This weekend we may see more quality in midfield than we have in any other match this season. Indeed, you could argue that eight of the top 25 midfield players in the world will be involved in this weekend’s match:

  • Xavi
  • Andres Iniesta
  • Ivan Rakitic
  • Sergio Busquets
  • Paul Pogba
  • Arturo Vidal
  • Andrea Pirlo
  • Claudio Marchisio

In a few cases, the quality the player offers is obvious. Paul Pogba does things like this:

paul-pogba-tricks

Iniesta has some tricks as well:

andres-iniesta-vs-psg

And, of course, players like Xavi and Andrea Pirlo have a reputation that at this point in their careers speaks for itself. It’s likely that the two of them, along with Xabi Alonso, will go down as the three greatest midfielders of their generation.1)We should probably make it four and include Paul Scholes here as well.

One player who doesn’t receive nearly so many accolades is Sergio Busquets. But then, Busquets has always been a bit of an after-thought in a Barcelona team that has included Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta for as long as he’s been in it and now also includes Neymar and Luis Suarez. But Busquets is the glue that holds this team together, giving it some shape and definition in midfield that is desperately needed.

The Role of Intelligent Defensive Midfielders

A smart defensive midfielder player who can break up play, slow down the game, and steady a rocking ship can often be the difference between a crushing defeat or a morale-boosting victory–and stretched over a full campaign his ability to impact a side is almost impossible to overstate. Consider:

  • Without Francis Coquelin in the squad, Arsenal went 9-6-4, scoring 34 and conceding 23.
  • With Coquelin, Arsenal went 13-3-3, scoring 37 and conceding 13.

On a per game basis, Arsenal averaged 1.7 points per match, scored 1.7 goals per match, and conceded 1.2 goals per match. With Coquelin, they averaged 2.2 points per match, scored 1.9 goals per match, and conceded .68 goals per match. So goal scoring increased slightly, but they nearly halved the number of goals conceded. Over a full season, that amounts to 84 points, 72 goals scored, and only 26 goals conceded.

Busquets’ Contribution to Barcelona

Though he brings an even greater level of stability to Barcelona than Coquelin does to Arsenal, we don’t think of Busquets having the same sort of defining effect on his team. But he does–and he’s been particularly important this season as the club has adjusted to life after Xavi and to a new system installed by Luis Enrique that has reduced the emphasis on possession football and encouraged a more aggressive style that yields more scoring chances but also creates more transition moments in the game.

It’s in transition that Busquets is particularly important. For teams like Barcelona that basically always have a talent advantage against their opposition transition is the most dangerous part of the game. When their defense is set, they can deal with most opposition. When they are attacking, they can break down most opposition. But when they are caught in transition they are vulnerable. (This is what makes Atletico Madrid so devastating–they accept that they cannot beat a defense that is set up. They resolve to not be beaten when their defense is set up. And they expect to win in transition.)

What makes the picture even more complex is that several of Barcelona’s players are the sort that aren’t great in transition. Dani Alves is routinely caught out of position because of how far he pushes up field. Ivan Rakitic isn’t great in this area either because of how he likes to get forward. Even Iniesta can struggle a bit as he has lost a step over the years and cannot get back as quickly or press the ball as effectively in order to win it back. Enter Busquets.

Busquets is the player who reads the game, knows where the attack is going, and nine times out of ten gets there in time to thwart it. He’s also the player who knows where to go in order to be a safety valve for his teammates when they are being hassled by the opposition. Put another way, he breaks up the quick attacks teams make out of transition play and he makes himself available as a passing option to teammates in order to prevent a transition attack from starting.

We enjoy Barcelona’s MSN–and rightly so. They’re the best attacking trio the modern game has ever seen. But attacking might alone doesn’t win trophies. You need elite role players who steady the team and help plug the gaps that the star players are likely to ignore. Busquets does that for Barcelona–which is why they are chasing another treble.

References   [ + ]

1. We should probably make it four and include Paul Scholes here as well.
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