In the 1st leg of the Spanish Super Cup, Barcelona had huge problems dealing with the high-press of Bilbao in Barcelona’s own half-pitch, while also employing a man-marking system. Athletic were also very centrally compact playing with a 4-4-2, which Barcelona could not penetrate, conceding 4 goals through different pressing approaches of Bilbao which eventually led to counter-attacks against the then destabilized Barca defense.
In the 2nd leg Barcelona had a man sent-off, which of course changed the rhythm of the game as Bilbao felt much more confident to then press high again as opposed to their initial approach of keeping a compact 4-4-2, shutting down spaces for Barcelona, and playing situational man-marking within the positional zonal defense.
Barcelona had more combinations of attacks and eked out 2 great opportunities to score early on in the game, but luck was on Bilbao’s side. The most important influence in the fluid play of Barcelona, is that of the 3 central-midfielders of Barcelona, most vitally the role of Busquets.
Busquets importance in 1st phase of build-up
In Barcelona‘s build up (of course this depended on the situations, as Bilbao were not seen pressing high in the beginning) from their own half-pitch, Athletic defended in a man-marking system. As a part of this tactic, a player of Barcelona was left free by Bilbao, the reasons for which will be examined later in the piece.
The free man in this situation is the right-back of Barcelona: Dani Alves.
Now I mention that this was done in purpose and by that I mean that if the ball was to be played to Dani Alves, then this was a trigger to shift over and start the execution of a pressing trap, where Bilbao pressed intensely.
Sergio Busquets’ role in the build-up is clear. Barcelona starts the build-up with the 2 center-backs splitting which encourages the full-backs to take on more advancing/attacking wide areas, to drag the 2 wide-midfielders of Bilbao away from the build-up situation. In these kind of areas (close to Barcelona’s goal), Bilbao went for a man-marking scheme of pressing. This meant that Benat followed the movement of Busquets who moved in between the splitting CB’s of Barcelona, creating a 3v3 ( or 4v3 if you include Ter-Stegen ) while the remaining midfielders of Bilbao focused on closing space in one of the flanks; with one of the wide-midfielders of Bilbao marking the nearest player, while the opposite wide-midfielder tucked in and marked the central midfielder of Barcelona, in this case:
the right midfielder marked Alba, central midfielder marked Iniesta (close to Alba) and the left midfielder followed Rakitic, which meant that Bilbao ignored Dani Alves, to focus on the more important players during the build-up of Barcelona.
Here we can clearly see and notice the high-pressing of Bilbao, and how Benat has followed Busquets’ movement, staying close.
Now if we think of safety first, then Busquets is not at all a good passing option here, as the close marking from behind is too risky, so there are 2 options here for Barcelona and that is to 1) play the pass to Alves which will in turn trigger a pressing trap or 2) play a long direct ball.
Now what happened next did amaze me, because it proved how vital players of Busquets’ ilk are in these specific situations. The situation here is that (as I have mentioned before) the opposing team is trying to play a man marking scheme with Ter-Stegen on the ball. The German ‘keeper passes the ball to Busquets, which according to me is not even a good considerable passing option.
But as Busquets receives the ball (with his back-towards the opposing goal) he takes a quick look over his shoulder to take note of his surroundings and just as Benat rushes towards him, he body-feints one way, then as he receives the ball, drags it away from Benat and turns the other way, with fantastic close ball-control.
The below screenshots illustrate the situation.
Thanks to the fantastic individual skill of Busquets, he disorganized the complete 1st and 2nd line of pressing of Bilbao, and has now got 2 options, 1) to now play it wide to Alves or 2) play the through ball to Rakitic (these options apply for the left midfielder too: cut the passing lane to Alves or follow Rakitic?).
You can also clearly see how again thanks to this piece of brilliance from Busquets, Bilbao has 5 players in-front of the ball, with Barcelona now attacking with 6 players vs the 5 of Bilbao.
Alves joins the attack on the flank, Pedro attacks on the other as we can see how much space Iniesta has if the ball was to be played to him. There’s also a 2v1 situation in the right-wide flank with Messi and Alves now isolating Balenziaga.
This all thanks to a small and yet, important skill of Busquets.
Busquets’ role when Barcelona has possession in opponent half-pitch
Busquets is used as the pivot or link player both in deep own half-pitch build-ups but also in the more advanced areas of the pitch. The link/pivot moves around the circled area of the pitch, this is his zone where the pivot links the play from the 2 CB’s to the more advanced players.
Busquets’ role is vital, as he is the one to manipulate the opponents with constant movements into and out of space, to create space for his teammates but also create good passing angles and passing options. He is used to create numerical-superiority (as in the build-up phase) when for example Aduriz presses Mascherano and Eraso covers the passing lane to Pique, by dropping between the 2 strikers and play through the 1st defending line of Bilbao.
As Bilbao defended in a 4-4-2 with central compactness as the main focus, Barcelona tried this time to try and stretch the compactness horizontally, as much as possible. This meant that once again, a great responsibility was put on Busquets to always be the free player, providing balance to switch play, maintain possession, create space and so on.
To stretch the Bilbao defense, Iniesta and Rakitic were responsible to try and stretch the central compactness, by positioning themselves in the half-spaces.
Pique and Mascherano split to stretch out the 2 defending strikers of Bilbao. Now the right midfielder of Bilbao followed the movement of Alba and the right back had to mark Pedro. This meant that one of the two central midfielders of Bilbao was occupied by Iniesta in the half space while the other central midfielder (Benat) shifted to help the right midfielder to track Rakitic’s half-space movement ( the same as Iniesta but on the opposite side of the pitch).
Iniesta and Rakitic occupied 1 player each, leaving Benat isolated and alone in the central area of the pitch, now with spaces between the players of Bilbao.
Instead of Busquets staying in his midfield position, he moves away from central-midfield, to create a 3v2 against the 2 strikers of Bilbao. The movement of Busquets is not only done because of the need for Barca to create a numerical superiority, but also to provoke Benat to follow Busquets’ movement which would leave a big gap of space between the midfield line of Bilbao, for Messi to penetrate. Benat does not follow Busquets, but is still left isolated covering a big space now.
So the next move of Barcelona would be for one of the remaining players to occupy Benat, which is Pedro in this situation, with his smart movement dragging the man-marking left back with him away from his position, which opened up the flank for Alba to continue and advance wider, dragging the right midfielder with him.
Busquets plays the pass to Pedro, who plays a 1-touch pass back to Busquets.
Thanks to the brilliant positional-play and vision of Busquets, together with the movement of Pedro, they have manipulated 6 Bilbao players to focus on Pedro’s blind-side movement and start to press him to win the ball back.
The centre-forward loses his focus on Mascherano, second central midfielder loses his focus on Iniesta, left midfielder loses his focus on Rakitic as he has tucked in more centrally closer to Benat, and Benat has been provoked by the positioning in-front of him by Pedro (as Pedro also has dragged the right-back with him leaving Alba in a much more attacking area occupying the right midfielder of Bilbao, with lots of space for Iniesta to now threaten as I mentioned before).
Pedro plays it back to Busquets, who passes it diagonally to Iniesta through Mascherano, now in a much more advancing and attractive space to attack and create something in the attacking 3rd.
This proves how intelligent Busquets is in this role, as he is constantly reading the in-game situations to create better opportunities for his Barcelona side to find attractive spaces with the ball in possession.
The split of CB’s with the pivot dropping in between, is a great way to create a numerical superiority to beat the opponents’ 1st defending line, for-ex the 2 strikers of Bilbao in a 4-4-2 formation against the ball.
Another important advantage that Busquets offers the team during the build-up in possession, is the movement to create space and time for the two splitting CB’s, and give them the opportunity to advance with the ball, by basically occupying a player with the movement and opening up space for someone else. This means that the CB has freedom to penetrate as the pivot.
One example is when the 2 centre-forwards of Bilbao (I call them 1st defending line) is behind the ball defending in front of the 2 lines of 4 of Bilbao staying close to the remaining defending lines of the Bilbao defense. Now this forces Busquets to leave his zone between the 2 strikers and the 4-man midfield-line of Bilbao to create the numerical superiority to play through Bilbao’s 1st defending line. If Busquets was to stay in the pivot position in a tight area, he would have to play with his back against the goal (bad vision of the play) and also have Benat rushing towards him at full speed.
So instead of staying isolated in the pivot position, Busquets drops deep in front of the 2 CF to then play through and give one of the CB’s the chance to penetrate instead.
Busquets is moving out of the tight space of the pivot (in the real life situation, the space was much more tight), as he starts to position himself to occupy Aduriz and create a numerical superiority now creating a 3 man back line during the build-up.
Busquets’ movement forces Aduriz to focus on him instead of covering the space/passing lane to Mascherano. As this happens, Iniesta notices that Mascherano has recieved the ball (played from Busquets) playing through the 1st defending line of Bilbao, so Iniesta starts his movement to create even more space by tucking inside and dragging the CM with him away from the yellow-marked space (this to open up more space for Mascherano) while Alba continues to drag the right midfielder away from the flank.
This is a very flexible way for Barcelona to be able to play through opponent’s 1st defending line, giving the CB freedom to advance with the ball.
Mascherano continues advancing and penetrates the space while Iniesta moves into the pivot position and Busquets continues to position himself as the CB, to create stability if an eventual transition is to occur if Barcelona loses the possession, to prevent Barcelona from being exploited by a direct play of Bilbao.
This is exactly what happens seconds after as Mascherano tries to find Iniesta with a bad horizontal pass which Benat intercepts and starts to counter. Thanks to the good positioning of Busquets (playing as the CB) he is able to close down Benat forcing him into the wide areas with the ball, providing time for his teammates to organize themselves in the defense again.
Important Note: Busquets only dropped in front of the 2 centre-forwards creating a 3 man back line in build-up when Bilbao had all 11 players behind the ball. There were situations when the 2 centre-forwards were in front of the ball, meaning that in these situations Busquets penetrated in the pivot/DMF position to help Barcelona keep possession in Bilbao’s half-pitch.
Written by Albin Sheqiri
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