Much has been made of Sergio Busquets’ recent performances. After all, his form has been rather patchy, to say the least- similarly to that of his team. For the most part, Sergi has been at his brilliant best. That being said, some of his performances have raised some concerns. A pattern has started recently, whereby teams playing a high-intensity press system have managed to make life difficult for Busi. But why? Surely, Busquets has come up against dozens, if not hundreds of teams, employing such a system.
As great as Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid side is, they have not re-invented the wheel. Opposition teams have employed an aggressive pressing system against Barça for years. It has just more recently had a heightened effect, and this is down to a handful of reasons, that have made life more difficult for Sergi Busquets.
First things first, this is a problem Luis Enrique himself has created. When Lucho took the reins, he sought out to change the dynamic of our midfield, from being a pass-intensive, slick and skillful one, to being an industrious midfield, capable of being skillful when it needs to, and combative when the situation demands it. These were the right changes brought into a team that had not evolved for a number of years, and it has brought many benefits and advantages. Ivan Rakitić has benefitted immensely in this structure, through the exit of Xavi Hernández. In Xavi’s departure, Busquets has been given more responsibility in midfield, to assert his authority. However, where there have been advantages, there have also been disadvantages.
Lucho’s Barça has resorted to being more pragmatic in its approaches. We have moved to a more direct attack, to ensure our front three receive as much of the ball as possible. However, there have been many tradeoffs that have been made to make this happen.
When analyzing what our midfield trio looked like before Lucho arrived, back in the ‘Iniesta-Busquets-Xavi’ days, there are some statistics which point to these tradeoffs. Busquets averaged 84 passes per game (Copa Del Rey not taken to account as these stats have been difficult to come by. However, it is likely they would tell a similar story) during the 2013/2014 season. These stats only go up when we look further back in the history books, and into the Pep Guardiola days. In our recent loss against Celta Vigo, Busquets put up a measly 48 passes. This is almost half the number of passes he put up pre-Lucho, a worrying sign for a player who has come into more responsibility and is supposed to be having a larger presence and going into the prime of his career at 28 years of age. To confirm this decline in passes, Busquets had an average of 74 passes last season, and 64 passes in the 2014/2015 season- a treble winning season.
These numbers must be put into context. Firstly, to balance this argument, it is key to point that a big factor to the decline in passes has been the shift in approach, brought in by Luis Enrique. Gone are the days where culés would scream “Olé” at Camp Nou after a string (mostly likely a dizzying myriad) of triangle passes in the centre of the park. This Barça is about doing whatever it takes, at the particular moment, to ensure the ball moves up the field to our fearsome trio up front. They are the stars of the show, of course, and need as much limelight as they can get. This Barça lives in service to its front three. Hence, there are fewer diamond passes made in midfield, and this has had an effect on the number of passes Busquets puts up today, compared to the numbers he put up in the past.
We must also analyze the characteristics of Busi’s counterparts in midfield- in Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta. Ivan Rakitić’s strengths definitely do not lie in orchestrating play through his passing, and neither is this his role. His job is to create a link between midfield and attack and to work tirelessly to do the work no one wants to. He passes, he shoots, he tackles, but most importantly, he runs non-stop. Iniesta has been given the role of partnering Busquets, in orchestrating play by sitting deeper than he ever has, in a deep-lying midfield role. And this is where the problem lies.
Andrés Iniesta is a genius. There is almost no limit to his talent. He has become an icon not just for Barça, but also for the Spanish national team. He has made his name as a hall of fame type of playmaker, comparable to the likes of Zinedine Zidane. However, as much as it may seem he is not fallible, we must remember that every player has a limit. And for Iniesta, this is the deep-lying playmaker role which he currently occupies.
Think about the comparison I have just made- that with Zidane. That this is a valid comparison shows the light in which we see Iniesta- primarily as a playmaker.
In the past, Iniesta found himself partnering with Busquets and Xavi. Each player not only understood their role but also played it better than any other player in their respective positions. In the prime of this partnership, there was no conductor of play comparable to Xavi, no playmaker comparable to Iniesta and no pivot comparable to Busquets. These players had specialised in these positions for the most part of their careers of course. They knew every nuance and detail to playing them to perfection. And they did just that.
However, today, Iniesta has been moved further back the field to occupy a deep-lying “playmaker” role, which he is playing for the first time in his career. Iniesta has spent almost no time in being a conductor of play, other than the rare occasions where he played in the place of Xavi, who may have been temporarily injured, or substituted- the key word there being that this was temporary. There has never been a period of Iniesta’s career where he has been forced to playing this role for an elongated time, the same way someone like Xavi centred his entire career around this position.
If we as culés genuinely believe that the current version of Iniesta is the same and as good as the one from a few years prior, then shame on us for having such short memories. Iniesta is no Xavi or Andrea Pirlo, the same way as Xavi and Pirlo are no Iniesta. Iniesta may have the same dribbling ability as that of Xavi, but do not confuse this for him for being a direct descendant of Xavi. Iniesta, from his greatness, is able to orchestrate from deep better than most players in the world. But he has never been a specialist at this role, the way players like Xavi and Pirlo were. Iniesta has dedicated his career to being a playmaker further up the field. This is where he is truly at his best and where his skills are best utilized. Players such as Marco Verratti, Toni Kroos, Thiago Alcántara, İlkay Gündoğan and even the young Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht are examples of players who have specialized in this role. And this has been Sergio Busquets’ downfall- that from the moment Xavi left the club, he has been forced to carrying a burden that is too large for him to carry alone without a specialist.
It is possible that many of us have forgotten just how good Xavi was in his prime. He had an ability to deal with pressure from multiple defenders that is so key to dealing with a high-pressing system, that we currently just do not have at the moment. Xavi could spring a triangle of passes in the tightest of positions to come out of danger, often needing such little space that it is unbelievable he managed to pull off half the moves he attempted. He was an orchestrator of play to the highest calibre, with an ability to problem solve that one could argue the game has never seen before.
For those of us who have forgotten Xavi’s ability to problem solve and deal with intense pressure, the following video is a perfect reminder:
The skill used at 1:54, 2:29, and 2:55 under high pressure from multiple defenders deep within his own half is the exact kind of skill we currently do not have enough of. Iniesta may have an incredible dribble to do something similar, but orchestrating play and starting buildups from deep is not where his strengths lie. Poor Sergi Busquets has been asked to have a bigger presence in midfield, improve his general play, and pick up a large piece of the mantle Xavi left, alongside an Andrés Iniesta who is not accustomed to playing a deeper role, which has resulted in even more responsibility on Busi’s shoulders. This combination may be good enough to beat a majority of teams, but those employing a particularly intense high-pressing system, the same way Celta did recently and Athletic Bilbao a few weeks earlier, will continue to trouble us. If we also take into consideration that Ivan Rakitić’s best attributes aren’t exactly the skills we have just witnessed from Xavi (though he has a myriad of other useful attributes), and Luis Enrique has a real problem on his hands, especially when considering that the last two times he has played Atlético Madrid, they have successfully squeezed us and kept us in our own half for large chunks of both games- these matches have ended either in a loss or a draw (2-1 at Vicente Calderon in last season’s UEFA Champions League quarter-final 2nd leg, and the recent 1-1 draw at Camp Nou).
This is not an article to criticize and bash either Andrés Iniesta or Sergio Busquets. Understand, this writer appreciates Iniesta as much as any culé. In no way did Xavi ever lie deep in a Xabi Alonso fashion, but he could successfully navigate buildups from deep and into the opposition’s half, from where Iniesta would do the rest in dribbling and stringing up triangles in the opposition’s midfield to create gaps from where a Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, David Villa or Messi would do the rest. Because Iniesta has never had to specialize in a deeper role, he does not offer Busquets adequate support from deep, and this has allowed the opposition to press Busi and ensure he drowns under pressure. It is time Lucho look at this problem closely, as this is an issue that will definitely cause us trouble in two-legged affairs in the UEFA Champions League against sides capable of Atlético-like intensity. Maybe it is also time we look at long-term solutions that could partner Busi to give him the TLC he deserves. Did someone say Samper?
Stats courtesy of Whoscored.com