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Sergio Busquets in 2021: Barcelona’s silent knight



Photo via Imago

Sergio Busquets has well established himself as a true Barcelona legend and is most definitely in the discussion of the club’s best midfielders of all time. However, with several European embarrassments in the last few seasons, a large part of the fanbase has felt that change was needed, with Busquets being one of the players that needed replacing. His form at the start of the season did not help his case much, either. 

Initial struggles

With the new boss Ronald Koeman employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, Busquets struggled alongside Frenkie de Jong to express his true freedom and extent of knowledge. The Spanish midfielder was unable to hold and recycle possession as effectively as he was capable of doing. With one less body in midfield, the Spaniard’s passing lanes were cut short, and the team’s disarray and lack of chemistry left him isolated. 

The defensive midfielder was no longer able to express his artistic creativity of the very Cruyffian principles that make him the brilliant player he is: “Take the ball, pass the ball.” With Koeman’s instructions of faster, more dynamic play and a quicker transition from midfield into the attack, Busquets was rendered nearly redundant. Further, Barça’s midfield had become easy to press into submission, unable to hold its positional and possessional superiorities. 

Busquets had a tough time adjusting to the 4-2-3-1. (Photo via Imago)

The Resurgence

However, come January 2021, Barcelona were back to playing football in the right system: championing the midfield. Forming part of the midfield trident alongside Pedri and Frenkie de Jong, Busquets began excelling once again. He was played in his favoured Number Six role – or the ‘single pivot’ – and began playing at his brilliant best once again. The Spaniard is an expert at keeping the game ticking, and without his brilliant circulation and control of the game, Barça’s midfield would lose tremendous control on the game. 

Nevertheless, Busquets’ brilliance has expectedly gone unnoticed by the fans under Ronald Koeman. In fact, the Spanish seasoned international was a large reason for the resurgence of Barça this year. Firstly, it is his brilliance in controlling the tempo of the game that has allowed the Blaugrana to regain its dominance in the midfield. Busquets never tries to overcomplicate the game; rather, he excels in the simple things which most footballers fail to do in pursuit of higher ambitions. With the 32-year-old’s mastery of fundamental’s, Barça’s positional play elevates to an extremely high level. 

An artist in each sphere

One of the central attributes of Busquets’ magnificence lies in his passing. The Spanish midfielder is a perfect executor of the art of passing. Whether he must slow the pace of the game down or speed it up, Busquets has it all in his locker. Specifically, this year, he has shown tremendous consistency in putting one masterful performance after another. Rarely does the great maestro misplace a pass or attempt a meaningless one. 

In this season, Busquets’ passes travel an average of 407.9 yards per ninety towards the opposition net; essentially, he is one of the key passing progressors in the whole team. Across all competitions, he has completed 2138 passes, which is the 3rd most in the squad and has also completed 168 progressive passes, which is the fourth most. These numbers are awe-inspiring, especially given that seven other players – two of them being midfielders – have more minutes than him across all competitions. 

Simplicity done brilliantly. (Photo via Imago)

In terms of defensive contributions, Busquets is far ahead of his fellow midfield peers in the club. The Spaniard does not require immense strength and ferocity like his rival pivot Casemiro. Rather, he relies on his technical and intelligent brilliance in positioning himself in the best position to attempt win turnovers and time his tackles to perfection. Busquets carries a skinny frame and consequently relies on his masterful anticipation in his defensive contributions. 

This season, the World Cup winner has successfully tackled 57 different players – the highest number in the whole Barça team. Additionally, he has also attempted 51 possession-winning tackles, another metric in which he ranks first. Busquets has mastered the art of pressing his opponents in winning the ball back. Even at the age of 32, he is boasting some of the highest numbers in successful pressures, having attempted 152, behind only fellow Spaniard Pedri. Additionally, Busquets has the highest number of combined interceptions and tackles, boasting an impressive 84. Without such a tactically astute midfielder, Barça would not gel as well as they do. 

Busquets, Rodri, and Casemiro: A statistical comparison

Another way of highlighting Busquets’ brilliance this season is by comparing him to fellow ‘single pivots’ across Europe. Specifically, we will be taking a look at three key statistics of his. We will then compare them to Rodri and Casemiro’s statistics. Rodri is rather similar to Busquets in his playing style and boasts a dominant part of Guardiola’s magnificent Manchester City. Casemiro, on the other hand, is the midfielder type better known as a ‘destroyer’. Rodri has experienced a mid-season resurgence, much like Busi, to some extent, while Casemiro has been on top of the world for two seasons now.

Firstly, we will compare their performance in a statistic known as xGBuildup90. This a metric that measures all the attacking actions of a player per 90 except key passes or shots. Busquets’ xGBuildup90 stands at 0.77, as compared to Rodri’s 0.62 and Casemiro’s 0.36. This means that the World Cup winner is far more important in buildup play compared to Rodri or Casemiro.

Busquets’ xGChain90 – the same as xGBuildup but inclusive of shots and key passes – is also far better than his fellow midfielders. The Spaniard’s xGChain90 is an impressive 0.87. Meanwhile, his fellow Spanish midfielder only boasts an xGChain90 of 0.69, while Casemiro lags behind with 0.43. It is evident that Busquets is among some of the best single pivots in Europe. In fact, not only does he compete with them but boasts some of the most impressive numbers. 

Three of the best this season. (Photo via Imago)

Busquets also averages 1.17 key passes per 90, as compared to Rodri’s 1.03 and Casemiro’s 0.74. The 32-year-old can pick a needle out of a haystack and has unparalleled effectiveness in the final third coming from a defensive midfield position. 

Despite being known as a passing maestro, the frequency and accuracy with which he can pass the ball are unprecedented. This season, Busquets has averaged 89 passes per match with a 91.3% success rate, compared to Rodri’s 81.3 (91.2%) and Casemiro’s mere 49.3 (83.4%).

Additionally, the World Cup winner also has the keenest eye for spotting passes that travel towards the opposition half. His passing averages a progressive distance – the total distance that completed passes have travelled towards the opponent goal – 415.4 yards per ninety. Comparatively, Rodri’s passes travel a progressive distance of 344.4 yards per ninety, and Casemiro comes in last again with 246 yards per ninety.

While in nearly every department of the game, Busquets has outperformed his fellow single pivots, defensively, his numbers are not up to par. The Spaniard indeed is one of the most intelligent defenders in the game; however, world-class destroyer-type midfielders such as Casemiro and the young and energetic Rodri seem to be able to not only keep up their defensive numbers with Busquets but even outperform him.

Busquets attempts the least number of tackles per ninety, averaging 2.23 compared to Rodri’s 2.76 and Casemiro’s 2.83. The Brazilian midfielder takes gold in interceptions as well, averaging 2 per 90, whereas Rodri and Busquets come in with 1.15 and 1.14 respectively. The La Masia graduate, is however, the best at pressing out of the three, averaging 6.30 successful pressures per 90. Rodri and Casemiro come in with 5.94 and 5.62 each.

A master of fundamentals, ignored by the spotlight

Unfortunately, the Spaniard does not get the credit he has earned. He may not have the flair of his fellow teammate Riqui Puig nor the intricate close control while carrying possession like that of Pedri. In fact, he also does not compete with de Jong’s ability to dribble and progress the ball. However, it is in his immaculate understanding of the pitch, positioning, and his fellow teammates that makes him one of the best midfielders in the world. 

While Busquets suffered a slow start to the season, he has grown tremendously under Koeman. The midfield maestro has either shown immaculate understanding of the game playing in his preferred role of a solitary defensive anchor or even shown great threat playing as an interior alongside Pedri in a 3-4-3.

Busi may not enjoy the glitz and glamour from the media that his fellow midfielders do. Proof of the same is his sensational performance against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final that went largely unnoticed.

He is, however, the glue that holds Barcelona’s midfield. Without him, the team circulates the ball slower and is totally unable to hold up defensively. The World Cup winner’s masterful understanding of positional play and of the fundamentals make him an indispensable yet underappreciated, critical cog to the functioning of this Barça side. Busquets has strictly and academically resided by the Cruyffian principles. He never tries to overextend his reach, yet only attempts to master the fundamentals that make him an unrivalled pillar in the brilliance of simple football.

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