Sergio Busquets: Measuring his real value

January 26, 2013

As an individual Sergio Busquets can seem unspectacular, but his real worth must be assessed on the way he influences the Barça collective.

Josie Montserrat

There is never a good time to write about Sergio Busquets. For that he is too consistent. Few are the goals to praise him for; rare are the noteworthy assists. When the limelight does fall on him, it is because he has stumbled into it: alleged racial abuse, play-acting or other nastiness.

Recently, however, his critics have gone quieter. Many were surprised when Vicente del Bosque gave that ringing endorsement at the 2010 World Cup. “If I could be any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets,” he said. “He is the first to get the team moving. When he plays, the football is more fluid. With Busquets in the team, our football is better.” Today Busquets’s quality is much like America’s gun control problem: if you still have not realised it, you probably never will.

We do not need stats to justify his contribution. We know about the 90 per cent-something pass completion. We know that at Barça only Xavi makes more passes. We know about his positioning, tactical intelligence, aerial strength. Seen is isolation, even that can seem underwhelming. Rather, the more appropriate analysis is the manner in which he influences the collective.

Defence I: Transitions

From a defensive perspective, Busquets is excellent: tackling, heading, positioning, covering the full-backs. But while this is destructive work to others, Busquets adds to it a layer of constructivity. Where others tackle, he tries to intercept. Instead of conceding throw-ins, he aims to recover the ball and initiate attacks. A potential transition is always on his mind. By virtue of being Barça’s chief ball-winner, he is often, as Del Bosque says, the first to get the team moving.

Attack I: Security in possession

Just as there are attacking aspects of his defensive game, so are there defensive aspects of his attacking game. The most obvious is his security in possession. Considering the way Barça play, the importance of having this in the deep midfield area is difficult to overstate. In their 4-3-3, when playing out from the back, Busquets is the opposition’s pressure point. With the full-backs positioned as wingers, the centre-backs hugging the touchline, and the two midfielders awaiting lay-offs, Busquets becomes isolated in the middle.

Busquets (1)

Tricky: a typical situation where Busquets is under pressure

In such scenarios, he often faces his own goal too, with players rushing at him from behind like a pack of wild dogs. Put anyone else in that situation repeatedly and they are bound to lose it, just as Barça discovered with Thiago against Málaga.

Analysing Thiago’s mistake, one Sky commentator criticised José Manuel Pinto’s pass. In effect, that is to attack the Barça ideology. Victor Valdés often makes the same pass – the one splitting two attackers on its way to Busquets. It is a cornerstone in Barça’s way of relieving pressure. The pass, of course, was not the problem. It was the recipient. Yet the situation did remind us why teams adopt the ‘better safe than sorry’ policy: without the right players, the pass is risky. The exceptions, such as Swansea, do adopt gifted players in the anchor role (Leon Britton and, just after Roberto Martínez took charge, Ferrie Bodde; a brilliant Xabi Alonso-esque Dutchman whose progress was plagued by injuries). Just as Busquets, their presence make the romantic Barça ideology pragmatic. Without them, it can become suicidal.

Attack II: Speed

Barcelona have two diamonds in their passing cycle. The attacking one, which creates the chances – Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi – and the defensive one, which plays the ball out from the back – Valdés, Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Busquets.

Busquets (2)

Circles and districts: Barcelona’s two diamonds

In both phases, speed is fundamental. “They move the ball so fast that by the time you get there, it’s gone,” Michael Laudrup said when coaching Mallorca. The fact that Busquets, arguably the world’s finest one-touch player, is the one unifying the two diamonds is of immense importance to Barça’s ball circulation. This is sure to have been a factor in why Javier Mascherano was converted to central defence: he slowed down the team. Compared to Busquets, anyone would. The Barça machinery may have run without him, but nowhere near as smoothly.

Attack III: Penetration

This is where Busquets really stands out from other midfield anchors. Combining the two attacking points above, he can transform a risky defensive situation into a threatening attack – all in a pass. His spacial awareness is remarkable. This is his biggest asset: the ability to switch Barça’s passing game from the defensive cycle to the attacking one. So quickly. Swap him with anyone else and you have a cut-off point: the replacement will be pressured, and most likely return it to the centre-backs. There is no progression. “What is the most difficult thing when you start with the ball in the back four?” asks Laudrup. “It is to give it to somebody who is facing the opponent’s goal.” It is a reoccurring challenge with the way Barça play. Their solution is often Busquets.

But his passing abilities are not limited to defensive positions. Turning to his role in the attacking diamond, Busquets is excellent too at the ‘modern’ deep-lying playmaking role. He is arguably the closest to Xabi Alonso at finding players between the lines. Like Alonso, his passes are incisive and extremely quick, zipping straight to feet. But there is generally less dwelling. He rarely spends time finding options. Instead he plays it first-time. Sometimes he can take out entire sections of the opposition in one move – like a flat midfield four. In this way, Barcelona can go from calm build-up play to a storming attack in a single pass.

Summary

If Messi is the X Factor of the Barça collective, Busquets is the ingredient that makes it operate so smoothly. He elevates a great possession side into a near-unbeatable one. Casting him as the world’s best in his role is difficult – because no one else is able to play it. An easier task is to realise that Del Bosque was right all along. When he plays, the football is more fluid. With Busquets in the team, our football is better.

– – –

Busquets picture: Josie Montserrat

Thiago video: KiLLeRwut

The two Busquets videos: allasFCB3 (follow him on YouTube and Twitter)

10 comments

[…] Busquets, is a phenom & has redefined the position of the deep lying central mid-fielder. Here is an excellent piece on Busquets’s extraordinary ability […]

by Barca starts favourits in Berlin ’15 – Tactical Preview | Madan Thinks on June 5, 2015 at 6:40 pm. #

[…] The defensive midfielder can be described as the backbone of tiki taka tactics as everything revolves around his player role and duty: his positioning and movements from phase to phase, or in other words his mentality and responsibilities. This is also one of the positions I have had the hardest time to replicate as I have found it difficult to recreate the movements and duties of Sergio Busquets. […]

by Football Manager Player Roles of Tiki Taka Tactics Explained | Passion for Football Manager on June 1, 2015 at 4:57 pm. #

Loved your article buuuut 3 things, i think Andrea pirlo and xabi are tied as far as zipping passes go and busquets the closes sorry i gotta disagree. 2nd i feel very confident saying marco verrati or toni kroos could play the “busquets” role quite well. 3rd this is just my opinion masch is better defending mid i say this because masch can boss midfield with his awareness,strength,etc defensively is the best on the team period (lol, irony).

by Devin Haygood on November 23, 2014 at 5:01 am. #

Busquets’ level of concentration is outstanding, to constantly read passing lanes, 2 or 3 passes ahead, positions of other players. He always positions himself while Barca are in possession to be able to receive the ball and cut the opponents midfield in one pass. Also, his intelligence is impressive, if he’s not near the ball, he covers up ball side and shepherds the play into uncomfortable places.

by Shamsul Ali on February 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm. #

Best Busquets article I’ve read. For me, his best quality is his ability to withstand pressuring. It’s really incredible. It’s the foundation of Barca’s play

by Blaugrana7 on January 30, 2013 at 7:32 pm. #

Utrulig bra artikkel!

Busquets arbeida i skyggene; og det e flott at noken tek sej tid til å verdsette det!

Som Barca-supporter kunne ej ikkje tenkt mej ett Barca lag so godt som idag uten han. Tek du ut han og sett inn Song so synke tempoet 50 % ned, og det e ikkje overdrivd (og det e heller ikkje fordi Song e dårlig).

by Trygve Solstad on January 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm. #

Thank you for warm words for our hero Busquets!

by Patrick on January 27, 2013 at 12:57 am. #

due all respect to thiago who is amazing, the mistake that thiago made in the malaga game which lead to the goal, i think it makes us appreciate even more the work which busquets does and how unreplaceable he is in this system. he never afraids to offer himself for a pass, because he know he has the mind and the legs to pull this off.

good thing that he is just 24 and STILL improving. scary to think about how good he can get. this season he has really improved his vertical play and can find passes forward with such ease and defensivly he is better than ever.

by allas on January 26, 2013 at 8:23 pm. #

Yes, much agreed. I am struggling to recall a player who combines such hardened ball-winning qualities with those of a refined playmaker. His maturity is also remarkable. Frighting to envisage how good he will be at 30.

by Thore Haugstad on January 26, 2013 at 8:29 pm. #

“Casting him as the world’s best in his role is difficult – because no one else is able to play it.” I would say Rijkaard on his return to Ajax (1993-95) was, if anything, better at the role, but Rijkaard was 31 when he went back to Ajax. I’m struggling to think of anyone in the modern game able to play like this, and at the age of 24 (as pointed out by yourself and others) that’s remarkable.

by Harvey on March 19, 2013 at 10:06 pm. #