The quality and importance of Sergio Busquets have never been doubted by those who truly watch Barcelona play, but stats show that he has had an overlooked resurgence to take his game to an even higher level this season.
Sergio Busquets will surely go down as one of the most misunderstood players of this generation. This is largely because his impact isn’t as flashy or as easily-measurable as that of other players. For instance, if a forward scores multiple goals, he most likely played well and will get credit. But for Busquets, one has to look deeper into the match. This is also true when analysing players across multiple seasons. If a forward doubles his scoring tally, it is easy to see that he improved.
It isn’t that simple for Busquets, and this is where the underlying stats come in. Of course, his quality can’t be fully measured numerically. There is no metric for his supreme intelligence and positioning, but the data available can still reveal the trends of his overall performance. This data clearly shows improvement from last season to this season.
As the deepest midfielder in Barcelona’s team, Sergio Busquets has always had high defensive responsibility. This isn’t the strength of his game, and he has never been someone who racks up defensive numbers, but his stats do show a significant contribution.
Note: All stats are per 90 minutes and from FB Reference or Statsbomb. Light green shows in which of the two seasons Busquets had the highest of that stat. Dark green shows the highest overall, including the ‘Under Setién’ matches
At first glance, it would appear that the defensive numbers of Busquets have dropped off this season. He did achieve a higher tally in 2018/19 for four of these stats, but looking deeper into them actually shows improvement. Clearly, he has pressured opposition players on the ball less this season. In fact, his total pressures per 90 minutes dropped by 7 from the 2018/19 campaign to 2019/20. This is significant, but maybe not a bad thing.
Despite applying pressure on the ball carrier much more in 2018/19, the tackle numbers of Busquets are actually higher for the 2019/20 season. His attacking third tackles have dropped, and continued to drop since Quique Setién‘s arrival in January, but Busquets is not a player who should really be defending that high up the pitch anyways. When looking at his tackles in the middle and defensive thirds, they both follow the trend of increasing for this current season, and then getting even better under Setién. Overall, Busquets is making 0.45 more tackles per 90 this season, even with the fewer pressures.
These defensive metrics also seem to point to improvement. Yes, there has been a slight decrease in his interceptions, but 1.65 per 90 still leads the Barcelona squad for all players who have played at least half the available minutes this season. His 2.55 tackles per 90 in which Barcelona end up winning possession are also the highest in the team, and it is 0.66 higher than his previous tally. Sergio has even managed to improve that further in the matches he has played under Setién.
Once again, the pressures of Busquets seem to be the one area where he had a significant drop off. His rate of pressures in which Barça gained possession within five seconds dropped by 3.2% from last season to this season. Although, it does appear that the arrival of Quique Setién has fixed this issue. In his matches under Setién, the pressures of Busquets have been successful 8.19% more often than for this La Liga season as a whole.
One of the most remarkable statistics possessed by the Barcelona pivot is his rate of tackling dribblers. This season, that rate has risen by 17.1%. Busquets has also somehow been able to improve that rate once again since Quique’s appointment. For perspective, Busquets’ rate of tackling 68.75% of dribblers he faced so far under Setién would rank third in La Liga this campaign.
Busquets is one of the most important players when Barcelona have the ball. As the pivot, he drops deep and uses his brilliant vision and intelligence to move the ball forward. He has always excelled at this, and the stats show he has gotten even better.
The small decrease in his pass completion rate is definitely nothing to worry about. He still ranks within the top ten of all La Liga players this season, and it is completely understandable when one realises how much more he is doing with his passes.
The total progressive distance of Busquets’ passes – the combined distance they travel towards the opposition goal – has seen a drastic increase. This season, his passes progress 50.1 yards more per 90 than they did last season. Under Quique Setién, this distance has risen over 40 additional yards. With this in mind, it should be no surprise that the number of progressive passes he makes has increased this season, and again since Setién arrived.
One would be surprised to find that Busquets, now 31 years old, is also carrying the ball further towards the opposition goal. Nonetheless, in 2018/19 the progressive distance of his carries was 116.7 yards per 90. This season that has risen to 123.9 yards, and in the matches with Setién in charge he is averaging 153.58 yards per 90.
Busquets has always had great technique and control on the ball, but is not the type of player who dribbles past defenders often. Despite this, his dribbling statistics show efficiency and improvement.
Although he will never be attempting many dribbles each match, Busquets has become significantly more active beating opposition players with the ball at his feet. This season, he is attempting 0.25 more dribbles per 90, and succeeding in 0.24 more of them per 90. In spite of this increase in volume, the already-excellent success rate of Busquets has managed to get even higher. That 84.2% ranks him seventh in La Liga for qualifying players. In his minutes under Quique Setién, Busquets’ dribbles attempted and succeeded have fallen off very slightly compared to this season as a whole. However, the significant improvement compared to 2018/19 has continued.
Attacking and creativity
Due to his role as the pivot, Busquets doesn’t provide much flare in the advanced areas. Although, his influence when Barcelona are going forward still shows up in his numbers.
Note: A shot creating action is one of the two offensive actions leading directly to a shot. These could be passes, dribbles or fouls drawn
Once again, improvement across the board from last season to this season. His shots on target per 90, through balls per 90, passes into the opponent’s penalty area per 90, and key passes per 90 have all at least doubled from last campaign. He particularly excels when it comes to passes into the final third. His 8.3 per 90 lead all Barcelona footballers this season, and have him ranked fourth in La Liga.
Some of these numbers have been lower under Setién compared to the season as a whole. Notwithstanding, all of them besides passes into the final third still show significant increase compared to the 2018/19 season. Even the 7.59 passes into the final third per 90 made by Busi during Setién’s reign would still have him as the team leader.
Last and perhaps least importantly, but interesting nonetheless, is the end product of Busquets. Obviously, the Catalan has never stood out due to his goal and assist numbers, and that definitely isn’t his role. He has made a significant jump in these numbers though.
Note: The ‘x’ in xGoals and xAssists stands for expected. This takes into account the probability of all the chances Busquets receives and creates resulting in a goal, based on factors like the location of the shot or the type of pass
Each of these metrics are at least three times greater for Busquets this season than they were last season. Additionally, when comparing this season as a whole to just the matches under Quique Setién, only his assists per 90 has dropped since the new manager arrived. While he is yet to register his first assist under Setién, it should only be a matter of time, as his expected assists per 90 have continued on the same improved pace.
While stats can’t show the true genius of Busquets, they can clearly paint the picture that his performance has improved this season. One key to this resurgence could be the fact that he is conserving energy by pressuring less. As mentioned earlier, this season he is making 7 fewer pressures per 90 than last season. Even with this drop, only Arturo Vidal makes more pressures than Busquets in the Barça squad, but this extra bit of energy saved seems to be doing him the world of good.
Outside of his pressure stats, Busquets has only seen slight decreases in his pass completion rate and interceptions per 90, which are still at a very high level. Every other metric discussed in this article has improved from last course, showing advancement in all aspects of the game.
It must also be pointed out that a large portion of Busquets’ stats have shown further increases in the matches under Quique Setién when compared to this season as a whole. He has only played 7 full matches for the new manager, and another in which he was substituted off after 58 minutes. While the sample size is small, the signs are certainly promising. This is especially true in terms of the ball progression of Busquets, which is perhaps the most important part of his game and where his numbers have skyrocketed under the new manager. Hopefully, Sergio Busquets is able to continue to perform better under a less-pragmatic coach, and is able to preserve his body and energy to prolong his career for many more years.
The causes and effects of Barcelona’s inability to cope with pressure
On the back of a 1-4 trouncing at home to Paris Saint Germain, Barcelona had the opportunity to extend their 7 game-winning run in the league to a phenomenal eight, and against probably the easiest of competition to do so.
After all, Cádiz were on the back of a four-game losing streak in La Liga, having won a meagre 5 points from a possible 33, and up against a team that had won 31 from their last 33. This was as perfect a game as they came, but, as has been a motif at the Catalan club in recent years, they crumbled under pressure.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The defence gave away two big chances, one of which came from a ludicrous and much too easily avoidable penalty two minutes from time. As for the forward line, despite having had eleven and a half chances more than their visitors to hit the back of the net, amassing a whopping 3.56xG, they could settle for only one goal, and this too from a penalty. Ronald Koeman had a mostly tolerable afternoon, but at this point, the complaints about the team make the ever-demanding fans sound like a broken record.
In this article, Barca Universal explores some events that have become all too common when the team faces minimal adversity, stretching from the managers in the dugouts, the pressure the collective falls over for in crucial moments and finally, individual mistakes which, like a bad rash, spread to all corners of the team continue to plague the club.
Managerial incompetence in crucial moments
Barcelona’s last three managers, Ronald Koeman included, have each shown, and on plenty of occasions, certain character traits that, rather than improve the team, contribute to its inevitable downfall. What is most shocking is, despite being akin to water and oil in terms of their tactics, they each have an uncanny ability not only to fail to learn from each other but, more surprisingly, themselves.
Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién, and Koeman have each shown a palpable level of a lack of tactical ingenuity whenever called upon. In one way or another, each one of them has taken the club farther and farther away from its roots, all while failing to replace them with anything sustainable enough to win points, or at the very least, make games enjoyable.
It comes as a shock that even in-game, whenever their set systems start to show fissures, neither one of them has consistently shown the most basic of requirements in a manager, this coming in their ability to rectify their errors.
In 2019, leading 3-0 against Liverpool, Barcelona needed just but a goal to gain a spot in the UEFA Champions League’s final. Rather than set his side up for an offensive tussle with the Merseyside club — who mind you were bereft of any real attacking talent —, the then manager deployed a controversial and rather defensive 4-4-2 formation, providing little to no width and with a clear disconnect between the midfield and the two up front.
Down by a just goal at half time, Valverde had the chance to add Malcom to attack the right flank given Andy Robertson had been taken off at halftime, but he opted not to. He had a chance to add Arthur Melo to improve ball circulation after conceding two in two minutes to Georginio Wijnaldum but instead decided to go for Nelson Semedo.
The sheer lack of order in the team, and his inability to react to reach the goals they scored, meant Barça would inevitably give up the aggregate lead and the tie as a whole. Impervious to criticism, he would continue to show this very same level of incompetence for the nine months that led up to his sacking.
Quique Setién did much of the same here too. Once admired for his Cruyffist tendencies, he fell apart under the unspoken power dynamics set in place by the heavyweights in the club, leading him to never make changes to his starting elevens regardless of how poorly an individual had played. Even when the game was crying for an intervention via a substitution, he, like Valverde, before him would cower in fear and take refuge in the dugouts, which for much of his tenure remained untouched.
Despite having three years worth of evidence on what not to do at Barça, Ronald Koeman continues to make the same exact mistakes as his predecessors. He at least makes rotations in the starting eleven every once in a while, but unless, of course, the team is in a comfortable winning position, he will wait until at least the 80th minute to effectuate any changes to the team’s shape, tactics, or personnel. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that almost every game that has seen Barca trail this season in La Liga has gone on to end as either a draw or a loss of all three points.
Against Paris, many fans observed the gaping holes left in between the defence at the halfway line and the poorly dispersed midfield and attack. This was at halftime, yet in the second period, he left it as it was rather than change up the team’s shape. The exact same mistakes occurred at home against Cádiz in both the first and second period and was only met with a change in the final minutes of the tie.
In La Liga, where the level is lower, managers can get away with a draw here and there, but in the Champions League, where every mistake is punished, they all falter, and to the surprise of no one. When push comes to shove, they all look clueless, lose their train of thought, and as has been the case in each of the last four years, the Blaugrana have lost and lost heavily to equal opposition.
Players that simply don’t make the cut
It comes to reason that not every defeat is as a result of managerial or tactical mishaps. Sometimes, and as has been the case for many years now, tactical flaws have been compounded with some ghastly individual errors, some of which lead fans to question how it is that these players became professionals in the first place.
There are many games that can illustrate this, but none more so than Barcelona’s almighty collapse against the new sextuple winners, Bayern Munich. It is quite unjust that subsequent to such defeats, only the manager’s contract is cut short. Some of the mistakes made by the entirety of the team in that game were so blatantly unacceptable that at least half the team should’ve been sacked at the end.
A score of 4-1 against Paris, or 3-0 against AS Roma this year and in 2018 respectively could be attributed to a manager’s inability to take a firm hold of the game, but when it goes beyond five, it is imperative that the players, perhaps more than their manager, be put to question.
Despite the average age of the squad on that night being over 30 years of age, everyone on the team, from Lionel Messi upfront to Ter Stegen in goal, made rookie mistakes. Leading from the front, the Argentine couldn’t be bothered to press for the ball, despite his individual mistakes directly leading to a quarter of their goals.
Luis Suárez partnering him, made just eighteen passes, nine of which were from the centre circle at the start of one half and one for each of the eight goals that Ter Stegen, a man whose capacity to play under pressure, is being questioned more and more by the year, conceded.
The entirety of the team has this impeccable ability to collectively fall into pieces, with mentalities that shrink to the sub-atomic level when faced with the slightest of adversity. The usual suspects in defence, these coming in Jordi Alba, who almost singlehandedly won Liverpool the second leg at Anfield, Samuel Umtiti, whose career essentially came to an end after the 2018 world cup, Clément Lenglet, whose in-game reactions can be outpaced by a tortoise, are often the catalysts to the team’s failure.
Football is a team game, but individual errors often do have a profound impact on the collective. How is Barca supposed to be challenging for La Liga when their defence is the one with the most individual errors leading to a goal in the entire division.
How are clean sheets meant to be preserved when individuals like Clément Lenglet concede 3 penalties in the same campaign, each leading to a loss of points. It is borderline impossible to challenge for anything when half the time, in do or die situations, you have defenders that shoot themselves, and thus the team, in the foot.
But it’s not only the defence to be blamed. The attack and midfield, charged with finishing chances and creating an air of stability, respectively, do none of the like when called upon. Against the Bavarians, the midfield was essentially inexistent, with next to no pressing, and even when applied, none of it had any coordination or impact on the much superior German machine. Passing somehow from a trio or quadruple of players whose careers are built on just that, all inexplicably goes awry or loses all meaning at the slightest instance of pressure.
The forward line, as seen on innumerable occasions this campaign and during their European disasters, somehow collectively forgets how to find the back of the net. No one can be spared from this judgment, not even Messi.
Ousmane Dembélé had the chance to kill off the tie against Liverpool, but rather than blast the ball past Alisson in a 1v1 situation, he chipped it into his arms and did basically the same thing against Paris last in midweek when he wasted a chance to take the game to 2-0, only for the visitors to equalise within seconds. The same was the case as recently as yesterday against Cadiz, whereof 23 shots made, only one via a penalty found the back of the net.
Barcelona not only have to contend with managers who show complete ineptitude at understanding or implementing the one style of play asked if them, but also a team that, when needed to perform, has not the slightest idea how.
As Johan Cruyff once famously said, “football is a game of mistakes, and whoever makes the least mistakes wins.” When it comes to Barcelona, winning goes from something that should be a regular, weekly occurrence to a proverbial mountain crafted from the tiniest of anthills.
These errors span all the way from managers in the dugouts who, despite years of experience, keep making the same mistakes to the players on the pitch, who, through a lack of attention to detail, ridiculous mistakes and otherworldly missing, never cease to contribute to the demise of the team.