Yesterday’s Depor post didn’t deal with Sergio Busquets because he warrants a much deeper look than could be afforded by a paragraph.
When many think of Busquets, it is this way: the reference. The player who embodies the way that Barça should play, and would like to play.
Some of that is because of his streak of extraordinary accomplishment as the invisible man in Guardiola’s Barça. He isn’t a physical specimen. If you walked past him on the street you wouldn’t immediately identify him as even an athlete, much less an international football superstar. This fits. But in this odd nether world of influence, of spaces closed and moves anticipated, Busquets is king.
I was trying to explain what Busquets does and how he does it to someone, and it was a struggle. Because he doesn’t do anything per se, even as he does everything. He isn’t a DM in that destructive sense, even as this is the nominal position he plays. He isn’t really a CM, because the tasks of delivering balls to forwards is the job of another. He plays too deeply to be an AM. And yet he embodies elements of all three in his role of … essential midfielder. When Guardiola’s Barça was inspiring sonnets of praise, Busquets was at the apex of every midfield triangle.
It’s easy to draw Guardiola analogs, but he isn’t that, either. He doesn’t dictate play the way that No. 4 used to in a role that can best be called an embodiment of Xavi and Busquets. And it’s easy to say that Busquets just is. To say he’s an extraordinary player would be selling him short, because the best possible Barça in recent years has only been possible when Busquets was at his best.
When he was introduced in 2008, promoted by Guardiola, many wondered what in the hell his job was. When he began taking playing time from Toure Yaya, the howls were long and loud because it’s easy to look at this praying mantis capering about the midfield and wonder how it was going to stop a napkin blowing past, much less an attacker. Then Yaya was sold, and all hell broke loose. The move was stupid, until it wasn’t. “Now we don’t have a DM. Hmph!”
But that DM construct is limiting, because there is a breed of player who influences a match without having a direct effect on it. Xavi can dominate a match without a single assist or goal. Iniesta can control a match by doing that thing he used to do where he just keeps the ball, and decides to give it to an attacker only when that person is in a perfect position to do harm.
Busquets is another one. In many ways he’s like a great rendition of Brahms Symphony No. 4 and that exquisite, waltz-like opening movement. A great conductor lets the space between the notes linger. It’s still on the beat, and that non-music is an irreplaceable part of the music. That space, that absence of notes, is Busquets. The great facilitator, the man who lives at the base. If you want to understand Busquets, this video is excellent:
He’s usually open because he lives in that realm between an opponent’s midfield and their attackers, one in front of him, the other behind him being tended to by the defense. For a long time, he wasn’t appreciated. He’s also done some things to harm himself: the “peek-a-boo” incident, the allegation of a racist taunt directed at Marcelo and the accusations that he went down entirely too easily, with a default setting of clutching his face, even if kicked in the ankle.
What is probably more difficult to understand for his supporters is that what’s happening to Busquets now is in part a consequence of a team’s tactical evolution, with an outcome still to be determined. Busquets isn’t as effective as he used to be. He’s only 26, so it ain’t like time is passing him by via the inevitable diminution of skills that befalls every footballer. Not at his age. So what is happening?
Simply put, Busquets is living in a world in which his playground is being taken away. We first began to see signs of it when opponents finally figured out that a big part of what Barça does lives in Busquets. So they began to attack him directly via a physical midfielder with pace, to mark his incessant little movements in search of the open spaces that always found him at the base of the attack. In doing that, it cut off the head in many ways as Busquets could pick passes, spring wingers, act as a safety valve, alter the direction of the attack … pretty much everything, all the time. Remove Busquets and you could also isolate Xavi, while making Iniesta chase the ball. The overall effect would be to move the Barça attack away from an opponent attacking zone as everyone moved back in search of the ball. That’s how important Busquets is.
But other things happened. He was hampered by a couple of nagging injuries that contributed to a lack of effectiveness, but they were nothing like what the damage done to him by verticalidad. It’s no coincidence that some of his decline in form and return to form came in the schism that was Tata Martino’s season, the “Get ‘em!” phase, and the return to The Way. But because of the unruly qualities of Cesc Fabregas to name just one, Busquets was too often deprived of a destination for his passes so he had to hold the ball, sometimes too long.
Another thing that Busquets is doing, often to his detriment, is playing for the foul. He has always had a propensity, thanks to his extraordinary facility with the ball, to draw fouls and cards on opponent midfielders. This helps Barça because that player then has to be more tentative. But this, for Busquets, has become something of a thing. It used to come as a consequence of his dishing and receiving. Now it’s almost as if he seeks the foul. He gets in trouble, will feel the contact and go down. But increasingly officials are having none of it, and the result is turned possession in a dangerous part of the pitch.
Good Busi, bad Busi
It’s easy to excuse Busquets as systems change, but if you watch Busquets when he’s playing well, he always takes the ball facing the attack, head up and waiting to distribute. When Busquets isn’t playing well or is being pressed, he takes the ball with his back to the attack, or perpendicular to it. So he has to take, settle and then do what he does. Everything becomes less metronomic because the timekeeper is a beat late.
As Barça press for a more direct approach, as fullbacks create width in the attacking third, Busquets finds himself in a world of yawning chasms where his half-spaces used to be. Never all that physical, fast or direct, he struggles to cover those spaces. A lot of what we’re seeing from Busquets that has people questionting his form is tactical. The game is changing around him, and he’s struggling to keep up with it. Iniesta is having many of the same difficulties.
Eric Abidal’s departure didn’t just hurt the defense. He was Busquets’ best friend in a tactical sense because Abidal wasn’t all that interested in attacking although he would from time to time. He was interested in hanging out the “Closed” sign on the left side, exhibiting a pace and range that let Busquets focus on doing what he does best. Compare that to now, where the back four is deep, Alba and Alves are up the pitch and Busquets essentially is a DM with way too much acreage to account for.
The difficult questions abound, but at their root is what needs to change to get the best Busquets back, or have tactics and the evolution of a system bypassed a player who at another time, was crucial to the team’s attack. Rakitic is off toward the box, Iniesta is making curlicues with Neymar. Does the current Barça argue for a more traditional DM with passing skills like Mascherano, rather than the more cerebral influence of Busquets?
Don”t hate the playa …
It’s hard to get the mind around next steps for Busquets. Yet the biggest caution should be to not blame Enrique because his system is in part making a reference point struggle, because as the Enrique system approaches something close to its tactical ideal, Busquets is also returning to a familiar role as the midfield tightens. His role will never be the same because the game isn’t the same; not as played by Barça and emphatically not by opponents trying to defeat Barça. He will have to adapt.
Busquets has moved up the pitch as Mascherano fills that hybrid DM/CB role, dependent upon what an opponent is doing in attack. Just as Puyol did, essentially. Against Atleti Busquets was often his old, metronomic self. He needs time to read play because his physical skills won’t allow him to deal with an attack with pace and physicality. But if he can read play and anticipate where things are going, he can be there to stick a foot in. The difference between a successful tackle and a foul or card for Busquets is often the pace of an attack and how much time he has to read it. Destructive improvisation isn’t his forte as it is Mascherano’s.
At one time many assumed Busquets to be the heir apparent to Xavi. Both have the same magical knack for evading pressure and picking out a pass. But Busquets hasn’t evolved into that more offensive role. It is unfair to have expected him to? Valid question even as we acknowledge that the need for a Xavi analog is pressing. Not Iniesta’s modified Xavi, but the full Xavi.
But we also have to ask whether than role has validity in an Enrique system that scrambles the forwards and in many ways reduces the midfield to messengers rather than direct influencers as they shuttle the ball between the lines and help with the press. If you watch the Atleti match, there are extended periods where Busquets doesn’t touch the ball as the attack has moved forward, outside of his sphere of influence. And every time someone passed to Busquets, Mandzukic would charge him hard. So the ball would move from Mascherano to Iniesta or Messi, from Pique to Rakitic.
Has the game passed Busquets by? Far from it. Sunday’s match should still be fresh enough for us to remember that exquisite ball that sprung Messi loose for the second goal. Busquets. As Barça played out of its own end to start the rush for that third goal, Busquets was the can opener.
The game is cruel in that there is often a rush to declare something past. Many want to see more Mascherano in midfield. That is certainly a tactical wrinkle, but one of the biggest tasks that Enrique will have is how to retain a successful and Barça and evolve the style, while not losing the best parts of a player who has been for so long, its reference.