While Lionel Messi will collect all the plaudits for Barcelona’s magnificent 4-0 victory over AC Milan, there was one player that was comfortably the best player on the pitch – Sergio Busquets. Long underrated by most, who know him more as one of the masters of football’s dark arts, he is an integral part of Barcelona’s style of play, and last night he showed the world just why he is so important to the Catalan giants.
Since the turn of the century, the value of a world-class holding midfielder has become apparent to most football fans. Claude Makelele was the first to really be recognised as making the position his own. The “entire engine” of the Real Madrid team, according to Zinedine Zidane, and “the most important, yet least appreciated midfielder at Real” according to Steve McManaman, he was a key part of Mourinho’s revolution at Chelsea.
However, Sergio Busquets can be seen as the evolution of the Makelele role. He is the intelligent, tenacious and aggressive midfield destroyer that Makelele and many holding midfielders since aspired to be. However, he is also the deep-lying playmaker that is the start of virtually every Barcelona attack. He makes what appears to be so simple, so simple. Even when it is not as easy as you think.
Last night, only Xavi made more passes than Sergio Busquet’s 116, and Busquet’s 92% completion rate was higher than Xavi’s. Busquets was not dispossessed once in the entire match, while his teammates Messi and Iniesta had the ball taken off them five times. He recovered the ball thirteen times, ran the midfield and disrupted Milan’s attempts to break on numerous occasions with his pressing.
People might point to the fact that Busquets purely makes simple passes. He does make simple passes, but effectively and intelligently. He is a master at finding his teammates between the lines and in space. It was Busquet’s pass that found Messi between the lines to play the one-two with Xavi that led to the opening goal. A simple pass? Yes. A highly effective pass? Most definitely.
In terms of holding midfielders, Xabi Alonso is possibly the only player that is at the level of Busquets when it comes to finding players between the lines. The difference is that Alonso takes his time to spot the pass. Busquets plays it immediately. He can dissect midfields, casting them as virtually useless, as he finds one of his attacking players in the space between midfield and defence.
His passing is a key strength of his game. He seems to know where he is going to pass the ball, even before the ball has even been passed to him. In a team filled with gifted one and two touch players, Busquets is the master. He does not hold the ball and slow down the play unless it is absolutely necessary. In general, he spends less than two seconds between receiving the ball and moving it on again.
He is also so calm in possession. With the fullbacks pushing so far forward, one of Barcelona’s usual starting points is the ball from the goalkeeper to Busquets, who then moves it on to a teammate. Teams know this, yet do not seem to be able to do anything about it. Again, so simple, yet seemingly beyond other players.
Against Malaga, Thiago Alcantara, a very gifted young player, was in the same position. He received the ball from his keeper with several Malaga players closing him down. He hesitated, was dispossessed and Malaga scored. A scenario that would never have happened with Busquets, despite being put in that position multiple times every match.
His closing down and tactical intelligence was outstanding last night. When Niang looked to drop deeper to give Milan an option, Busquets always anticipated the ball faster and reached the ball first. Whenever Milan looked to escape their own half, Busquets was there to intercept or to force a mistake. Again, it all sounds so simple. However, when Mascherano tried to do the same, stepping up to make a quick challenge, he misjudged the ball and Niang was able to get in behind and hit the post.
Most holding midfielders receive the ball and will often give it back to the defenders. Simple passing to retain the football. However, the ability that marks Busquets out as a level above is his ability to move the ball forward, whilst still retaining the football. Michael Laudrup once said that the most difficult thing when you start with the ball at the back is “to give it somebody who is facing the opponent’s goal.” This is where Busquets stands out.
He has played the majority of games this season, but there is a noticeable trend is those games that he has been absent. He missed the 2-2 draw in the Copa del Rey against Malaga. He missed both Champions League matches against Celtic. Without Busquets, Barcelona struggle. Put simply, there is no player in world football that could replace him in this Barcelona team.
A wonderful description of Busquets was given by Marti Pernarau – “He is not fast or agile or flexible. He is not strong, nor powerful, nor does he have a low centre of gravity to support himself. But he is indispensible. You do not see him, but he is always there. He is the invisible friend.”
He may be the invisible friend. However, his quality and importance on the pitch for both Barcelona and Spain is becoming more and more visible to fans worldwide. In the words of Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque: “If I could be any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets. He does everything…”