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.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.