The vindication of Sergio Busquets

by David Bevan

“If I was a footballer, I would like to be like Busquets”

Vicente del Bosque

Of course, Vicente del Bosque was a footballer. And, despite spending the vast majority of his career in football on the opposite side of Spain’s great divide, he was like Busquets. Del Bosque didn’t create goals. He stopped them.

A union of necessity

Spain’s first World Cup-winning manager, a Real Madrid stalwart of many years, entrusted Barcelona to bring home the trophy. Catalan nationalists may grumble, but the occasionally awkward marriage of Los Blancos and the Blaugrana in the Spanish national team has at last created a large degree of unity through triumph. It is a fascinating combination.

The representation of Madrid and Barca was unbalanced in favour of the current champions, with the latter providing seven of the eleven starters in the final and their bitter rivals contributing just three. Villarreal’s Joan Capdevila stood alone as a red-shirted reminder of the remainder of La Liga.

A place for Fabregas

There were few murmurs of discontent at the majority of del Bosque’s decisions, despite the predictable English astonishment that Cesc Fabregas was not an automatic starter. Fabregas was revelatory in a dynamic role as a substitute, prompting many to question whether he should participate from the kick-off.

The Arsenal captain could not have expected inclusion in place of either one of Barca’s formidable duo Xavi and Iniesta, nor the impressive Xabi Alonso. David Villa’s place was secure and there was also a slot filled in turn by David Silva, Jesus Navas, Fernando Torres and Pedro Rodriguez. The final shirt, the one so many wanted stolen away and given to Fabregas, belonged to Busquets.

Dual destroyers

When Spain lost to Switzerland in their opening game, tiki-taka looked flawed. Pretty football, but no positive end product. Yet del Bosque retained his confidence in his two holding midfielders, if Alonso can be described thus.

Busquets certainly can. In a World Cup that can most adequately be described in one word as “pragmatic”, dual destroyers were ubiquitous. Holland infamously utilised Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel to great effect, while Brazil, underpinned by the defensive midfield duo of Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva, seemed destined for glory until they were stifled by the Dutch.

And after that surprising defeat at the hands of the Swiss, the pressure was on del Bosque to do away with Busquets in favour of the creative Fabregas. In the end, ultimate vindication for the coach can be found in a lasting image of the final: the dangerous Arjen Robben skipping down the wing, pursued inevitably by Busquets.

The insurance policy

The 22-year-old is obviously less showy than his lauded midfield colleagues at club and international level. Xavi retains possession as well as anyone who has ever played the game, while Iniesta’s darting, probing runs and incredible ability to pivot with the ball are bound to grab the headlines.

However, although they are anything but unreliable while not in possession, neither are particularly defensively-minded and nor would any right-minded coach want them to be. In order to get the best out of Xavi and Iniesta, not forgetting the almost equally superb Alonso, a spoiler is necessary.

Busquets has seen off the considerable virtues of Yaya Toure in Pep Guardiola’s affections, but still appears largely unpopular to the neutral. While this can partly be attributed to his unrivalled propensity to play-act, he has nevertheless garnered a reputation, certainly in England if not elsewhere, as the most expendable first-choice selection made by both Barcelona and Spain.

The perfect fit

In truth, Busquets is the perfect modern defensive midfielder due to the increasing importance of positional discipline and retention of possession. Those two factors have been vital to the success of both Barcelona and Spain, with Busquets central to the seeming inevitability victory for either.

The latter is self-explanatory. With Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso at their disposal, Spain can expect to control every game they play, particularly given the preference of all potentially threatening opponents to play on the counter-attack. Germany tried and failed, Holland tried and failed. Brazil did not get the opportunity, but the likelihood is that they would have failed as well.

Know your role

Spain’s ability to keep the ball lightens the load considerably on Busquets, whereas the likes of Sami Khedira for Germany, Nigel de Jong for Holland and Felipe Melo for Brazil have a mammoth task to fight for the ball and give it to their more attack-minded colleagues.

Busquets knows he will very rarely find himself in that situation. He can be confident that, once he wins possession, his gifted team-mates will keep it. Therefore, he does not have to concentrate on stifling attackers as much as most defensive midfielders do.

The young Spaniard’s primary concern is maintaining his positional discipline and ensuring that he is on hand to help his defenders when a counter-attack arises, hence that enduring picture of his reliable aid to Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila when the Dutch sought to break on Sunday evening.

Lessons for England

Under-appreciation of Busquets on these shores will probably continue, but what will the English remember of the 2010 World Cup finals?

It should not be Robert Green’s error or Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’, but instead the helplessness of Fabio Capello’s back four as Germany piled forward unopposed to rattle four goals past David James. Those tidal counter-attacks in a miserable second-round second half for England would have been quelled by a willing worker.

Even Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso lose possession sometimes, although admittedly on far fewer occasions than Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard do.

But in that rare event, Sergio Busquets can lend a helping hand. One of two that are becoming increasingly accustomed to lifting the odd trophy.

11 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Marcos Senna was looking every bit like the outstanding defensive midfielder in world football, during Euro 2008. Busquets doesn’t yet match up to Senna – not being as good at breaking up play – but under Guardiola’s tutelage has improved steadily over the past two seasons.

    Busquets doesn’t get the praise he deserves in England because as a nation we undervalue the position he plays. It would be fair to describe him as a very good, but not yet world class, player. Very good – or even average – strikers, central defenders and goalkeepers are recognised in England, but you have to be truly extraordinary to receive recognition as a holding player.

    As you said, given England’s defensive problems, they could really have benefited from a decent holding midfielder. Given how much players like Terry and Carragher struggle for pace, some protection would have been of great benefit.

    1. Kevin Coleman Kevin Coleman says:

      “Busquets doesn’t get the praise he deserves in England because as a nation we undervalue the position he plays.”

      This couldn’t be more true.

      Even though the league boasts some of the world’s best players in that position, Mascherano and De Jong, and to a lesser extent the likes of Alex Song and Wilson Palacios, they don’t get the recognition they deserve.

  2. Varun says:

    I have always liked him and appreciated him
    Alonso can’t play the traditional DM role, hes not that type of player so Sergio fits best.

    it just amazes me how many fouls he wins for his team, sure he dives at times but overwhelming of them are fair,
    he and Pedro were nowhere 2 years ago now they are World champ, Pep needs to be applauded here for first sticking with Sergio when even Barca faithful called for his axe to Yaya toure.

  3. Deportivo says:

    I cannot deny that Busquets is an excellent player, always seeming to be there when the opposition finally manage to squirt over the halfway line against Barca or Spain, but it would be interesting to see how he would perform in a lesser team, like England’s, where he would have a higher workload.

    However, it must be said that he is the grubby epitome of all that stinks about the modern game. Full of tugs, scratches and snide, niggling fouls, yet the first to hit the deck when anyone gets near him. What aggravates me most is his consistent badgering of the referee; whenever a Spain/Barca player is fouled/dives he appears without fail to offer his opinion, no doubt that the opposition player should be booked. For me, this kind of play is what tarnishes the lovely football that is played by Spain and Barca.

    1. Kevin Coleman Kevin Coleman says:

      Indeed, I’m not his biggest fan for his on-field antics – the imaginary card waving really blighted Spain’s performance in the final for example. And he’ll never be liked universally after the “peek-a-boo” incident.

      But his job, he does it well.

  4. Mat says:

    Surely the English undervalue these players because many sides play 4-4-2. Busquets would look average and his flaws become apparent in this system because it would mean his mediocre passing ability is exposed as it’d be less likely that he’d have someone next to him to play the simple ball to.

    Tottenham fans ‘underappreciate’ Palacios because his passing’s hit and miss, and I believe that nigel reo-coker suffered similarly at Villa. This seemed to me to be because their teams (and many others) play a formation which, as it can’t really have just a pure ‘destroyer’ due to lack of numbers in the midfield, requires both midfielders to be able to pass creatively, or at least accurately, over longer distances, something neither can really do.

    Busquets was good, but I’d argue no better than many other defensive midfielders who are hampered in the respect they get by having their weaknesses exposed by the system their teams play.

    1. Varun says:

      Busquets passing is not mediocre acc. to me, do watch LaLiga, he often provides the linking and through balls to the flanks to messi and on the left, Its just not his role so it appears he might be mediocre, if he decided to do so.
      He was gradually pushed to a pure DM, early on he used to play a little higher up linking a bit more with forwards.

      1. Kevin Coleman Kevin Coleman says:

        Busquets passing is rarely too adventurous, if at all more than nine or ten yards.

        1. Roberticus says:

          But look at the nature of those 9-yard passes; when surrounded by three opponents Busquets can still pull off quick exchanges with Xavi-Iniesta; nevermind defensive midfielders, not even most box-to-box Premier League players can accomplish this.

    2. Roberticus says:

      Nonsense. Of course Busquets has good technique, better than that of most box-to-box players let alone other defensive mids. Otherwise Barcelona’s academy would not have invested so much time in him.

      Guardiola himself justified his promoting of Busquets ahead of Yaya Toure within context of Ibrahimovic’s replacing of Etoo last summer. Pep saw that Ibra lacked movement off the ball, the whole front-line slowed down and therefore he asked his midfielders to compensate by speeding up the tempo of their passing. Busquets was more accomplished at this than Yaya, who let’s admit is hardly a donkey; so what does that tell you about Busquets technical ability?

  5. Amamigo says:

    Busquetsis technically very good, although he rarely shows his skills, he prefers to play a simple game, he often does first -touch passes. But if you watch him play regularly, he sometimes reveals that he is a very skilful player and that he has an awesome ball-control.

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