gerard Pique: It’s a real honour being part of a team alongside the world’s best. Even more so because this XI was chosen by our fellow players, who are the ones that know best.
That selection capped another wonderful year, during which you and Barcelona won almost every competition you entered. What was the secret behind all this success?
Pep Guardiola. Ever since he came back to the club, he has kept us at the very top thanks to the way he sees football and the way he motivates us. We won virtually everything last year, which makes me very proud and satisfied. Particularly because I’m doing all of this on my home turf, at my hometown club and the one I’ve always supported.
Staying on Guardiola, can you give us a little more insight into what makes him such a special coach?
On one hand, he sees football in ways nobody else does, and then he explains it better than anyone. Lots of coaches just tell you to move right or move left, but he gives you the reasons why, which means you clearly understand why you’re doing something. And so, without even realising it, you learn more and more every day and start to make your own decisions out on the pitch. On top of that, you have the way he motivates us. Loads of teams have won a lot of titles but then started losing their hunger, whereas we’re getting hungrier all the time. We want to have that feeling of pleasure, when you feel like you’re the best, again and again. Pep doesn’t let us take our foot off the pedal. He’s always on our case and trying to get the very best out of each one of us.
When we spoke to Guardiola himself, he told us how important it was to treat players like adults and make them responsible for their own actions…
He makes you feel like a professional. It seems like he gives us more freedom, but in fact what he does is give us decision-making power. It’s as if he were saying, 'Do you really want to make a living doing this? Do you want to be the greatest and win lots of trophies? It all depends on you. I’ll let you spend the night before a game at home, doing whatever you like, but you should know that if you don’t play well, you won’t start the next match.' This makes you much more mature as well as making you feel you owe him something, so you feel like you have to perform out on the pitch.
Something else that also catches the eye is that this Barça team proved they can find their best form on the biggest occasions, such as the 2011 UEFA Champions League final against Manchester United and in clásicos against Real Madrid…
I thought we played a brilliant game against United. Not only was it one of the best performances I’ve been involved in, it was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Not just the result, but the way we won too – by playing well, dominating the game and creating chances. Normally in finals you see a lot of nervousness, with teams just trying to grab a goal and then cling on to a 1-0 win. The same thing happened against Madrid [as against United], because we’re now so used to playing games that are like finals. This team knows how to perform on the big occasions and it’s slight edges like that which make the difference between winning titles and falling short.
Barcelona have often deployed a back three this season. Where did the idea come from and how have the team gone about working on it?
We started doing it in pre-season more or less, and the gaffer got the idea because he felt we were getting too predictable: everyone knew all about us and played with every man behind the ball. The idea behind the 3-4-3 is to make us more attacking, give us more possession, and help us create more goalscoring chances. Having started working on it in pre-season, we’ve had to grow more comfortable with it during the season, because it’s not an easy system.
Particularly as a defender…
You have to do much more running. After matches you’re noticeably more tired because you have to deal with more attacks, you get pulled out into wide areas. It’s more punishing for the centre-backs. That said, it’s been a very good thing for me personally, as it’s made me more versatile.
You’ve been privileged enough to work under two greats in the shape of Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson. How different are they?
Very. Ferguson is a manager and he often doesn’t come down to the training pitch. He stays in his office and does a lot of different tasks at the club. I think that he’s more of a father figure, at least that’s how he was with me when I joined them at 17. He was a great motivator: the way he spoke in the moments before games was fantastic. Guardiola, meanwhile, spends all day with the players and then sits through ten hours of video so he can show us footage of our opponents and how to attack them. Maybe it’s simply a question of how long they’ve been coaching: Pep’s just starting out while Sir Alex is much more experienced.
In general terms though, there are major differences between the role of a coach in Spain and a manager in England, right?
Yes, even the dugouts in the Premier League are higher up and aren’t covered - you’re almost sat right next to the fans! The countries have different cultures and their football is different too. It’s very passionate in England, it’s a fiesta: you turn up and there’s a brilliant atmosphere, the stadium’s full and the fans never stop cheering you on, even if you’re losing. In Spain it’s a bit trickier, culturally speaking, because the fans tend to stay at home more and the stadiums are only full for the bigger games. Perhaps we’re a bit more reserved in that sense, we don’t get behind the players as much, but we do demand more from them.
Finally, though 2011 was undoubtedly a wonderful year, there are greater challenges ahead in 2012. In La Liga, for instance, Real Madrid are already clear at the top and Barça have found the going tougher. What are your thoughts on that?
I suppose that when you’ve won as much as we have, it makes things tougher, because every opponent gives 110 per cent. In their eyes, being able to beat us is a real feat. Besides which, our games are seen across the globe and everyone puts us under the microscope. However much we want to try new things and make small adjustments, people know how we play, sit very deep and line up with six or seven defenders, especially away from home. At Camp Nou the pitch is bigger, so there’s more space, and the fans apply pressure and it makes things easier. We’ve also been a little short of luck recently. Anyway, the only thing we can do is keep working hard and the wins will come - as will the silverware. I’ve no doubt about that.
Click this Classic Players link to read about the superb careers of former Barcelona players Johan Cruyff, Sandor Kocsis, Michael Laudrup, Romario & Ricardo Zamora.