The squad of FC Barcelona has come under massive criticism following a poor campaign that ended trophyless. Not even the heavyweights in the team feel safe, with their position in the team finally coming under scrutiny. It is crucial to analyse without bias. Did Sergio Busquets really have a disappointing 19/20 season? Are the calls for his departure justifiable?
This is the ninth episode of a series in which we review the performances of Barça first team players, as well as discuss their future for the next campaign.You can check the series here.
The last to be praised in a victory, yet the first to be criticised in any defeat. Nobody in their senses would willingly take up a position that guarantees such unfairness. Yet, there is a certain technically gifted Spaniard in Barcelona’s midfield that soaks up all thrown at him silently. Amidst the constantly varying midfield, he is the one constant. Statistics can never reflect his influence, neither can it be perceived by the normal eye. His presence on the field mirrors his silent personality off it. He is rarely associated with the game-changing moment, but it will be fair to say that every game-changing moment can be traced back to him.
It is exceedingly difficult to talk about Sergio Busquets and his season. Very rarely does one see his performances rated in an unbiased manner. However, it is the outcome of the game decides the perception of his showing. His modest statistics never boast of goals, assists or key passes. Meanwhile, no scale can measure his technical ability or vision.
There has been a noticeable decline in Busquets‘ game over the past few seasons. Undoubtedly, age has caught up with him. A visible reduction in speed has made it difficult for him to make interceptions on an opponent break. Indeed, he cannot track back like he once used to, neither can he win the ball back as fast. Yet, it is difficult to envision a Barça without him.
Sergio is a victim of the poor management of the club. His game heavily depends on the players around him. Busquets, when provided with the ideal atmosphere, can break open any defence in the world. Nonetheless, the visible decline in the technical quality of Barcelona’s midfield over the years has been a huge blow to him. The failure to replace the lost legends in Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta has put an immense burden on his shoulders. With everyone expecting him to cover up for the lost gold, he often loses himself in the confusion of his actual position.
Substitutions have become more frequent for Sergio Busquets this term | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images
This term, the arrival of Frenkie de Jong helped unburden the Spanish maestro to some extent. Under Ernesto Valverde, he continued to dictate the game from his usual position. The peak under el Txingurri was undoubtedly the 5–2 win over Mallorca in December 2019 where Sergio finished the game with an astounding four key passes. He was once again the best player on the field against Granada at the Camp Nou. The first half of the season was a rather silent yet effective one for the La Masía graduate.
The arrival of Quique Setién was a crucial event in Busquets‘ season. Under the initial optimism of revamping his new club, the Cantabrian coach decided to play around with the formation. Initially, the team played a three.man backline in attack with the right-back usually joining the centre-backs in defence. This formation demanded much more from Busquets.
In addition to his defensive duties, he was tasked with being the creator-in-chief for the side. He began playing much higher up the pitch than one would associate him with. Though this seemed to pay off in the first outing against Granada, the downside was seen in occasionally. Despite enabling Sergio to display his creative edge in breaking the lines, it proved to be too advanced a position for him to recover in time to to make interceptions.
Subsequently, an unfortunate deflection in the dying moments of the game against Athletic Club de Bilbao causing an own goal eliminated Barcelona from the Copa del Rey. It would be unfair to pin the blame on him, but he certainly could have done better. What followed was more of the same. Yet Setién continued to deploy the veteran higher up the pitch and the mixed result persisted. It was only a pandemic later that things completely changed.
The restart of La Liga in June saw a world of changes. Whilst Barcelona struggled to get back in the groove, Busquets was notably moved back to his original position. The electric rise of Riqui Puig provided the Catalan side with that cutting edge going forward. This, in turn, helped Busquets partially return to what he does best. A horrendous display in the Champions League wound up a disappointing campaign. Though no player provided a silver lining that night, Busquets had a notably terrible game.
What is next for Sergio Busquets?
Ronald Koeman has made his intentions of deploying Frenkie de Jong closer to the defence very clear. The arrival of Miralem Pjanić adds more competition for the limited starting spots in the position. Though there have been calls for his exit from the club, it would be a rather hasty move from Barcelona. Not to mention, an unfitting exit for a club legend.
The truth remains that the culés don’t have a direct replacement for the Spaniard. Though De Jong seems like a natural alternative, one might question if it has what it takes to suddenly bear the entire Notwithstanding, there is no question of letting him go at the moment. Holding on to one of their best midfielders for one last season, to facilitate a smooth transition would be wise.
Though with the current board at the helm, who knows what’s to come?
A 19/20 season review of the new faces: Pedri
In September 2019, Barcelona paid 5 million euros to secure the services of Pedri, who would have a standout debut 19/20 season with Las Palmas at 17. In this article, we analyse the attributes and main statistics of the young and extremely promising attacking midfielder.
This is the first episode of a series of articles that dive deep into a season review of the incoming new faces at Barcelona. You can check the 19/20 season reviews here.
As Ronald Koeman‘s new Barcelona is already taking shape, the youngest member to be joining the first team is Pedro González López, affectionately known as Pedri.
The 17-year-old from the Canary Islands has been a member of UD Las Palmas through and through, right from the youth team set-up to his professional debut in 2019 with the first team. Playing primarily as an attacking mid or left winger, Pedri showcased his attacking repertoire early enough to become an important member of the Las Palmas senior team and went on to play 2982 minutes for them.
His skillset didn’t go unnoticed at the bigger clubs, and soon enough, he was snatched up by Barcelona. So, what does the young midfielder bring to the table?
Pedri was, admittedly, not the biggest goal threat in his first senior season, but given his age, that’s not an issue at all. He scored 4 goals and gave 5 assists.
Watching his shot videos and looking at his shot-map, one can conclude that he does need to work a bit on the judicious choice of positions from where to take shots. For example, there were a bunch of shots from the right with his right foot – shooting from such acute angles is quite unnatural for someone who is not a natural goalscorer. There are also far too many shots from outside the box, most of which, as the videos suggest, are hopeful punts than accurate attempts.
Given below are a variety of his attacking stats – both the raw value and the percentile (mentioned inside parentheses) when compared to other wingers or attacking midfielders who played at least 1000 minutes in the Segunda División of Spain last season.
Data by Wyscout
While most numbers appear to be modest, do keep in mind that this was a 16-year-old playing his first professional season. And his assists, expected assists (xA) and dribbling percentiles are particularly encouraging. It shows he is not afraid to take risks, and we are going to get more glimpses of that further into the article.
But before we proceed, let’s take a look at an animation of the only goal he scored from outside the box:
It was a well-struck fist-time half-volley into the left bottom corner, giving Las Palmas a 1–0 home win against Sporting de Gijón in September 2019. It also marked Pedri’s fist goal as a professional.
A big issue that plagued Barcelona all season was an uncoordinated and lackadaisical defensive effort put in by the team in general. Very little defensive activity by Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi led to Barcelona effectively defending with nine men. A lot of old men in the midfield in the form of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Arturo Vidal also meant that the necessary speed to catch up with fast breaks was lacking as well.
All these afore-mentioned midfielders are very fine players – some of the top midfielders in their prime – but have grown old and lost a bit of their zip, which is much needed in the midfield right now. Meanwhile, Frenkie de Jong is very athletic, and Riqui Puig is deceptively fast, and both of them put in decent defensive numbers. And Pedri should complement them well were these three to take the field in a game together.
Pedri put in a good amount of defensive work for Las Palmas. Browsing through his videos, one can immediately conclude that Pedri is deceptively fast as well and good at reading runs, and he times and angles his own runs to cut the opponents off in their tracks and win back the ball.
Shown below are a variety of his defensive stats. Except for aerial duels – understandable as he is only 177 cms tall –, he ranks very high at every other metric:
Next, let’s take a look at Pedri’s passing characteristics, as shown below.
Pedri was highly involved in the attacking build-ups while maintaining a pretty decent passing accuracy for an attacking midfielder/winger hybrid. He played a lot of forward passes at decent accuracy – something that should bring smiles to the faces of the fans. The teenager is definitely someone who is not shy at taking risks and will mix it up with a decent range of long balls as well. Pedri played around 9 forward passes per 90 minutes, around 8 back passes per 90 minutes and the rest were lateral.
Once again, his video clips make it clear that he attempts to progress the ball and be vertical whenever possible, and the data corroborates that. But here comes the highlight of the article: his keypassing numbers.
What should be clarified right away here is that “dangerous passes” is a nickname I am using for all sorts of progressive and productive passes. This includes passes that lead to shots, assists and pre-assists, progressive passes etc. Let’s have a look at his numbers:
Here we see his greatest asset: his passing abilities to do something productive. And Pedri is outstanding at almost every single category. He ranks very highly in productive passes (which are passes leading to shots + 2nd assists + 3rd assists), passes to the final third and the penalty area, through balls, deep progressions and progressive passes, while also maintaining a reasonably good accuracy at each kind of pass.
This is arguably what attracted Barcelona, and the club will be well served by a passer who is already at this stage of calibre at such an early age. Let’s take a deeper look at his passes that led to shots and goals:
14 of his 19 key passes were into the penalty area – arguably the most dangerous area to take shots from. Only one of the key passes is a corner kick – everything else comes from open play, which is encouraging.
Watching the videos, three of the key passes that end outside the box came from fast breaks – counter-attacks – where Pedri carried the ball upfield from deep and laid it onto the path of his teammate, or found his teammate with accurate long balls from deep. So, even though they were far from the box, they led to extremely dangerous plays by Las Palmas.
Focusing on just the assists, it is easy to see how Pedri combines his speed at ball-carrying with his silky dribbling skills to get past opposition and create crucial amounts of space before finding a teammate with a laser-accurate pass:
And as a special gift to the readers, here is an animation of the assist that happens at the top right corner of the pitch in the viz above. Pedri makes a well-timed run to latch on to his teammate’s pass outside the box, before pulling off an outrageous piece of skill to dribble past his marker with a ‘Berbatov-flick-and-turn’, runs into the box and lays the ball off through two opposition players for his teammate to smash a goal in.
Pedri is an absolute gem, and along with Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig, Francisco Trincão and Frenkie de Jong, may well end up forming the core of a youth-based team. As such, Barcelona will do well to hold on to him and nurture him well. After an already promising – unofficial – debut against Nàstic de Tarragona on Saturday, culés can only hope for him to have a great season and future ahead.
Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Samuel Gustafson, writer at Barça Universal, in collating the data and the videos used in the above article