While the form of Sergio Busquets had substantially improved with manager Quique Setién compared to Ernesto Valverde’s tenure, the coronavirus break has had in the defensive midfielder one of its greatest beneficiaries.
Due to the unfortunate circumstances we found ourselves in for a large portion of this year, football was just another one of the things which was absent. Since the return of the league, some players have stood out way more than others. It’s clear that Atlético de Madrid’s Marcos Llorente or Barcelona’s Iván Rakitić have been some of those, but one of the best and overlooked players has been Sergio Busquets.
“If I was reincarnated as a player, I’d like to be like him”
on Sergio Busquets
The Spanish midfielder is one of the smartest players in the world. His positioning, calmness, awareness, decision making are just some of the things which make him a truly special player. He personifies all Cruyffian ideologies perfectly. Throughout his hugely successful Barcelona career, he has always been an integral part of the team. The defensive midfielder is still world-class and his form after the resumption of football has been a reminder of just that.
After a match against Real Betis, Busquets signed a shirt for the then Betis manager Quique Setién. On it, he expressed his admiration for Setién’s footballing philosophy. Since Quique’s appointment as Barcelona manager in January, Busquets has been a crucial part of the side. Barça are the team with the highest possession percentage per match in La Liga, maximum goals scored and most big chances created. Setién has played a possession-based attacking style of football, and Busquets has been at the heart of this.
Tactical importance in the build-up
Busquets has started in all four matches since the resumption of La Liga. In all these, he has played his usual defensive midfield position as a pivot. His primary duties have been in the build-up and offering support for both the midfielders as well as defenders.
When building up from the back, the central defenders drift apart, allowing Busquets space to receive the ball. Barcelona’s number 5 is excellent when receiving under pressure as well, which makes him a very reliable choice to pass to. With a passing accuracy of 90%, it is quite widely known that Sergio simple yet efficient passing is one of the best in the world.
After receiving the ball in defence, he then usually passes forward. The full-backs as well as the midfielders are the preferred passing options for Busquets. He never fails to help in transitioning the ball from defence to midfield, with a 92% passing accuracy in Barcelona’s half.
“In the end you just stop pressing him, because it’s so frustrating. You just can’t get near him”
on Sergio Busquets
Playing the short passing game is what Busquets does most often. But his long passes are still exquisite. With 3.4 attempted on average per match and a 72% success rate, these allow him to quickly relieve the pressure on the team. While transitioning from defence to attack, for a while Busquets will stay between the central defenders. However, once the ball reaches the final third, he drifts forwards and occupies the defensive midfield position in a 4–3–3. Busquets influences most of the game from this position.
A disguised asset in attack
Throughout the build-up, Sergio Busquets is the player who always looks to get into space and circulate the ball. His constant participation in possession allows the two other central midfielders to roam from their position. This helps Barcelona in making more passing options available.
Busquets has an excellent ability of disguising passes with the orientation of his body. This is helpful when two players are marked by one opposition player. Even so, in such cases where the midfielders are roaming, he plays direct passes from between the opposition’s lines and helps Barcelona progress.
Busi‘s ability to pass between the lines is a sort of a trigger for Barcelona to begin link-up play and start progressing vertically. When on the attack, Busquets is deployed outside the box. Here, he recycles possession and collects any lose balls. The Spaniard can either lower the tempo or continue the attack. It’s such decisions which make Busquets a huge threat even in attack. His decision making, which is hardly ever wrong, comes into play here. With this in mind, Setién has also given him the responsibility to make sure the opposition does not counter.
Busquets is one of the most overlooked yet important pieces of Barcelona’s defence. Due to his lack of pace, people often think he is a defensive liability. In fact, the Spanish veteran is vital for the defence.
When the opposition get possession while the blaugranas are on the attack, Sergio is the first line of defence for Barcelona. In the last four matches, Busi has stopped multiple counters. In the match against Athletic Club de Bilbao, a few minutes summed up his attacking importance. Arturo Vidal misplaced a pass on the right half-space and immediately Athletic started transitioning with multiple players making runs and Iñaki Williams ready to receive the ball.
Sergio Busquets has also played a big part in Barcelona keeping five straight clean sheets | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
Within a second, Busquets had arrived near the ball and, with a perfectly timed tackle, regained possession. He played a quick pass to Lionel Messi, and with the opposition on the counter, Barcelona had a very good chance on goal.
When the opposition have possession in Barça’s half, Busquets has the responsibilities of intercepting the ball as well as providing back-up to the defence. With his exceptional understanding of the game, he cuts passing lanes very quickly and efficiently. While defending, if the opposition striker has the ball, Sergio will look to press him. Barcelona have their centre-backs contain the attackers and not immediately press if they are on the back foot. This is possible only due to the defensive midfielder.
Sergio Busquets is undoubtedly one of the best midfielders to ever grace the game. Due to the enigmatic nature of his play, a huge percentage of football fans fail to notice his brilliance. This is the kind of player who would be the most important player in most teams. Unfortunately for Busi, he plays alongside a certain six-time Ballon d’Or winner, namely Lionel Messi.
Under Quique Setién, Busquets’ influence has been further amplified. Since the resumption of football, he has been on great form. For the remaining games, if Barcelona are to challenge for the league, it is really important for the Catalans to have Sergio Busquets sustaining this level of play.
Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?
Work rate is a crucial element in a successful football side, but which Barcelona players have put in the most effort this season?
While FC Barcelona has always been renowned for their technical ability and tactical intelligence of its players, their work rate on the pitch has also played a key role in the club’s greatest triumphs.
The concept is simple, but that does not detract from its importance. Players who track back to win the ball, make bursting runs to create space and passing angles, and constantly apply pressure out of possession are incredibly valuable.
While it may be impossible to quantify a player’s effort with full accuracy truly, the available data can still reveal some prominent trends. With that in mind, which Barcelona players put in the highest amount of work rate statistically?
First things first, time to establish a methodology. Using data from FBRef, the dataset will be filtered down to outfield players who have played five or more 90’s in one of the big five European leagues in the 2020/21 season. That means each player has at least a decent sample size under their belt, so there will not be anyone with only a few ten-minute appearances off the bench.
Then, which metrics can be used to quantify effort best? With the data available, it seems like the most viable option is to try and identify box-to-box players. For that, we can use the different areas of the pitch in which players take their touches.
Each player’s percentile rank for touches per 90 minutes in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, middle third, attacking third, and attacking penalty area was found. The average of those five percentiles became each player’s “attacking average.”
These averages were then scaled between 0 and 100 for the final “Offensive Coverage Rating.” This is how the top five came out for all clubs:
- Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
- Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
- Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
- Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid) – 92.4
Elsewhere in the top 20 are names like Andrew Robertson, Reece James, Luke Ayling of the intense Leeds United system, Ander Herrera, and Frenkie de Jong. There seems to a solid set of players who work their way up and down the pitch, either down the flank as full-backs or as energetic centre-midfielders.
How does the Barça squad stack up in particular?
As previously mentioned, the full-backs are the main standouts. The never-ending stamina of Jordi Alba is especially on display. Frenkie de Jong sits as the top non-full-back by a solid distance, reflecting his ability to drop deep in the buildup and provide dangerous runs forward.
A bit lower down the list, though, things start to look a bit weirder. It should be noted that this methodology can be a bit biased towards centre-backs. They rack up many touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, and middle third in a possession-based system, and the additional touches they get in the attacking penalty area off of corners and free-kicks can drive their scores pretty high.
Looking at Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite all the way at the bottom brings up another limitation. While we can track players who are active in many different areas of the pitch, we can not do the same for players who move and work a lot in the same area.
Watching Braithwaite and Griezmann definitely shows how active they are making runs in behind or across the attacking third, but because they do not drop off very often to pick up the ball, they rank low in the team.
However, those top names prove this offensive coverage metric is able to quantify box-to-box play in possession. Additionally, incorporating defensive metrics will clean things up even more.
On the other side of the ball, the process is very similar. The same players and methodology will be applied, only this time with pressures instead of touches.
StatsBomb, who collect the data displayed on FBRef, define pressure as, “…applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.” These pressures are just broken down based on the thirds of the pitch, not the penalty areas too, so only three metrics go into each player’s “defensive average.”
Once again, those averages are then scaled between 0 and 100, creating the “Defensive Coverage Ratings.” The top five performers in these ratings were:
- Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
- Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
- Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
- Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
- Maxence Caqueret (Lyon) – 97.2
Midfield workhorses like Fred and Adrien Silva, along with high-pressing forwards such as Diogo Jota are common throughout the rest of the top 25.
Given that Barcelona are a possession-heavy side, and one that often presses at a lower intensity, one would expect these defensive work-rate ratings to be a bit lower. Still, though, which players stand out?
Pedri comes out as the clear leader. Impressively, the teenager’s score is one that would be respectable in any side. Let it serve as just another testament to his work rate and ability to perform a variety of different tasks on the pitch.
With Sergio Busquets in second, even as he ages, he is still one of Barça’s most active players in terms of closing down the opposition. In third is another newcomer, as Sergiño Dest’s tendency to press aggressively puts him much higher than most of the other defenders in the squad.
The tallies for the other members of the backline are quite low because they defend in a more reserved nature. This can also be attributed to the fact that Barcelona give up fewer opportunities than many teams.
With both of these two ratings in place and some solid results for top-ranking players, it is time to combine them.
Here in the endgame, we will be combining all eight metrics to create one “Overall Coverage Rating.” That means touches in each third, touches in both penalty areas, and pressures in each third are all included. This way, we can see the players who cover most of the pitch overall.
The top five is comprised of:
- Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
- Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
- Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
- Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 96.2
Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dani Carvajal, Joshua Kimmich, Renan Lodi, Arturo Vidal, Maxence Caqueret, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedri, Reece James, Mason Mount, and Mateusz Klich are among the top names as well.
Now, for the final Barcelona squad rankings:
The numbers still involve the same intricacies as those discussed for the separate offensive and defensive ratings, but at least the top five names seem to match an eye test evaluation of the squad.
Pedri has joined the team and impressed everyone with his work rate and movement. He will track an opposition runner back to the defensive third, win the ball, combine in midfield, and then get forward to be an outlet for Messi.
While not as youthful and agile, Busquets still serves as a metronome in the possession and an active defender. He will move and reposition to rack up touches in the deeper thirds and engages in defensive duels very often.
The right flank has been slightly ignored at times this season, leaving Dest isolated, but the American always brings energy. He has all the skills and the mentality to be a great modern full-back.
Dest’s counterpart on the left, Jordi Alba, performs a much greater portion of his work offensively. His countless runs down the left wing have made him a key target for through balls and switches of play over the last few seasons.
Lastly, Frenkie de Jong backs up his reputation as an all-round midfielder. This season, the Dutchman is settling in more at the Camp Nou, and his surging runs forward to the penalty area have been awe-inspiring as of late.
Rivaldo (on De Jong): "It is being shown that near the area it seems that he is capable of playing better as an offensive midfielder and that he can even play a role similar to what Messi does when the Argentine is away. This is great news for Koeman." pic.twitter.com/r8aIrdMWSg— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 15, 2021
Griezmann and Braithwaite are probably the hardest done by these metrics. However, their energy, work rate and volume of runs they can provide off the ball is noticeable when watching them play, and invaluable for Barcelona.
There is no perfect way to quantify how hard a player works in-game, especially with these limited statistics. What this attempted to do, though, is focus on effort in terms moving to a variety of areas, being as involved in the match as possible, and doing so in different ways.
While not perfect, this methodology was successful in identifying some of the busiest players in the side. It should serve as a reminder of the value these players, like Pedri or de Jong, can offer beyond even their brilliant technical ability.
Given that 32-year-old Sergio Busquets and 31-year-old Jordi Alba were also near the top, it is a reminder of the potential replacements the club will be forced to make eventually. How long can these two continue to exert energy at this level? Could younger players be doing even more in those roles? How will Barça fill those holes when they move on? These are questions that need answering.