It’s been almost 3 months since Guardiola walked away from the Barcelona job. The accolades still keep rolling on for Pep and his band of conquistadors. There was an air of doom and despair over Camp Nou the day he quit, with most fans left feeling that it was the end of an era. An even more common reaction was that Guardiola left too early, that he could have gone on to create a legacy of his own. But fret not, Barça fans. Because, Guardiola has left behind a player who will carry on his name at the club and indeed, in world football. An eerily similar player to Pep himself – Sergio Busquets.
Busquets arrived at the club in 2005 as a precocious 17-year old, but quickly made a name for himself. Promotion to Guardiola’s B team followed soon and by the 2009 Champions League final, he had established himself as the first-choice holding midfielder ahead of the likes of Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita. And he didn’t stop there. Marcos Senna was to be the next casualty, as Busquets broke into national team under Vicente Del Bosque and featured in all the matches at the 2010 World Cup.
3 La Liga Winners’ medals, 2 Champions League Winners’ medals and a World Cup medal by the age of 23 is a successful haul by every stretch of the imagination. Individual honours include La Liga’s Breakthrough player of the year 2009 and a Bravo Award from Italian magazine Guerin Sportivo, which is an annual award handed out to the most outstanding young European Footballer. Yet, for all these achievements, he is still identified as a “diver” first, and as an afterthought, a decent footballer.
The truth is somewhere in between, as always. Busquets is one of the most underrated players of his time and the “diving” stigma attached to him stops people from appreciating his value to the team. He is also the second coming of a certain charismatic midfielder who played for Barcelona in the 90’s, but was left out in the cold with the advent of “power football.”
Busquets remains the unsung hero of Barcelona’s golden spell in the late 2000’s, when teams were thrashed left, right and centre and trophies were collected willy-nilly. He rarely scores, assists are even rarer due to the presence of Xavi and Iniesta, and you will find it hard to notice him on a football field. Lately, he has cut out the diving part of his game, and hence is even more likely to go unnoticed.
So what does Busquets do to warrant a place at Barcelona? Since the last few years, Camp Nou is not a place where big names are allowed more time simply based on their past achievements. You have to win your place in the side on merit or pack your bags as Deco and Ronaldinho found out the hard way. So what does he add to the team that others don’t?
Put simply, Sergio Busquets is a thief (in the best possible sense). Barcelona’s passing carousel hypnotizes opponents when they are in possession of the ball, but they need possession to maintain that charm. And, this is where Busquets comes in. His job is two-fold – 1) Anticipate the next pass from the opposition and close off passing angles 2) Look for a player who has space ahead of him and start another attack. Simple, no? Wonder why there aren’t many players like Busquets, if it is that simple.
In terms of footballing intelligence, Busquets is ri ght up there with the best in the business. He already possesses the technique to succeed, but his brain is what sets him apart from his peers. He doesn’t need to rely on pace or frenetic lunges, because he sees the game slower than a normal footballer. At least that is the impression he gives, because he is, more often than not, in the right place to win back the ball. Busquets plays as if he has already read the opposition’s script, and is simply waiting for the right moment to break down their attacks.
You can watch these traits in action, but it is not something every football fan appreciates. 30-yard scorchers, last-ditch clearances, uber-cool step-overs and mazy dribbles are what catch our attention. And rightly so, because who wants to see a player passing the ball to his team-mates in his own defensive half? Xavi and Iniesta do, and probably so does Messi. Busquets’ presence gives the entire team a chance to regain their positions following a move that broke down. Rinse and Repeat. Recycle the ball, move it around for a while, let your teammates get back in the right place and start again.
To understand this, let’s go back to the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Pep Guardiola has left Barcelona after a permanent starring role in Cryuff’s Dream Team and limited success under Sir Bobby Robson. At 30, he still has a lot to offer. It would be the same as Pirlo retiring 4 years ago. Premature, and a huge loss to football.
The late 90’s brought a lot of changes to modern football, and the biggest of them all was the fascination with the 4-4-2. No longer were teams simply content to accommodate “passing midfielders”. They were seen as passengers, players who slowed down the tempo of the game.
Guardiola was one such player. He started out as a right midfielder for the youth team, but the arrival of Cryuff was to be a blessing in disguise for young Pep. He was immediately moved to the deep-lying central midfielder role, and Guardiola thrived. As a ‘quarterback’ for his team, his role was simple – break up play, get the ball, pass it along to more esteemed colleagues and watch the magic unfold.
But, it wasn’t enough to warrant a place in a 2-man midfield. Neither a tackler, nor a constant goal-scoring threat, Guardiola was left out in the cold as power and physique began to be valued more than appreciation for space and footballing intelligence. At the age of 30, Guardiola’s career at the top of European football was over.
I became a regular at Barcelona aged 20 because I had Cruyff as a manager and he believed in playing a certain way. If I were 20 at Barcelona today I’d never make it as a professional. At best I’d be playing in the third division. My skills haven’t declined. It’s just that football is played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. To play just in front of the back four now you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler like Patrick Vieira. If you can pass too it’s a bonus.”
How ironic then, that the teams that competed in the 2009 Champions League final had not one, but 2 players on the pitch who were effectively mimicking the “Guardiola role”. Michael Carrick and Sergio Busquets may be different in terms of technical skills and tactical nous, but they were both responsible for starting attacks from deep for their respective teams. 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 are now back in vogue, and Guardiola is the man responsible for it. Against Barcelona, teams had to have 3 central midfielders or else the “tiki-taka” would overwhelm them.
For Guardiola, the circle of life is complete. What he had to offer, no team wanted at the time. Now, players like Busquets and Pirlo are sought-after commodities yet continue to be the fulcrum on which the entire team hinges. Because of the position he plays in, Busquets sees the play in front of him and reacts accordingly – contracting the playing area by shepherding opponents in to uncomfortable territories, or dropping back as an auxiliary centre back and expanding the playing area to draw out stubborn defences. What he does is not easy, but the sign of a great football player is making the difficult look ridiculously easy.
So the next time you watch Barcelona or Spain, try to take your eyes off the magicians and instead look at the backstage helper, the one who readies the stage for their performances but is never directly involved in any of the magic. Sergio Busquets and Pep Guardiola – birds of a feather.
~Written by guest author Parth~