Sergio Busquets: Unheralded, astonishing genius

Fans of Barcelona have been privileged to witness an endless list of world class players perform feats of individual brilliance and technical wizardry at the Camp Nou and all across Europe over the last decade. The likes of Ronaldinho, Larsson, Henry, Eto’o, Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Sanchez, Neymar, Suarez, and the incomparable Lionel Messi have brought millions to their feet in unison to applaud their emphatic destruction of innumerable hapless defenses. At the back, Victor Valdes has been protected by the likes of the evergreen Carles Puyol, Rafa Marquez, and now Gerard Pique, while van Bommel, Edgar Davids, Yaya Toure, Deco Xavi, and Iniesta have passed teams into submission. Barcelona’s players have been known as much for the visually striking beauty of their footballing ability, a veritable feast for the senses, as the integrity of their character that has gone a long way towards justifying the phrase most associated with the Catalan giants: for the fantastic players to have played for the club, Barcelona truly are more than just a club.

When judging Barcelona’s players purely on those two characteristics, however, we run the risk of allowing a few brilliant names to escape our attention. One of the greatest players in the club’s recent history  fulfills neither: you could go long periods in a game without noticing his presence, and he has gained something of a reputation for excessively dramatic reactions to physical challenges, but make no mistake about it — Sergio Busquets may just be a genius, and the perfect embodiment of the club’s philosophy and ideas on how the game should be played.

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Together with fellow La Masia graduates Xavi and Iniesta, Busquets formed what some would consider the greatest central midfield partnership in the history of the game, thanks in no small part to a trophy cabinet overflowing with accolades at the club, international, and individual levels. While many stalwarts of the game have waxed lyrical about Xavi and Iniesta, the list of public admirers of the 27-year-old defensive midfielder is markedly shorter. Here are some of the best quotes about Busquets from those who have observed him from close quarters, and are best qualified to talk about his talent.

“If I could be any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets. He does everything; he always helps the team, he is generous, and 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.” — Vicente del Bosque

“You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.” — Vicente del Bosque

“Busi sees you quickly, he always takes the simple option. He reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches a possible.” Xavi

“Without Busquets, Barcelona and Spain could never had achieved what we have achieved.”  Xavi

“I have never seen such an intelligent player on the pitch.” — Xavi

“Look at [Sergio] Busquets – the best midfielder there is playing one-touch. He doesn’t need more. He controls, looks and passes in one touch. Some need two or three and, given how fast the game is, that’s too slow.” — Xavi (per the Guardian)

“He’s an example to everyone. He’s a leader in the team, speaks well on the pitch & he’s never wrong.” — Xavi

“I think [Busquets is] my natural replacement in the dressing room and on the pitch. He’s destined to be the leader for Barcelona for the next decade, without a shadow of a doubt.” — Xavi (UEFA.com)

“He is a gift for any coach. The speed of his passing is perfect and he is the kind of player you don’t need to explain anything to. You just put him in his position and he performs.” Johan Cruyff

“Positionally, he seems like a veteran with or without the ball. With the ball he makes what is difficult look easy: he disposes of the ball with one or two touches. Without the ball, he gives us a lesson: that of being in the right place to intercept and running just to recover the ball.” — Johan Cruyff

“He thinks more about the team than himself.” Pep Guardiola

“He’s the best defensive central midfielder in the world. Barcelona have a priceless player. He’s tactically very strong and will only become more important for Barca in the future. He can follow in the footsteps of Carles Puyol and Xavi. He’s very humble and calm, but doesn’t mind speaking up when he sees fit either. If I was reincarnated as a player, I’d like to be like him.” — Pep Guardiola

“He’s one of the greatest talents that has been given to Spanish football. [ . . . ] The first time I saw Busquets playing, I called a friend and said: ‘I saw a player from an extinct species’. He’s a star.” — Cesar Luis Menotti

“[Busquets] is a unique player, the most comprehensive out there and, for me, the best midfielder in the world.” — Luis Enrique

“We’re all fascinated by the thrills and frills, and the fantasy and flicks and touches, but it’s the simplicity of Busquets that really makes them (Barcelona tick), that gets them out of tight situations in their own third and the middle of the pitch, that sets up attacks. He’s a platform. I love him.” Rio Ferdinand

When a three-time Balon D’Or winner and manager of the Barcelona Dream Team of the 1990s, two World Cup-winning managers who worked with Zidane and Maradona, and one of Barcelona’s most iconic sons say this about Busquets, you just have to look past the aberrations of a man who doesn’t seem to be bothered with the attractive aspect of the game, seems all too willing to do ten men’s share of dirty work on the pitch, and has even admitted to considering diving a sign of intelligence within the game, and realize that Busquets truly is something special, a master tactician who creates solutions for his team-mates through his astounding positional and spatial awareness, and has been the foundation for the style of play that has defined the greatest club and international sides in the history of the game.

In this already arduously long and rambling piece, I will write about my thoughts on Busquets from a loosely tactical view, and try and explain exactly why I feel he is in a league of his own when it comes to a mental and tactical understanding of the game. While I run the risk of coming off as preachy and slightly pompous about the lethal combination of a negligible ability to understand tactics and a huge affinity for exactly that (after all , what gives us the right to attempt to break down Barcelona’s style of play and try and analyze the likes of Busquets), what follows is simply a collection of my honest and unfiltered thoughts about the midfielder, having watched him go about his business during this most glorious era for Barcelona FC with minimum fuss and ruthless effectiveness.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that Barcelona’s success has been predicated on their former manager Pep Guardiola’s adaptation of Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal’s focus on the positional specialization, and cultivating players who fit a highly particular mould for any given position. Guardiola’s side thrived on dividing their game into specific phases, and achieving internal technical, positional, and tactical excellence within each of these phases, to ensure total domination in all areas of the pitch. What is less easily understood is the importance of the transitions between these phases, and how much Barcelona work on these transitions. With highly specialized players like Puyol (who couldn’t carry the ball out of defense, but was a man mountain at the back), Xavi (whose astute reading of the game, ability to dictate possession, and diminutive physicality compensated for his inability to deviate from the highly specific remit of his play-maker position by either dropping much deeper, or playing much further up front), Villa, and Henry (deadly up front, in very specific roles that required very little exertion on the defensive side, including dropping very deep to pick up the ball) in each phase, the success of this positional style of play has depended on one or two players being capable of facilitating these transitions. Messi, a player who combines the vision of Laudrup and the potency in goal of Romario (I have named two ex-Barcelona stalwarts on purpose) is one of these players, and Busquets, who is Pique and Xavi rolled into one) is the other. Their highly adaptable nature makes them the ideal candidates to sit between the lines of play, driving possession from the defensive phase to the final third, and without them maintaining the intensity of said transitions, the foundation upon which Barcelona’s football is built would crumble.

I remember reading about how Guardiola divides the pitch into a number of squares (either eight or nine, I forget; if you can find the relevant article, I’d love if you could send me a link in the comment section!), and demands that each square is occupied by a Barcelona player at any given time. While this basic use of geometry exemplifies his focus on positional authority, I feel another geometric truth is much more germane to a discussion of Barcelona’s football.

Highly specialized phases of play that require diametrically opposite technical and physical attributes, yet inextricably connected through positioning.
Highly specialized phases of play that require diametrically opposite technical and physical attributes, yet inextricably connected through positioning.

Triangles are at the centre of the tiki-taka game, and enable the team to make transitions from defense to midfield, and midfield to attack, in fluid and coordinated sequences. While all three members of any triangle are absolutely crucial, it can be argued that the person at the base of the triangle decides the tempo at which the transition of possession takes place, based on the way he plays the ball to one of the upper nodes. Messi is a genius at being at the base of these triangles, and uses the other points of the triangle as walls, effectively bouncing the ball off them back into his path, using their bodies as barriers between him and opposition players who are drawn into marking (or attempting to tackle) the upper-node Barcelona player, leaving space behind him. For reference, watch Messi’s solo goal against Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the 2010-11 Champions League, where Lassana Diarra follows the ball to Busquets, losing track of the space Messi has to work with.

Anyway, I digress. The reason I brought up these geometric ramblings is that, as the defensive midfielder and primary ball-winner in central midfield, Busquets occupies the base of the triangle in midfield, with Xavi (now Rakitic) and Iniesta at the upper nodes. Since Barcelona’s football is (was, at least, during the Guardiola era) all about the retention of possession and its distribution from midfield, almost all of their long passages of possession begin with Busquets, who links their defense and midfield beautifully. His sense of positioning means he is always at the right place to pick the ball up from the back, feed it to a team-mate, and move the five yards to either his left or right, to occupy the new perfect place: near the player in possession. While Xavi was known for being the dictator of momentum in Barcelona’s game, Busquets is the metronome underlying all of Xavi’s work, and hence all of Barcelona’s football. He is the personification of perfection of the pass-and-move philosophy.

Watch this video of Busquets in action for Barcelona and Spain. It might just be enough to offer a fantastic education in the game, and provides evidence for much of what I shall go on to write about.

If possession of the ball is the engine that drives Barcelona’s football, then retention and initial distribution of the ball is the fuel that makes the machine tick, and Busquets is the single most important cog in this machine. His sense of positioning and timing is absolutely uncanny, and he has mastered the art of double-teaming to dispossess. Why do Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? Because Busquets always positions himself at the base of triangles, like I mentioned, and more crucially, always close to where the ball is. So on the rare occasions his team-mates lose possession, he is guaranteed to be close to the opponent, always well-positioned to win the ball back before the opposition can settle into any sort of rhythm in possession. The reason I said he’d mastered the art of double-teaming is that when you choose to put two men, or even one, on roaming duty, essentially forcing them to shadow the ball and the man in control of it when your team is not in possession, you run the risk of losing shape and organization, and leaving unchecked spaces, disturbing the balance of the team. For example, in Messi’s goal against Madrid, when Diarra was blocked by Busquets, and Messi took his first touches into the space between Madrid’s defense and midfield, Sergio Ramos promptly charge a few yards up the pitch, hoping to cut Messi’s run short. Messi being the player he is, he automatically changed direction, and got past Raul Albiol into space that Ramos would have been able to occupy had Diarra’s mistake not forced him into making one of his own. Watch that goal and the build up to it here:

But Busquets is so good at double-teaming on an opponent in position simply because he rarely makes Diarra’s mistake, that is charging at the person in possession. Watch him carefully, and you will see that when an opposition player wins the ball back, all Busquets does is take a few steps , often not even towards the ball. Instead, he moves towards the direction the opposition player is looking to carry the ball. This bears repeating: he has fine-tuned/honed his instincts to react not to where the ball is, but where it will be. During these rapid phases of ball retention, he waits for his midfield partners (or whoever lost the ball) to apply pressure on the opponent, who invariably gets flustered into losing the ball, and that is where Busquets steps in. He rarely makes the first tackle; no, he leaves all the excitement of sliding around and high intensity running to his team-mates. He only makes certain to be the one making the winning tackle, and redistributing possession. Unparalleled intelligence in positioning, and ruthlessly efficient and economic movement. Busquets is simply the master.

The perfect example of Busquets' approach to double-teaming. Dani Alves applies all the pressure, hurrying towards the ball, pressurizing the opponent, shepherding him into the path of the an all-too-happy Busquets, whose focus was on blocking off the opponent's intended path. No need for a tackle, not when the opponent can't get past you in the first place.
The perfect example of Busquets’ approach to double-teaming. Dani Alves applies all the pressure, hurrying towards the ball, pressurizing the opponent, shepherding him into the path of the an all-too-happy Busquets, whose focus was on blocking off the opponent’s intended path. No need for a tackle, not when the opponent can’t get past you in the first place.

While writing that last bit about Busquets’ extraordinary intelligence in moving towards the opponent’s targeted space, rather than the opponent and the ball, I was reminded of an exercise in training that essentially exists only because it trains players to develop this “skill”. I am, of course, referring to the “rondo”. With 7 or 8 players in a circle around you, it would be nothing short of suicide to physically run after the ball as it gets circulated around you; your legs would give way in a few seconds. The optimal strategy in the game does not involve a show of physical strength and physicality (running after the ball), but of intelligence and intellectual sophistication, and keeping one’s distance from the circle, staying as close to the centre as possible, waiting to intercept a loose pass. We’ve all heard the stories of how Messi gave his stamp of approval to Busquets after the youngster impressed during a rondo session in training. Does it come as any surprise that Busquets is a master of this exercise? Put another way, does it come as any surprise that a master of the rondo is also the best in the world at positioning himself to retain the ball in the most energy-efficient manner?

For all his excellent positioning, Busquets is also a brilliant tackler. They say Maldini averaged one (dispossessing) tackle every two games throughout his 25-year career, such was his brilliance at positioning and anticipating opponents’ movements, and when a heavy touch might be coming. Maldini himself said “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake,”, and that just shows you that having a great sense of timing and positioning removes the need to make tackles. Xabi Alonso, another brilliant reader of the game, spoke about how he doesn’t understand the love for tackling in Britain, where crunching Keane-esque tackles are lauded for good old gung-ho bravery (only the ones not aimed at people’s knees, mind you) and how it cannot be a primary aspect of your skillset. Busquets is the epitome of all the reasons this approach to tackling is wrong. He is a master of tackling itself, as you would expect all defensive midfielders to be, but uses his superb reading of the game to reduce the need to make tackles, instead robbing opponents of possession simply by being in the right place at the right time.

Never rushing into the tackle. Always waiting for the opportune moment. Waiting for that extra half-yard of space between opponent and ball.
Never rushing into the tackle. Always waiting for the opportune moment. Waiting for that extra half-yard of space between opponent and ball.

I mentioned how you almost expect a midfielder produced by Barcelona, and by most clubs in Spain, to fit a particular mould: short, low centre of gravity, poor in the air, and not capable of withstanding anything more than the flimsiest physical challenges. Again, Busquets becomes invaluable and unique because he ticks all the boxes in terms of technique, tactical understanding of the game, passing, and all the mental attributes you’d want in a defensive midfielder, but also offers the physicality Barcelona have needed to complement the likes of Xavi and Iniesta. Watch footage of Busquets, and you’ll see that he is comparable to the great Juan Roman Riquelme in his ability to hold the ball while facing his own goal and under immediate pressure from opponents. He is as clever with his back to the opponent’s goal as Paul Scholes was, and this combination of physicality and intelligence under pressure gives his team-mates the time to fall back into shape. People talk about Xavi and Iniesta enabling Messi’s success all these years, but Busquets arguably has a stronger relationship with Messi, since he wins the ball back and focuses on making short quick passes, and Messi has learned to drop deeper to pick the ball up from Busquets while the opposition is still out of shape and not stabilized.

Zidane had the curious ability to run with the ball at his feet, without actually looking at it; this is an extremely difficult thing to do, and few in the history of the game have been capable of playing the game at their own pace the way Zidane did, such was his innate mastery of the football and space around him. Busquets seems to have something slightly similar, and although he doesn’t actually run with the ball too much, he seems to have an intuitive understanding of space around him, and the positioning of team-mates and opposition, that allows him to release the ball quickly, or conversely, take time to hold it up till his team-mates get into position. The way he swivels and glides past opponents at the very last second, and seems to delay his decision-making till the very last second, when it’s impossible for an opponent to predict his next move, you’d be forgiven for thinking he is equipped with a highly functional sense of sonar, a detailed mapping of every yard of space on the pitch.

For all his intelligence and tactical superiority, Busquets is rarely given the credit he deserves. Indeed, it may be precisely because he’s such an intellectually sophisticated player — and admittedly one susceptible to the odd overly extravagant capitulation at the slightest touch — that he is not praised, and even disliked. I think fans are daunted by a player who plays the game purely in his head. Busquets has none of the natural talents you learn to appreciate with awe — great shooting, long passing, heading etc. He isn’t a fantastic physical specimen the way fellow midfielders Pogba and Matuidi are; in fact, with his lanky frame, he looks like he might fall apart at the joints on the rare occasions he takes more than a leisurely stroll across the pitch. All he has is a football brain that truly plays five seconds ahead of everyone else, allowing him to play the game at his own pace. All he has is an innate understanding of the concept of positioning, removing the need to run from one part of the pitch to another; like Gandalf the wizard, Busquets is never late, and never out of position — he is always precisely where he means to be, at exactly the right moment.

Busquets is the perfect fulcrum for Barcelona’s brilliant style of play, and there is not another player of his caliber in his position. He has said of his own contribution to his team, “People who don’t like football don’t appreciate my game, but I like it. My team-mates appreciate that I do the dirty work and I know it is necessary.” But he is so much more than simply the brawn of the team. Andres Iniesta summarized Busquets’ intelligence by saying: “The perfect player? Falcao’s ability in the air, [Carles] Puyol’s personality, Xavi’s right foot, [Lionel] Messi’s talent and left foot, [Sergio] Busquets’ tactical awareness and Cristiano’s eye for goal,” and when there are reasonable comparisons to be made between Busquets and the likes of Zidane, Scholes, Riquelme, and Maldini, there can be no doubt Busquets belongs in that elite club of players.

I firmly believe Sergio Busquets is the best midfielder in the world right now, especially with the impending retirement of Xavi, Pirlo, Gerrard, and Lampard, and the inevitable decline of Iniesta and Schweinsteiger. And there is simply no question he is the most under-rated footballer of his time.

In fact, scratch that last part. I have serious doubts Busquets is in the right profession. He isn’t a footballer, he’s a chess player. And a darn good one at that.

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9 thoughts on “Sergio Busquets: Unheralded, astonishing genius

    1. I had seen Busquets playing for Barça B half a dozen times, but never noticed anything extraordinary. However, when he debuted at the Camp Nou with the first team (a draw against Racing Santander), I was so enthralled that I wrote elsewhere, right after the match, that his debut had been the best I’d seen since the «real» debut of Messi on that 2005 Gamper. And that day I only noticed his first-touch passing! Since then I’ve learned to see and appreciate all his other virtues and Busi has been for years my favorite Barça «terrestrial» player. So, thanks a lot for your fantastic article!

      Like

  1. incredible article, it would be great if you wrote similar ones about other players that you have such an intimate knowledge of their style of play.

    I shared this with other friends of mine who are ardent football fans, and we all agree that this piece is mind blowingly good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This comment really made my day, thanks so much! I’ve been wanting to write about some of my favourite footballers, like Zidane, Gerrard, and Laudrup, but just can’t seem to find the time! But I feel comments like this will make me focus, and write 🙂

      Like

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