Austin Nyquist writes, and demonstrates in detail about some of the off the ball movements and skills that Sergio Busquets often displays.
“You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”
-Vicente Del Bosque
For every magician there is an able bodied and often underappreciated assistant. Within the realms of soccer those magicians resemble names such as Zidane and Bergkamp and Pirlo to name a few. And with the platform given to them they are able to truly shine on a world wide stage all their own. Their incredible talent was mesmerizing to watch and their play unequal for countless seasons. They were unrivaled in so many ways and yet just a few yards behind them stood the foundation of a player to whom each credits the enormity of their success. Names such as Makalele and Vieira and Gattuso. These names stand in the shadows of such monumental figures of the beautiful game; however, their contribution will stand the test of time as not only vital cogs in a well run machine but magicians in their own right.
Now as we move forward and enter the present landscape of world soccer, names such as Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Iniesta, and Xavi owe much of their play, much of their success to be honest, to one man…Sergio Busquets. Countless articles have been written and rightfully so; however, I imagine they still do not do him the justice he deserves and he certainly would garner much more praise if he played in any other team or on a field without names such as the ones previously mentioned. Under his watch teams such as Barcelona and Spain have gone on to dominate the game, and what’s more, a brand of soccer has been able to be so dominantly espoused that mouths continue to water across the globe.
What makes him so good? Where to begin…Now flashes of brilliance may not leap off the screen and goals are certainly hard to come by from this lanky midfielder, but what he lacks in the attacking panache of so many of the players around him he makes up for with a resounding calmness and impeccable technique, not to mention one of the highest soccer IQs in the game. He is such a well rounded player and one that makes the difficult look easy. His defensive prowess and ability to intercept and block passing lanes is immense. He is good in the air and possesses an excellent passing range. However, in this article I want to highlight a specific element of his play… His ability to receive the ball under control and keep the play moving. Over the course of the last 4 La Liga seasons, Busquets has averaged 0.37 Bad Controls, has been Dispossessed 0.6 times, and has a Pass Accuracy of 91.4% over the course of a 90 minute average (WhoScored). This data indicates that this player has an incredible ability to not only maintain possession when he does receive but is able to then use that control to accurately move the ball on to another teammate. The specific mechanics and execution of Sergio Busquets wonderful receiving ability can be credited to the following elements.
The bedrock to any midfielder, no… any good player in general, is understanding and awareness, for this is the foundation from which decisions and actions derive and become reality. If you take the time to just focus on Busquets as he roams the field, notice how many times he checks over his shoulder, always looking to identify three major aspects: time, space, teammates’ positioning. Check out the gif below, count the times he checks his shoulder.
He is a player that is constantly making calculations in his head, risk vs reward, weighing option one vs two vs three. More often than not, and inherent to his role in the team, he chooses options that mitigate risk and allow for possession to be maintained allowing for further buildup in order to deliver the ball into the more dangerous and creative players ahead of him. A task that goes without much acclaim but is imperative to the functionality and tactical execution of the team.
If the awareness of play is the starting point then the adjustment of a player’s body position certainly comes in right behind it as a vital component prior to receiving the ball, which more often than not directly dictates the receiving player’s field of vision and thus passing range. Sergio excels in this department and is quite simply world class. His movement to place his body in a position giving him at least 180 degrees of vision is constant and habitually he shapes himself in such a way that he is able to play within 270 degrees. Very rarely is he forced to play a single passing option and that is a testament to his angle of approach to the ball as he moves to receive.
With the nature and location of his position there are rarely instances where pressure is not coming from one or multiple directions. As indicated in the above images he moves with and maintains a body shape which provides an immediate presence of passing lanes. Yes, Barca’s team movement to provide the receiving player options is renowned, but Busquets’ body shape to receive further elevates him to irreplaceable status.
With acute awareness and impeccable positioning Barcelona’s #5 would no doubt be a dream signing for any European team; now add in his innate timing and you enter the echelon of world class. They say timing is everything and in the game of soccer it could not be more true. No matter how immaculate one’s thought process or body shape are, if the timing of the movement is not perfect then the player either gives away his potential action or allows himself to be easily marked out of the game. Though subdued and overlooked at times, Sergio’s ability to move into a lane as the ball arrives or out of space to open a passing lane for someone else is perpetual throughout the 90 minutes.
In the video you can see the timing of Busquets’ movement into the passing lane as he sees a teammate with limited options and under pressure. In the second video below, you can see the entire ensemble of Busquets’ ability, specifically his timing to initially open a diagonal passing lane for Rakitic or Alves as Iniesta plays back to Mascherano. When this pass is not taken you can see how Busquets now adjusts his shape and the timing of his movement to receive himself and play out the other side.
One final, and by no means last, aspect of Sergio Busquets’ play that sets him apart from so many other defensive midfielders throughout today’s game is his first touch. Coaches often say that as elite players move from age group to age group and lower level to higher level, the standard of play is not what changes dramatically, but more so the speed of play. And with increased tempo comes increased pressure and with this a need for quick feet. Busquets’ speed of thought has already been discussed but it is his speed of play, especially with regards to his first touch, that really provides the culmination to everything he possesses. No matter which direction the opposition seems to press him, he still finds a way to create that yard of space to either dribble or pass out of. For a man his size, he certainly retains an incredible level of balance and agility in tight areas. Granted he may not be the quickest or fastest, but in tight quarters with pressure mounting he finds ways to move the ball either into space, away from pressure, or towards a teammate. In all honesty, he usually, does all three at the same time.
In this situation Sergio faces pressure from the front as Messi passes into him. Seeing the opportunity to combine, Busquets shifts the ball from left to right and immediately returns the ball back into Messi’s path as he moves across the top of the box.
Here Barca’s #5 checks towards the ball at an angle and as the ball is delivered he finds pressure coming off his right side and therefore takes his first touch across his body from right to left away from the Arsenal presser. As this touch is taken he also puts his body in between the ball and defender allowing him to protect possession and move into space effectively.
Finally, the above video presents Busquets in a situation where pressure arrives from the back as he faces his own goal. Usually this is a less than desirable position to receive the ball but Busquets does wonderfully. He moves to receive off of Pique and as the ball is moving checks his shoulder noticing Welbeck approaching. As he feels the pressure he uses a snap of the right foot to cut the ball out of his body, away from the pressure and into space giving him immediate time to execute the next action moving forward.
With Sergio Busquet’s awareness, movement to receive, timing, and first touch he has become the epitome of consistency and the standard for all who desire to become a well rounded midfielder. Again, there are elements not discussed that he and many others certainly possess; however, it is the combination and execution of the above qualities that have given him the opportunity to cement his place for both Club and National Team. I think the best summary to his merits comes from his former coach and mentor: “He plays always thinking of others,” Guardiola said. “He understands messages immediately, knows the team’s needs and adapts to them discreetly: he sees problems and provides solutions. He plays with simplicity and clarity.”
Written by Austin Nyquist