Busi has too much responsibility

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

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  • Christopher

    Great article. I do believe we ,culès, have forgotten the importance of a Xavi in his prime and how it afforded the license to both Iniesta and Busi to go about their business. It is somewhat difficult to expect Busi and Iniesta to adapt how they have but it’s the tactics of the manager and we’ll have to trust him. I do however, think that the system we’re currently playing will have a long term detrimental effect to our passing identity and that our successes are blinding us to when we’ll have no Busi,Iniesta or Messi to weave their magic. We’ve lost Xavi the maestro,what next after the snowplough,magician and flea?
    Or will we continue buying the make up of our team?

    • Eivind Niclasen

      It was thanks to incredible luck that Barca was able to have a midfield trio consisting of Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets for a number of years. Most clubs would have felt incredibly blessed just to have one of them, but Barca had all three. The stars aligned perfectly for that period of time and that midfield won everything for club and country. It had to end at some point, which brings up the subject of adaptation. There will never be another player exactly like either Xavi, Iniesta or Busquets. That doesn´t mean that the passing game should just be let allowed to disappear from the first team, but times are different now. Oppositions faced are using a combination of high pressing and bus parking, which asks a hell of a lot on any starting XI; they often have to play almost perfectly for 90 minutes straight to win games. What sort of midfield does that? Don´t underestimate the opponent. I feel that even Xavi/Iniesta/Busquets in their collective prime would have struggled against the current Atletico side, as well as uncompromisingly conservative bus parkers like Real Madrid.

      • Christopher

        I understand that but as highlighted in my comment posted yesterday, there seems to be a negative trend we’re forming and because of the success we’ve been finding excuses to ignore it. Can you honestly say that were it not for his debut in 2008 under the system present at the time, that Busquets would have had the route to the first team he’s had? Likewise you ask yourself however “promising” Andre Gomes is, how necessary was his purchase really with players like Samper and S.Roberto more akin and familiar to the Barca system? How could we invest in a LB like Digne(who’s very good,don’t get me wrong) but keep shunning Grimaldo for Adriano who is now linked to big teams 9 months later? I agree, it is incredible when the stars align for the glory period of 2008-2012 when everything was perfect; youth,titles,playing style and all. However, I am not afraid of losing perfection, I’m afraid of losing the essence that embodies us. ‘Mes Que Un Club’ was not a phrase made or followed only during Guardiola’s time nor should it remain there. Now I’m not rubbishing your comment but underestimating an opponent has never been something we’ve done which is also why we’ve enjoyed so much success. To also say a Xavi/Iniesta/Busquets would struggle against a current Atletico/R.Madrid is very unkind because it’s off recent assumption. I can just as easily ask if Busquets/Iniesta/Rakitic would’ve been creative enough to handle the Mourinho led “bus parking” of those times or contributing to “that” comeback against AC Milan in 2012/2013? Linking my first and second posts I’m just saying our current passing identity and club culture will be detrimentally affected in the long term because our new policy is to recruit and teach rather than play those who’ve been taught from the age of 8 and that. Why else is it that in these same games that Busi has struggled in, it was with recruited players and not promoted players? Change is inevitable, we all know this, but if we are changing to follow the very same ideals we despise,where does that leave us? Particularly because we aren’t representative of just the pride of our success but Catalonia as a whole. Something which will be very ironic if there are very few of us in the squad, never-mind just the first team.

        • Kneowell Anyanwu

          You advocate strongly for la masia/ B team graduates who haven’t found their footing in over 3 seasons, how do you imagine they would cope in an ultra demanding first team? Don’t forget busquet and Pedro and thiago were picked from a collectively successful pack of B team players, it’s not lucho’s fault that our current reserve teams are producing below first team standards is it?

      • Kneowell Anyanwu

        Well said Eivind, a static identity can’t withstand the genius of numerous managers who live just to defile our style of play. We heard things like tiki taka is dead, our style of have always suffered the same things it suffers now even from the days of pep

  • aaassaeer .

    Agree to an extent, but not completely. Busi has majorly struggled when not playing alongside Iniesta and Rakitic. Against Celta, it was Gomez alongside him and its clear, as of now the understanding is not that strong, which left Busi exposed a lot. He has been his usual self when playing as a part of the normal starting XI. We lost against Atleti because of one mistake from Masch and the general loss of concentration when Messi got injured. We dominated that match. As for last season, fatigue was more responsible than tactics. Iniesta even though plays deeper than he used to, but that doesn’t mean hes always playing deep. He understands his role perfectly and keeps popping up in the final 3rd whenever he deems necessary. He’s already provided a couple of assists this season, inspite of not playing regularly. But its true, Busi and Iniesta need to play together against teams like Celta and Atleti. They understand their combined roles and if you replace even 1, it falls apart like it did against Celta. This is the cost we have to pay for not having another Xaviesque player in the team

    • Kneowell Anyanwu

      Agree all the way

  • Christopher

    I understand what you mean, the question that I’m posing has to do with the passing style currently in place and how it can evolve without this new policy of purchasing in place. Our formation structure is very askewed and so for any La Masia graduate to make it into the squad it becomes even more difficult due to the structures learnt and the actual first team structure in place. What I fear is the entire loss of our identity and culture. ‘Mes Que Un Club’ shouldn’t just be a phrase, but recent times point to exactly that being the case. I’m not attributing this article’s assessment of Busi and Iniesta to a La Masia crisis but there’ll be more questions of our structure and player suitability as time goes on. I genuinely fear that once these generational stars leave/retire the structure we will have will just be a diluted version of what once was. More pressingly is that due to the successes it’s bringing now, we don’t see the negatives as alarmingly. I suppose it may just be my own opinion but I won’t be surprised if we become just another successful club within 5 years.

    • Pius Kamau

      100% agree!