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Sergio Busquets’ form: Age or complacency?

Lewis Shankie

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Photo by AFP PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO

Sergio Busquets is a club legend and is arguably the best holding midfielder of his generation. However, for a couple of seasons, the veteran has been far from his best. Is it time for Barça to realise that the Spaniard should not be an undisputed starter anymore?


For almost a decade, Sergio Busquets was the consistent and dependable anchor in a world-class midfield. At just 20 years old, Busquets made his debut under Pep Guardiola. He would go on to be a crucial part of two treble-winning sides and form one-third of the greatest midfield trio ever with Andrés Iniesta and Xavi. Busquets was the perfect holding midfielder for the Catalan side.

In recent seasons, however, his performances have deteriorated, and he has not been at his level best. Or even at an adequate level for the Blaugrana. While he managed to redeem himself with the first half of last season, this campaign, Busquets has found it even tougher with having to adapt to the double pivot system. His partnership with Frenkie De Jong is not working as the two do not seem to understand each other’s game. After another poor display against Real Madrid, and with other talented midfielders on the bench, should Busquets still be starting for Barça?

The brilliance of Sergio Busquets

It would be unfair to write an article solely criticising Sergio Busquets. As one of the greatest servants in the club’s history, Busquets deserves a huge amount of respect from Culés. The La Masia graduate broke into the first team at a young age and has been an ever-present since his debut season. He has gone on to become Barça’s fifth-most capped player in history and will likely take over Carles Puyol who is in fourth.

The Spaniard has been a key figure in the most successful period in the club’s history too. The same can be said for his time with the national team, winning the World Cup in 2010 and the UEFA European Championship in 2012. In total, the midfielder has won a behemoth 31 trophies with Barcelona including three Champions Leagues and eight league titles.

Busi has had several moments of celebrations at Barça. (Photo by AFP PHOTO/LLUIS GENE)

At his peak, there has arguably never been a better defensive midfielder. He redefined the role by showing that it was not just about tackling and breaking up play, but how the holding midfielder can be heavily involved in the build-up play and can dictate the tempo of the game.

Opponents quickly learned that it was almost pointless to press Busquets while Barcelona were in possession. His composure on the ball was and still is for the most part unmatched, while the passes were extremely accurate, progressive and have the ability to break the lines of defence.

He had exceptional awareness and ability to read the game, which was second to none; however, they have taken a massive toll. What once allowed him to take over the game with the utmost ease is slowly becoming his weakness at Barcelona.

Busquets was exceptional in every team, every year. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Current form

Sergio Busquets has not been at his best for several seasons now, and the time may have finally come when the team realises that his starting spot is no longer undisputed. This campaign especially, the 32-year-old has not managed to adapt to the new system. He is used to playing at the base in a midfield three.

Now, he shares the defensive midfield role with Frenkie de Jong in a double pivot. Neither player has performed close to their best, and it seems as if this partnership, that should work on paper, is not compatible.

Unfortunately, the problem reeks past just the structure of the team; the World Cup winner is struggling with some of the basics as well. His passing has started to him down every game, and his sloppy possession is giving away the ball in dangeorus areas of the pitch too many times. For his high standards, he is losing the ball far too often.

Busquets is lacking, and it is hurting the team. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Against Real Madrid, Busquets made a criminal error in his defensive duties. The veteran knows how important this match is and was one of the most experienced players on the pitch. But, whether due to a lack of awareness or complacency, he failed to track Federico Valverd’s run. It resulted in Barcelona conceding an early goal. The experienced midfielder should know better, especially in a game as important as El Clásico.

Age or Complacency?

As one of the Barcelona captains, Sergio Busquets should be a leader on the pitch and set an example to the rest of the team. However, his level has significantly dropped, and he has been involved in several catastrophic defeats. The game against Los Blancos is part of a growing list of big games where the #5 has let down the fans and his teammates.

Busquets was never the most athletic midfielder, but he always made up for this with his intelligence. His age could be a reason for his poor run of form as his physical attributes begin to decline naturally. However, he should grasp a better understanding of the game as he loses more of his pace.

One can always argue that is complacency catching up with the 32-year-old for his innumerable trophies and his world-class performances in the last decade. But, the likes of Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta or Xavi never went through this despite being part of the same era of Barcelona’s generational team.

Busquets has managed to maintain his high level for the Spanish National Team. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Moreover, somehow, Busquets continues to perform at an exceptional level for the Spanish national team, playing under former Barça manager Luis Enrique. Maybe Lucho is more tactically adept, and maybe the dressing room for the national team is far less toxic. We can only sit and speculate. That said, with competition for places in the Blaugrana squad, can Ronald Koeman continue to justify Busquets’ starting role in the team?

Football is the greatest sport in the world. There is no sporting event that is watched more and is as passionately followed. Any football fan should try and watch Barcelona to understand how football should be played. At Barcelona, football is all about keeping the ball, movement, passing and playing great football above all else. I am a Barça fan from Scotland and have been following the team for over a decade now. I have been lucky enough to watch possibly the greatest era on football ever, and hope it continues.

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Analysis

Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In collaboration with Anurag Agate.


Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.


A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.

Barcelona structure and formation

Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.

Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.

Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.

Atletico structure and formation

Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.

Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.

The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.

Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.

Game Stats

The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:

Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :

Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.

Buildup to shots and goals

Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.

Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.

Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.

Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.

In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:

Passing Characteristics

Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.

Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.

For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.

Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.

Defence

The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:

Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :

Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.

Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.

Conclusion

The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.

Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.

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