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.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.