One of Spain’s greatest managers, Vicente del Bosque, once rightly said, “You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game”.
Sergio Busquets is the kind of player that does not exactly take up much of the spotlight. Busquets remained a dark knight with an eagle-eye view of the field. An underappreciated cog in the Barcelona machine, he was an integral part of the Barcelona side that won continued to win trophies without fail over the last decade.
A technically gifted player unafraid to delve into the physical side of the game, there is no doubt that Busquets’ contribution to Barcelona has been immense over the last 13 years. Sadly, as often does happen as the years roll by, his legs are not the same as they were 4 years ago, and as a consequence, he looks slower and wearier.
With many of the old guard already gone, and captain Lionel Messi looking to move on himself, it looks to be the correct time to look for appropriate replacements for the Spanish midfield maestro and brood in new blood.
Ideally, Frenkie de Jong would serve as the long-term successor to the legendary Spaniard. However, in a pleasant turn of events, de Jong has taken up a more advanced role in the new midfield triumvirate applied by Koeman, leaving Busquets as the only holding midfielder in the side. If the Dutchman can keep his display in a box-to-box midfielder capacity, there is no reason for him to go back to playing deep.
In this article, Barça Universal takes a look at six players who can potentially serve as the anchor in the Barcelona midfield. Given the club’s financial situation, the six players have been divided in two categories, namely the utopian options and the budgeted realistic choices.
The Utopian Three
Inter Milan sit at 2nd place in Serie A, just 2 points behind local rivals AC Milan. While Romelu Lukaku and his Argentinean strike partner Lautaro Martinez are often in the spotlight, it is the work of Marcelo Brozovic that has been absolutely pivotal to their performances in the league.
The Croatian’s often takes his place just ahead of his centre-backs, displaying his passing range to the full extent. Inter manager Antonio Conte often uses Brozovic as the outlet to spread the ball and to clear the opponent’s first line of press.
The statistics reflect the same; over 17 games (14 starts) the 28-year-old Croat has completed passes that have covered a distance of 5684 yards towards the opponent’s goal. In comparison, Busquets’ passes have covered a distance of 5587 yards in 18 games (15 starts).
Moreover, Brozovic also edges ahead in terms of Shot Creating Actions (SCA) per 90. Brozovic’s action have led to 3.25 SCA per 90 while Busquets stands at 2.51. The Inter mid also stands out when it comes to ball carries, having carried the ball 1936 yards as compared to the 1594 yards carried by the Spanish veteran at Barcelona.
The Croat fares well when it comes to defensive actions as well. Brozovic edges ahead in terms of successful tackles (19 vs Busquets’ 18) and is just behind when it comes to successful pressures (75 vs Busquets’ 77). Moreover, the Inter Milan mid has 27 blocks and 16 interceptions as well, as compared to Busquets’ 24 blocks and 13 interceptions.
The Croat is pretty hard-working as well and has the tenacity that Barcelona desperately lacks often. It is pretty clear, therefore, that Brozovic would be a great choice to take the reigns from Busquets. While an integral part of the Milan outfit, Inter were ready to let Brozovic leave the club last summer, and it would not take an awful lot to bring him to the club.
Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi looks far from wired to the Barcelona way; while he completes his passes at a fair completion percentage standing at 89%, they are most often short and rarely progressive, as can be seen with his passes covering a total distance of 2052 yards in 9 starts. Moreover, he has a meagre 0.44 shot-creating actions per 90.
While it is clear that Ndidi is not of the same make as Busquets when it comes to technical skills, it is also true that Ndidi is a much more solid prospect defensively. The Nigerian is a monster when it comes to work ethic and defensive actions. Ndidi has won 26 tackles in 9 starts, standing at 2.86 tackles won per 90 as compared to Busquets 1.32. He has more successful pressures per 90 as well, completing 7.14 successful pressures per 90 as compared to Busquets’ 5.66. Additionally, he boasts of more blocks per 90 (2.97 vs 1.76) and more interceptions per 90 (1.54 vs 0.96 for Busquets). Moreover, he is a known engine on and off the ball.
His defensive statistics paint a clear picture of why Barcelona could do with a midfielder like him. Alongside two midfielders like Pedri and Frenkie de Jong, the Nigerian could shoulder more of the defensive responsibilities while thrusting the creative duties to them. It would also leave players like Pedri to play more freely, knowing a solid wall stands behind them.
Leicester City star could prove to be the signing Barcelona need to prepare themselves for the post-Lionel Messi era, as without the Argentinean great the creative responsibility would be that much more – and signing Ndidi could help players look to create freely, worrying lesser about the defensive responsibilities.
Leeds United have announced their return to the Premier League in swashbuckling style, with a large emphasis on pressing and outscoring the opposition. Such a setup obviously leaves a lot of work for Kalvin Phillips to do. With the 4-1-4-1 formation Marcelo Bielsa sets up, the space behind the five involved in the frontline is quite large. Therefore, it is pretty commendable to see how good the English holding midfielder has been, considering how thankless it must be to play such a role in that setup.
Kalvin Phillips is the main man at Leeds in the offensive phase. He has the most passes per game for Leeds, completing 52.1 passes per 90. These passes cover, on an average, 312.7 yards per 90 towards the opposition. Moreover, he averages 1.19 Key passes per 90 and 2.22 Shot creating actions per 90. All of this come with a passing accuracy of 82.6%, which is pretty commendable considering how direct and quick Leeds United are with the ball.
His defensive actions are commendable as well. Completing 1.78 successful tackles per 90, 6.89 successful pressures per 90, 2.89 blocks per 90 and 1.93 interceptions per 90, Phillips is a midfielder who can do it all. These are pretty incredible numbers in a setup like Leeds United’s. Moreover, it is unquestionable that a high work ethic is required in any Bielsa side, so there’s no doubting his work and running off the ball.
It is evident that Phillips’ passing and creativity can improve with an improvement of quality alongside him. The Englishman who is vying for a Euros spot is still 25 and can give a good eight to ten years to any team that signs him at this point, and has a pretty high ceiling. Signing him, if possible, could turn out to be a masterstroke for Barcelona.
The Realistic Three
Talk about destiny. A La Masia graduate, named Busquets, plays as a holding midfielder, known for his calmness on the ball and his tactical awareness off it. The profile fits: Barcelona might not have to look much further than their own Little Octopus.
Oriol Busquets has been a highly touted prospect for a few years now. Born in Girona, he rapidly rose through the ranks and eventually made his first-team debut in the 17/18 season against Real Murcia in the Copa del Rey. Hovering around the first team, the youngster suffered an unfortunate injury, injuring his meniscus. Post that, he played for Barcelona B for a while, and the next season was sent to play for Eredivisie side Twente in August 2019.
Oriol has since returned to play at the Estadi Johan Cruyff for Barcelona B, being deployed as a defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3. He often acts as a “half-back” for the team: the defenders split apart and Busquets slots in temporarily as the third centre half to help circulate the ball and to assist the team in playing out from the back.
He has the technique and spatial awareness to be efficient in this role and it is not unlike the role ‘Busquets Sr.’ played for Barcelona in the initial years of the decade: he would drop in between the Puyol and Pique to form a temporary back three, allowing Alves and Abidal to push forward.
Moreover, Oriol’s real strength lies in his ability to move the ball forward through his passing. His vision and ability to pass the ball vertically instead of laterally makes him an ideal candidate to pass to, since he can efficiently make sure the ball progresses and his team aren’t stuck in a rut of passing side to side. While neither of the Busquets are flair players who do not dribble much, their creative skills on the ball are sufficient for them to cover that part of their game, which makes Oriol seem like a mirror replacement.
Defensively speaking, he is very much like his namesake who has plied his trade at the senior team for well over a decade. The 22-year-old’s excellent spatial awareness and positioning ensure that his team has an efficient cover in front of the defence. He efficiently covers for his out of position teammates, often the fullbacks and is fearless regarding the tenacious side of the game and can tackle efficiently. What he does lack is pace, but his intelligence and positioning can cover for that, very much like his senior counterpart.
Having grown through La Masia’s ranks, it is pretty clear that Oriol Busquets has all the technical qualities required to play for Barcelona. Moreover, his spatial awareness and positioning combined with his eagle’s eye view of the pitch like his senior counterpart make him an ideal in-house candidate.
Gustavo Assuncao is just 20 years old and spent his youth playing in the academy of title rivals Atletico de Madrid before signing his first professional contract with Liga NOS club FC Famalicao. In Portugal, this wonderkid has made his name, playing in 28 matches and helping Famalicao get to 6th place in the table.
A short player, he isn’t exactly the physical kind. However, he is rapid, which makes him great when it comes to ball recoveries and ball progression. He is laborious and runs all over the pitch.
On the ball Assuncao is brilliant and helps his team build out from the back. He has the technical quality and passing range to survive pressures and Famalicao rely on the same and always looking for spaces to exploit and is efficient in doing so.
His technical ability means he can act as a ‘magnet’, attracting opposition towards him and away from his teammates, and since he is technically gifted he is able to survive the pressure often and find his teammates.
Moreover, the 20-year-old makes his decisions quickly and calmly. This, combined with his dribbling and intelligence on the ball, making him an ideal candidate to receive the ball often. His passing accuracy stands at 87.7% this season, averaging around 58 passes per game. And even though there is a clear lack in the creative department, considering he averages just 0.2 key passes per game, it stems from his role as more of a ball circulator than a creator.
Coming to his off the ball work, Assuncao is a modern-day ball winner. He often rushes to pressure the opponent and is not tiresome. Unlike Sergio Busquets who relies on his positioning and tactical awareness to win the ball, the Brazilian relies on his work ethic and pace, similar to Chelsea’s Ngolo Kante to some extent in this aspect.
This means the Famalicao man is often caught out of position but often manages to recover due to his pace. Speaking of statistics, Assuncao averages 1.7 tackles and 1.2 interceptions per game. His tackle success rate stands at 51%, which is pretty impressive. He does pick up a lot of yellow cards though, often due to last-ditch challenges, but has not picked up a red yet in 2 seasons which shows that the head can stay above water.
The Blaugranas have lacked a bit of tenacity in midfield, which Assuncao can provide very well. His technical ability suggests he would be an excellent player to don the Garnet and Blue. Moreover, his previous experience as a youth player with Atletico Madrid means he has a know-how of Spanish football, and would need little easing in when it comes to adapting to the league.
AZ have a plethora of homegrown players in their first team and leading them all is their 22-year-old captain Teun Koopmeiners. He made his debut for AZ in 2017 and has never looked back, having appeared in a total of 134 games for the club. Koopmeiners is extremely versatile and has played as a centre-back, defensive midfielder, and as a central midfielder for the Dutch outfit. It is this versatility along with his well-rounded skills that make him an ideal defensive midfielder solution for the Catalan giants.
Koopmeiners is a very efficient player on the ball. When he plays the role of a defensive midfielder or one of the midfield two in a 4-2-3-1, he likes to drop deep to receive the ball to help his team move the ball forwards. The AZ midfielder is an accurate passer with his passing accuracy standing at 85.4%, and is a creative threat as well, averaging 1.1 key passes per game. A player who thinks on his feet, Koop is often the man behind the pass which creates havoc.
He is often the key that unlocks the most robust mid and low blocks through incisive, line-breaking passes, which come in handy with his excellent range of vision and application. Koopmeiners is able to spot runners quickly and accurately, even as a centre-back, making it difficult for his opponents.
The youngster is not a mug when it comes to his defensive responsibilities either. He reads the game extremely well and is well-positioned to handle opposition counters and quickly release the ball afterwards. Therefore, it is no surprise that he averages 2.7 tackles per game and 1.3 interceptions per game. His intuition is top-notch, similar to his Spaniard counterpart at Barcelona, which is why he can cut passing lanes and passing options off efficiently. As a centre-back Koopmeiners has often been 1v1 against the opposition attacker, meaning he has developed the ability and maturity to handle himself in such situations, which he may often encounter at Barcelona.
Moreover, as the captain of the club, he shoulders a lot of responsibility. This responsibility reflects not just off the pitch but on the pitch as well. The Dutchman is the primary penalty taker for AZ, as well as the first-choice to round up a free-kick. With Lionel Messi set to leave soon, these abilities might come in handy for Barcelona, who have a horrible record with penalties this season as things stand.
His versatility, creative ability and his positional awareness means Koopmeiners could turn out to be a gem of a signing for Barcelona. The wonderkid was priced at a rather lowly €15 million when he was linked to Premier League club Leeds United in September – meaning if Barcelona move quickly, they could have their hands on a diamond that needs just a little polishing, at even less than the quoted amount.
Stats courtesy: FBRef.