An Ode to Sergio Busquets
Sergio Busquets is the man the English-speaking press likes to point to as an example of all that’s wrong with football. He is a magnet for criticism. Breathlessly derided as a cheat and defined by a moment of gamesmanship in a Champions League match when he was a kid, he has been reduced to little more than a caricature since his rise to prominence at the rear of Barcelona’s celebrated midfield.
Never mind that gamesmanship is rampant in professional football. Never mind that he actually does suffer frequent, violent physical contact. To hear the pontificators at Sky speak, PeekaBusquets is an affront to all that is decent in the game. And the criticism doesn’t stop at his character, either.
On an internet bursting with praise for Barcelona’s stylish play, it’s hard to find anybody saying anything nice about the man’s abilities. Check any match summary going back to 2009 and you’ll likely notice that Busquets seems to rank among the lowest in player ratings.
But if his defining characteristics are his cheating and playacting, how has he managed to be omnipresent for club and country during both teams’ golden age? How has he inspired luminaries like Del Bosque and Xavi and Cruyff to heap praise upon him even while the viewing public spews bile?
This post won’t explore the depths of English xenophobia or hypocrisy. Nor will it focus on Busquets’ personality or character — things that are, frankly, impossible to divine from a football match. This post will focus instead on Sergio Busquets the player.
By doing so, I hope to make some tiny amends for the gaping error that is the silence surrounding one of the finest players of his generation, the defensive midfielder of choice for the the most dominant club and national teams of this era.
First of all, by classifying him as a defensive midfielder, we’re already ignoring what is perhaps the most obvious facet of Busquets’ game: his passing.
It’s hard to shine in passing statistics on a team as rich in passers as Barcelona, but shine he nevertheless does. Busquets is perennially among the top 10 in Europe in pass completion rate. He averaged an incredible 92.4% pass completion rate in La Liga and 92.3% over the Euro 2012 tournament.
And, paradoxically, he gets better — far better — under pressure. While the media focus was on the showdown between Pirlo and Xavi during the Euro 2012 final, Busquets quietly completed a mind-blowing 96% of his passes, misplacing only two as his side crushed an outclassed Italy.
But stats alone can’t tell the whole story. It’s the quality of those passes that really matters. And in that regard, his distribution is truly incredible — not just for its prescience (I’ll get to that in a minute), but for the casual manner in which he dictates the rhythm and shape of the game.
Take, for example, his clinical display in the most recent Clásico, the 2012 Supercopa first leg. Almost every pass seems to be an afterthought. His confidence on the ball and awareness of each option is stunning. His execution is flawless. His consistency is impossible.
But the truly remarkable part is this: That was just his second game of the season. He’s nowhere near his potential. Just watching Busquets warm up in El Rondo, it’s clear he’s the most casually efficient of a supremely talented bunch of one-touch geniuses.
But there’s so much more to Busquets than his passing. His awareness, control, and dribbling in tight spaces are freakish. He’s so safe on the ball that he’s Xavi’s preferred outlet pass. He glides fluidly between creation and destruction, intercepting a play and then initiating an attack in one deceptively graceful move. That Guardiola’s controversial three man defense worked at all is a testament to Busquets’ insight into the dynamics of the game.
As it is in every game, his movement was key to Spain’s Euro 2012 victory. In fact, his movement is so intelligent that it’s not too surprising so many miss the brilliance of his contribution. My wife — as keen an observer of the game as there ever was — likes to say that when you watch the game, you don’t see Busquets; but when you watch Busquets, you can see the whole game.
Indeed, watching him play is as close as any of us will get to time travel. He seems to dwell permanently 5 seconds in the future, meandering to the spot where a play will develop, shutting it down, then initiating a new round of possession. All at a lope. This, I think, is why his game is so unappreciated.
He doesn’t make sensational passes or blazing runs or spectacular tackles because he so seldom needs to. He simply cuts off the play one pass before a tackle would be necessary. He speeds the game up. He slows the game down. He relieves pressure from his own midfield, dummies his defender, then makes the pass that unbalances the opposing midfield and, six passes later, blossoms into a goal.
It’s an art, but it’s hard to appreciate coming from a sporting culture where sheer physicality and “knock it up to the big guy” are still strong values.
The King of Disappointment
Busquets’ subtle mastery of what his opponents think he will do next means he’s seldom sparkling like his more highly regarded teammates further up the pitch. And it’s easy to mistake his lack of sizzle for a lack of participation. But the reality is simply that Busquets is the man with the least sexy job in football, quietly emptying the opponents’ guns of bullets before they ever get a chance to draw. He trades almost exclusively in anticlimaxes.
And it’s because he’s so good at this job that his teams can give us breathtaking displays of attacking genius. He is the yin to Messi’s yang, the bedrock upon which Barcelona’s (and Spain’s) tower of possession is built. He is the pressure relief valve. He is the spring. He is the beating drum. His teammates can afford to be flashy because they play without fear.
In this regard — and at a mere 24 years of age — Sergio Busquets surely deserves to be mentioned alongside the truly great liberos.