The Case for Sergio Busquets
by Lukas Tank
I guess this little essay will mainly be read by my dear Twitter followers. Given that most of my followers are part of the somewhat incestous group of people interested in football tactics and/or FC Barcelona, there is a big chance that they already know what a marvellous player Sergio Busquets is. In these circles it is pretty much common knowledge to think that he is at least a demigod – and rightly so! So what's the point of this? Why am I preaching to the choir? Well, strictly speaking I am not writing this for the general public or my followers, although of course I appreciate everyone who reades this! I am writing this essay as a response to an article published on provenquality.com called „The next stage in the evolution of the Defensive Midfielder“. I disagree with what the article says about Sergio Busquets. More precisely I think the article severly underrates him. I already had a little discussion about this with the author of the article, Paddy Vipond (@PaddyVipond). Since Twitter isn't the ideal medium for making a well-argued case in favour of Sergio Busquets' brilliance I try to present my thoughts in this essay.
There is one thing I can and will not achieve in this essay: I won't be able to prove his greatness. So please don't expect that. Instead I try to make the case for his brilliance as good as I can.
Here is the link to the article I'm referring to: http://provenquality.com/evolution-of-the-defensive-midfielder/
Paddy Viponds main thesis is that „the defensive midfield role is set to evolve once more, with the player in that position being required to perform multiple tasks rather than simply breaking up attacks.“ He sees Busquets as an example of the old, limited style of defensive midfielder being quite good at winning balls and tackling but very limited when being in possession. He basically just gives the ball to Xavi and Iniesta and lets them do the playmaking stuff. Given this profile players like him will be „gradually phased out“. The model for the defensive midfielder of the future are players like Gerrard and Pirlo.
That the defensive midfielder of the future has to be more than just a ball-winner is certainly correct. With equal certainty his remarks about Busquets aren't. I'm going to argue that Busquets is a prime example of a no-tradeoff defensive midfielder. He is absolutely excellent with and without the ball. He is capable of playing as the only defensive midfielder of his team, of shielding the defense all by himself, but at the same time he is very much a playmaking player who does much, much more than just play the simple five yard pass to Xavi. In short, I argue that Busquets is the defensive midfielder of the future personified.
Given that Paddy Vipond already conceded that Busquets is a fine defensive midfielder in the classic sense, that he is quite good at winning the ball in front of his defense, I skip this point.* I will later give examples of Busquets winning the ball but they will be very different from the old „sweep up before the back four“ kind of work. I will skip the point of Busquets being excellent without the ball too. I'm not really good at judging this, but people who are much better at it, like the guys from spielverlagerung.de, unanimously declare that his positioning without the ball is world-class (or even better).
So, let's look at what Busquets does when he has the ball at his feet. It will emerge that he does much more with it than play the easy five-yard-pass.
First, let's have a look at his MOVEMENT with the ball at his feet. It's true that he rarely makes marauding runs with the ball at his feet. What he does is more subtle, yet no worse. Have a look at Exhibit** A:
This really is a little gem. When he is waiting to receive the ball his body shape indicates that he will turn towards the byline. But in the very moment of receiving the ball his body shape indicates that he will play the easy pass back to the central defender. Two ManCity players approach him. One of them tries to stop Busquets turning to the byline, the other (David Silva) tries to intercept the pass he anticipated. But what does Busquets really do? He turns the other way, runs two yards and passes the ball to the player higher up the field. By that time two ManCity players are completely out of play. He managed to fool them both but to fool them in two seperate ways! This really is subtle stuff, but I hope that it's become clear that his movement really is quite stunning and constructive. He could have played the easy pass back to the central defender but he did do this crazy shit.
Exhibit B is similar but not as stunning:
Not as stunning as the first example but a classic Busquets situation that emphasises how important his little, subtle movements are for Barcelona. It's a very typical situation. Barcelona face a compact defensive block. Now it is all about gaining that one yard of space, about creating that little moment of confusion for the opponent. It's Alexis who manages to use that yard of space here, but it is Busquets who creates it. His sudden change of direction does the job. It's really not the most spectacular example, but I hope it becomes clear how important those little changes of direction are.
To conclude this part of my argument: Busquets movement itself is often playmaking by nature. A more limited defensive midfielder wouldn't move like that.
The next kind of situation is similar, yet different to Exhibit A. I want to show that Busquets is extremely, and I mean out-of-this-world PRESSING RESISTANT. Being able to keep the ball under pressure is one of the most important things for every defensive midfielder in the modern game, nevermind how playmaking he is. But not enough that Busquets manages to keep possession even under the most extreme pressure, he does so IN A PLAYMAKING WAY! Very often he not only manages to keep the ball for the sake of keeping the ball, but for the sake of playmaking. He gets opponents out of play, opens up space to move or pass into, etc.. This really is one of the most stunning parts of his game and there is nobody who does it even nearly as good as him.
Have a look at Exhibit D:
Losing the ball in that situation would be very dangerous. Nearly every other defensive midfielder would play an easy first- or second-touch pass, probably to the left-back or the left centre-back. But Busquets does that lovely little dummy and evades the pressure. In doing so he opens up passing channels to Messi and Iniesta. He did not just keep possession in order to not lose the ball but in order to open up space. Surely that's not what a more limited defensive midfielder would do.
Equally impressive is Exhibit E:
Here he is in his own half, under intense pressure from two Real Madrid players, one of them being Angel di Maria, one of the most intelligent pressing players in the world. They nearly stand on his feet but he manages to solve the situation in a way that can rightly be described as magisterial. (Copyright by @RayHudson) Again, does that look like the reaction of a defensive midfielder limited to winning the ball and playing the easy pass? I don't think so. This is modern playmaking football at it's very best.
Same goes for Exhibit F:
Now there are dozens, maybe close to a hundred situations online showing Busquets doing that kind of stuff. I'm really not talking about rare events but about core characteristics of his game. At the end of this essay I will post a couple of links to „Best of Busquets“ videos. Just knock yourself out.
Seeing him doing that kind of stuff makes you think: „Isn't that very dangerous? What if he loses the ball?“ Well, one should think that there really is a reason other players don't do something like that in their own half. It sure looks dangerous and, in a way, it really is. So what one would expect is that Busquets loses the ball quite often when he does that. Thing is: He doesn't. Not often, not even rarely. In a season he loses about 3-4 balls in dangerous situations. That is an unbelievable quota. Even Xavi loses more balls in dangerous situations than Busquets does. And Xavi pretty much is a synonym for „does not lose the ball“. I can't prove that by showing further exhibits because they can't backup a statistical assessment like that. Just believe me. He very rarely loses the ball in dangerous situations. HE (ALMOST) NEVER MAKES MISTAKES.
Now that I've established the fact that he's very good at keeping the ball (in a playmaking way!), I will take a look at what he does with it. I already said that he moves intelligently with it, so let's now look at how he gets rid of the ball. Most of the time, he passes it. As with any other player, especially if he is a defensive midfielder, a signficant amount of his passes are easy passes to the next teammate. I'm not trying to argue that every single one of his passes is a work of genius. (That also applies to every other player in the history of football.) What I want to say is that A SIGNIFICANT PERCENTAGE OF HIS PASSES ARE OF A PLAYMAKING NATURE and that they usually are superb. Combined, this is more than enough to call him a very playmaking defensive midfielder.
First of all, let's have a look at his passes between the lines. I already presented the following video to Paddy Vipond:
Sadly this video (made by the excellent @allas4) isn't available in Germany anymore. Anyway, Vipond said that he doesn't think the video shows anything exceptional. If my memory of the video is correct I vehemently disagree, but since I can't watch the video right now, I cannot present my case based on Exhibit G.
Vipond rightly points out that a pass between the lines always isn't solely about the player who gives the pass but also about the player who receives it. The receiving player first has to find the space between the lines for himself before the pass can reach him. To conclude from that, that a pass between the lines is really only about the receiving player and that the pass itself is simple, is simply false. The pass maybe is easy in a way because it's often no longer than 10-15 yards but, at the same time, the pass between the lines is a very difficult ball because there is very often only a very small open passing channel for it.
Exhibit H is a good example for that:
There is very little space and a high risk of the opponent intercepting the ball. Busquets has to play a very hard and precise pass. He manages to do so and the action results in a goal.
At other times he manages to play a pass between the lines although he is under pressure from the opponent. Look at Exhibit I:
In Exhibit J he is under even more intense pressure but he plays the pass anyway:
I hope I have convinced you that Busquets' between the line passes are much more than easy passes.
It's true that there are deep-lying midfielders who play more long balls than Busquets does. Pirlo and Gerrard are good examples. But does that mean that they are more playmaking than Busquets is? I don't think so and I want to present two arguments why I don't think so.
The first and most general point is: There are other passes that are just as playmaking, just as creative and just as dangerous for the opponent than the long vertical pass to the striker. Modern football really is about gaining seemingly small advantages (a yard of space, an opponent out of play, etc.). If a pass does gain that advantage it can be considered a creative, a playmaking, a threatening pass. Long balls to the striker, at least if the striker has a chance of reaching it, are one sort of pass that gives you that advantage. If it works out perfectly, which most of the times it does not (even if Pirlo plays it), it gives you quite a big advantage over your opponent. But there are other types of passes that give you an advantage too! Passes between the lines are one example. Passes that are played with fewer touches than the opponent expects are another one.
Take a look at Exhibit K:
This goal is well remembered because of Iniesta's fantastic strike. Rightly so. But the fact that Busquets plays the pass with his first touch is also very important. A second touch would have enabled the opponent to adjust it's shape to the attack and Iniesta wouldn't have been that free. Most defensive midfield players, certainly the more limited ones, would have taken that second touch. Busquets doesn't. This is another core feature of his game: HE IS THE MAN WHO NEEDS ONE TOUCH LESS than pretty much anybody else.
As I said, at the end of this essay I will post some links to videos about Busquets. Mostly to the ones I used for the exhibits. Just watch his passes. They very often are constructive, creative and threatening to the opponent. Not neccessarily because they directly create a goalscoring opportunity but because they gain a little advantage for Barcelona (or Spain). That is modern football.
My second point: Busquets IS CAPABLE OF PLAYING EXCELLENT LONG PASSES. He doesn't do it a lot because his teams play a style of football that prefers not playing them a lot, but when the situation calls for a long ball he delivers. To say that his passing range is limited sounds like he isn't capable of playing the long ball. He is.
Here is Exhibit L, an excellent crossfield ball:
Exhibit M is a perfectly timed long ball over the defense, it leads to a goal:
Exhibit N shows that he is quite capable of playing extraordinary defense-splitting passes:
Until about 2011 he didn't play a lot of those killer passes. But since then he plays them from time to time.
Here is Exhibit O:
This is a personal favourite of mine. Busquets anticipates the pass, intercepts it elegantly and plays a perfectly placed long pass on the half-volley. Everybody who has played a bit of football knows how hard it is to play such a well-placed pass on the half-volley. This situation tells you a lot more about Busquets than just that he is capable of playing a pass that's longer than 10 yards. You see a player who's tactically intelligent and has excellent technique and vision. Surely more than just a hard-tackling ball-winner.
To summarise this part of my essay: Yes, Busquets doesn't play a lot of long passes. But that doesn't mean that he's a lesser playmaker than any other defensive midfielder. There are other ways to play creative and dangerous passes. And on the rare occasion that Busquets does play a long ball, he does so very well.
In the following part I will take a look at some of Paddy Vipond's other statements concerning Busquets. For example, he said that Guardiola wanted to sign Pirlo in order to replace Busquets. If that were true, it would certainly raise some doubts about Busquets' quality. Here's what Guardiola, according to Pirlo, said:
"We're already very strong, I really couldn't ask for better, but you'd be the icing on the cake. We're looking for a midfielder to alternate with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, and that midfielder is you. You've got all the attributes to play for Barcelona, and one in particular – you're world class."
Source is: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/apr/15/andrea-pirlo-pep-guardiola-tried-to-sign-me-barcelona-autobiography
It's clear that Guardiola did not want to replace Busquets. If one looks at the relationship between Guardiola and Busquets there are other things that really tell you how high Pep values him: In the spring of 2008 Busquets was a fourth-divsion player under Guardiola. In the spring of 2009 Busquets was a starter in a Champions League final under Guardiola. And during 2009/10 Busquets replaced Yaya Touré as the first-choice defensive midfielder. By 2010 Touré was sold. It's clear that Guardiola valued Busquets quite a lot.
Speaking of Pirlo, Paddy Vipond wrote that Pirlo is a player that has „led the way thus far“. The defensive midfielder of the future will be similar to him. I disagree. Pirlo is a fantastic footballer but he's only the anti-thesis to the defensive midfielder of the past. He isn't capable of being the only defensive minded midfielder of his team. He needs guys like Vidal, Pogba or Gattuso besides him. The tough-tackling but limited defensive midfielder was the thesis, the deep-lying playmaker (Pirlo) is the anti-thesis, but the defensive midfielder of the future will be the synthesis. He will be capable of playing as the only defensive midfielder of his team, of shielding the defense on his own, but at the same time, he will be a playmaker. Heard that description once before in this essay? I certainly think so.
Well, this essay is nearly complete. But there is one... in fact there are two more exhibits I want to show you.
If you really want to see what the defensive midfielder of the future looks like, take a look at this:
Now, one of the most important things about modern football is the transition between defense and attack. The transition between attack and defense is equally important. This situation really is modern football in a nutshell. Barcelona have probably lost the ball some seconds ago. But the defensive midfielder (!) Sergio Busquets doesn't retreat to his standard position. He defends proactively and high up the field. He presses the opponent and then he does something really special. He tackles the opponent, manages to reach the ball and the tackle directly results in a constructive pass. This really is transition from defense to attack in the best possible way: The defensive action is the offensive action! It's both a tackle and a pass! Sorry, if I get a little excited about this but this is one of the rare occasions when an action by a football player can be called perfect. There is no faster way to change from defense to attack than this. If the defensive action is the offensive action a level of excellence has been reached that, logically, cannot be bettered.
Take a look at this:
This is an excellent piece of transition from defense to attack. The defensive action, the interception, is immediatly followed by the offensive action, the shot. That already is quite good but if the defensive action becomes the offensive action... that is on a whole new level.
Okay, I guess this essay is much too long already. I could argue in favour of Busquets' greatness in other ways. For example, I could tell you that Diego Simeones Athletico Madrid have at times altered their whole defensive shape in order to stop Busquets from receiving the ball. Not really the kind of stuff you would do to a player who lacks playmaking abilities, right?
I fear that this essay will not be very entertaining for readers who already think... who already know that Sergio Busquets is great. I'm sorry. Please keep in mind that this essay is meant as a reply to the critical remarks on Busquets made by Paddy Vipond. I hope I have made a well-argued case for Sergio Busquets' brilliance.
I guess it has transpired that I'm a massive fan of Sergio Busquets. He's my favourite player. But still, everything I've said about him can be understood and accepted even by someone who dislikes him.
I finish with a nice quote about Busquets: „When you watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. When you watch Busquets, you see the game.“***
p.s.: English isn't my first language. I hope the text isn't too full of mistakes. Since it's only an online essay, I haven't reread it.
*If one wants to find a weakness in his game, his defending in the traditional sense is not perfect. He is quite slow and, for a player of his height, he is not very strong or good at heading the ball. He often makes up for that through his anticipation, his positioning, in short: through his intelligence. Still, sometimes his physical shortcomings are apparent.
**I only just understood what the name Xzibit means! At least I learned something new today.
*** Source: http://www.washedup.org/2012/08/26/an-ode-to-sergio-busquets/