Busquets as an advanced midfielder?

The last thing that footballing parlance needs right now is another epithet with the ubiquitous ‘false’ pretext. But the question remains: what to do when you have a holding midfielder who performs the role adequately if not naturally and who arguably has the attributes to excel in other positions?

Twice during the first half of the 2011 Champions League Final at Wembley, Sergio Busquets’ mistimed anticipation gifted Manchester United two chances. In the first instance, he abandoned his zone to challenge Giggs who was advancing through the centre. The Welshman then had space to dissect the Barça defensive line some 30 yards further ahead and send Chicharito through 1 v1 with Valdes. His second lapse was duly penalized and was perfectly illustrative of Busquets’ limitations position-wise. Rooney moved into the space that Busquets might otherwise have been occupying had he not committed himself to a tardy and erstwhile challenge of the England forward. In a moment that required making a call, of deciding whether to stay or go, and seeing through that decision with resolve, Busquets dithered, something that a more conventional mediocentro is loathe to do, and Rooney advanced before exchanging a one-two with Giggs and netting the equaliser.

It may seem glib, pedantic even, to sift through Busquets’ impressive playing credentials and highlight these shortcomings, and this writer is not one to dismiss the unique qualities which the man from Badia brings to the position; indeed, some clubs would kill to have creative midfielders – let alone holders- who were the technical equal of Busquets. The danger inherent to anchoring a more technically crude midfielder (in the worst of hypotheses, a Gattuso) to the position is that said player, when placed under pressure, can panic, fumble or jettison the ball a split-second after disarming an opponent; thus whatever relief he brought to his teammates is short-lived.

With Busquets, this is absolutely not the case. When he has surrendered the ball cheaply it tends to have resulted from the opposite scenario; over-confidence, blitheness bordering on cockiness. A cheeky pirouette, a gratuitous back-heel, he recalls the great Clodoaldo who brought baroque tension and tranquility to the midfield of the 1970 Brazilian World Cup-winners in equal measure. Thankfully, even such embellishments have been a less common feature of Busquets’ repertoire of late. Indeed, he has gone a long way towards ironing out his faults in what has been so far an impressive season individually.

In any other club, he would likely play either as an auxiliary to the deepest midfielder dividing the horizontal and vertical plains with his fellow pivot (as per his partnership with Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup), or as slightly more advanced midfielder occupying the band where Xavi or Iniesta typically play, an interior. But here’s an intriguing prospect: what if Busquets were to play even further forward? Specifically, could he play in the three-quarters zone, what was once the province of that increasingly obsolete figure, the enganche?

Only that Busquets wouldn’t be playing as a traditional attacking midfielder per se. He wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be expected to fashion defense-splitting assists or dribble past opponents, nor much less score goals in abundance. Rather he would enable other midfielders to do that by performing as a pivot at the head of the midfield. With his back to goal, Busquets’ gangly frame and strength make him ideal for shielding the ball from the niggling of defender, and his rapid-fire and precise short-passing game would allow him to set up on-rushing midfielders.

Before people dismiss this as an ill-advised imitation of Max Allegri’s Kevin Prince Boateng 2.0 at Milan, consider the following. Allegri’s proposal was substantially different in its intent. The rossonero coach wanted Boateng to press and harry the opponent’s build-up play in deep areas, and as a secondary consequence to provide an opportune llegada into the box. Busquets, on the contrary, would be chartering comparably new territory but not one without precedent.

Barcelona fans old enough to remember will recall an oddity encrusted in the centre of the original Dream Team. José María Bakero was an unlikely candidate for the three-quarters role in Cruyff’s 3-3-1-3 formation, but the Basque was indispensable to the way the team attacked in central areas.

Barcelona from 1991-93, before the arrival of Romario. Note how Bakero would play with his back to goal and lay off 'wall passes' for the advancing Amor and Eusebio.'

Whereas most managers would choose an incisive and imaginative passer at the head of the midfield, Cruyff didn’t require that of Bakero; he already had Michael Laudrup to provide ingenuity across the front line (either as a makeshift striker or an inverted winger). Rather, he sought to exploit Bakero’s strength at shielding the ball and his clean close-range distribution to lay off passes into the paths of midfielders (typically Eusebio and Amor) advancing from their interior positions. Guardiola as No.4 from the base of midfield acted much in the manner of a quarter-back; whenever he wanted to accelerate the play, he could choose either to go long and activate the wide attackers or he could seek Bakero ahead of him, who in turn would act like a perpetual wall pass for the other midfielders.

This was integral to the way Barcelona threaded through an opponent’s lines of resistance already stretched by the wide disposition of the front trio. Baquero would also run onto any second or third balls once Barcelona had penetrated the opponent’s backline.

Earlier this year, when the teamsheet for game versus Villarreal was released, speculation abounded as to how Mascherano, Busquets and Xavi would coincide in midfield. Although it resulted that Guardiola had opted for an unprecedented double-pivot featuring the former two, observers such as Marc Roca suggested that, finally, we might get to witness Busquets as an interior or even in three-quarters.

As it emerged, Pep Guardiola has no intention of advancing Busquets and he would prefer future No.4’s to emerge from the cantera in the mould of the man from Badia, rather than opting for a more classical mediocentro as is Oriol Romeu. But whereas Romeu would be perfectly suited to any midfield (save for teams that play with a regista at the base), it is hard to imagine Busquets prospering in the holding role in any context outside of Barça.

Assuring that he always stays in the vicinity of possession-hogs such as Xavi and Iniesta, Busquets can anticipate to recover the ball without worrying about guarding the defence behind him; this is because he quickly offloads those robbed balls to the possession kings and Barcelona can extinguish the transition, a phase which their opponents invariably prefer to exploit (whereas Barça feel more comfortable re-establishing a static offensive phase), such that the blaugrana need not worry about positional order along the back line.

In the long term, Busquets could either play stationed between the lines or as an interior just ahead of his customary role. In any case, the fact that Barcelona usually play with two interiores in their three-man midfield means that one of the two can play a slightly more advanced role than the other; Menotti said that “two players standing aligned is a sin”. For proof of this, observe how Iniesta seeks to take up positions normally associated with classical trequartistas (even if that is not his initial position) whereas Xavi prefers to circulate closer to the base of midfield. Alternatively, both interiores may take it in turns to occupy higher and lower scales.

Ultimately, however, and irrespective of the identity of the other interior, in such a scenario Busquets would end up forming the first line of pressure in midfield during defensive phase alongside said player. In terms of how that readjustment might affect Busquets’ positional sense, this ought not to be a concern; the player would still be pressuring opponents inside the other half, something entirely in compliance with Guardiola’s desire to recover the ball as far away from the blaugrana goal as possible.

In a season when the club has incorporated a notably vertical midfielder in Cesc Fàbregas, with the emergence of Tello and Cuenca as classical outside-forwards, and with Barcelona trying (at times unconvincingly) to add a more urgent approach to their play, Busquets as a sort of advanced pivot could facilitate this return to Cruyffista principles.

Indeed, in Can Barça nothing which is of value, even if it be retro, is discarded.

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12 Responses to Busquets as an advanced midfielder?

  1. Carlos Aguilera says:

    Nice piece.
    Early this season I thought about the posibilty of Busquets moving up, though I hypotetically pushed him even higher up: to play as a number 9, in the role Ibrahimovic fail to acomplish. I thought about that because I had heard that Busquets started playing as a striker when he was a youngster (although I wouldn’t expect him to become a goalscorer). Anyway your vision is far more plausible. The bad side effects about dropping Busquets out of his position into a higher one are mainly two:
    1. Barça will lose the best holding (?) midfielder there is in world football right now. Who would play there? Mascherano is not a good replacement; Dos Santos could be, though it’s too soon to tell.
    2. To play the “Bakero role” you must be capable of scoring 10-15 goals per season (as Bakero used to). I don’t quite see Busquets doing so. Do you?

    • santapelota says:

      Hi Carlos,

      To address your points quickly:

      1. I’m not advocating for Busquets to be removed from DM while he remains a Barcelona player. You’re right that his constructive qualities are difficult for any other DM to replicate and under Pep, the ‘Busquets role’ has become integral to the way the side play. I just think that Guardiola likes to shake things up tactically and surprise us every now and then. He does this, I think, for two reasons a) to counteract the peculiarities of an opponent who he believes may cause Barcelona problems, and b) to keep the players mentally fresh and stimulate them with these little challenges.

      2. Yes, you are right that Busquets does not have (that I know of) any goalscoring ability of note, and Bakero was viciously effective in that regard. The Basque began as a striker, I believe.

  2. Hi. Great post.

    I’m intrigued at the possibilities of this role purely because I’m not convinced of it’s possibilities; or rather, it’s usefulness to Barcelona. Perhaps, somebody else might suit this more than Busquets because Barkero showed it was possible. (It might have been argued Messi played a similar role in 09/10 in that it was a “false” role. It looked like a 4-2-4 but Guardiola claimed Messi was playing as the highest in a 4-3-3 – an interior almost – which made it difficult to mark. His movement was fantastic. “It’s as if Messi were an ‘interior,” was Guardiola’s comment.)

    I think any sort of pivot role is feared at Barcelona after the Ibrahimovic failure – they were fixated on playing an “inverted pivot” which didn’t quite work. This schematic you are considering seems similar. (Guardiola also hastens to play the double pivot which, in Spain, is like a national treasure).

    From an Arsenal slant, perhaps a rotating midfield, somebody dropping back like Arteta has and allowing Song to get forward to thread through-balls regularly is a possibility. Of course, he might not be suited to that but the unexpectedness could be deadly. In regards to Song, I’ve not seen a defensive midfielder since Rijkaard plays through-passes as often – Busquets might be able to deliver a similar surprise.

    • santapelota says:

      Hi, Brain, isn’t it?

      It’s been a while since I’ve dropped by your site, but rest assured I will be around in anticipation of the Milan clash.

      I don’t think you’ll be the only person to doubt the necessity of this advanced Busquets role for Barcelona, and I agree. It isn’t necessary. I just reckon that in a season when Guardiola has thrown us all astray with the unlikeliest of tactical tweaks,many of which at times appeared unnecessary, such a readjustment wouldn’t be such an iconoclastic gesture seeing as how Guardiola himself used to play in a system which often utilised this advanced-midfield-pivot recourse (note: when Cruyff’s team played the 3-4-3; whenever they played 4-3-3, Bakero would simply plays as a box-to-box interior and so he’d be facing the goal).

      It’s interesting that you bring up Messi’s role in the 2009-10 season, but whilst Messi exhibited dribbling, assists and goals in this role, I must insist that with Bakero you only got goals, offensively speaking. In terms of setting up others, his ‘thru-balls’ were actually sideways and backwards for the other players pouring forward. Perhaps I didn’t illustrate that clearly enough in the article.

      Interestingly, Guardiola when playing in Mexico in 2006 told Angel Cappa in a book interview (the name of which escapes me) that his ideal system was Ajax 95 with two offensive wingers and a tall, technical pivot as CF such as Kluivert (whom he adored playing with), Ibra or Adebayor…. so yes, in a way Guardiola has always shown a predilection for playing with some kind of advanced pivot (be he in midfield or attack).

      I take your point re Ibra, but one of Guardiola’s major disappointments in this respect was Ibra’s disappearing act during the off-def transition and in defensive phase. With Busquets this wouldn’t be an issue because he would be fully involved pressing and harrying in an advanced midfield line.

      In terms of Arsenal I don’t think the comparison with Song is relevant because even if Song were pushed higher between the lines, I think he’d be less used as a pivot and more of a conventional playmaker. Of course, it goes without saying that such a move would deprive Arsenal of this colossal holding midfielder. In fact, I would say Song is probably the archetype of the perfect holding midfielder; it’s hard to find a weakness in his game.



      • Carlos Aguilera says:

        Cappa’s book is “Hagan juego”.
        It’s true that when using a 4-3-3 Bakero’s position and role was quite similar to the one Neeskens play in Ajax. I didn’t realise before how similar those two players were. Don’t you think?
        Another interesting point about the use of 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 in Cruyff’s Barça is that I believe it was the introduction of the signature Barça’s number 4 (Milla and then, after a brief lapsus, Guardiola) that turn the system from one to the other. You can see Barça playing an totalfooballish 4-3-3 in the Cup Winners Cup Final at Rotterdam in 1991 without Pep on the team and with Koeman playing the Vasovic role.
        Rijkaard played both roles: as a CB coming up to generate play for Holland during the 80’s and as a number 4 playmaker for that magnifent Ajax in 1995.


      • santapelota says:

        Hey Carlos,

        Thanks for reminding me of Cappa’s title. Yes, it is curious how unelegant both Neeskens and Bakero were! They were almost box-to-box players in the British sense.

        You’re dead right about the evolution of the No.4 position at Barça. It seems that the Ajax model which Cruyff introduced in 1988 usually featured a back four but with a ball-playing libero who would step out from the back. As you point out, Rijkaard had performed this role in the mid-80s and then Koeman did the same during his first two seasons at Barça, I believe. And yes, it was with Milla that Cruyff really began the evolution towards 3-4-3, and this was because Milla by his nature was a classical Spanish holding midfielder (the perfect blend of passing vision and destructive ability) as opposed to a ball-playing centre-back. But the introduction of Guardiola to what was by now a standard deep-midfield position was itself quite revolutionary since, as you’re no doubt aware, Guardiola practically had zero defensive characteristics. At least Milla (like Rijkaard) could break up play – but then both lacked Guardiola’s range of passing and control of tempo.

        By the way, how different would you say Van Gaal’s Ajax and Barcelona sides were from those of Cruyff’s?

      • Carlos Aguilera says:

        Tough question isn’t it?

        I would say that no-one has ever played a passing game at such velocity as van Gaal’s Ajax did till Pep’s Barça came in. That team is the model -I think- for both Guardiola and his mentor (back in those Mexico days) Juanma Lillo.

        My guess is that one of the main differences would be the attacking three. In van Gaal’s system it should be formed by a proper nine 9, a tall target-man that could be use as a pivot (Kanu and Kluivert) sided by two classic wingers. Circunstances -such as the stardom of Rivaldo- didn’t allow him to repeat that formula at Barcelona. In the so-called Dream Team, Cruyff hardly used wingers by the numbers (with the exception of Jon Andoni Goikoetxea in his first year at the club), the attacking three used to be composed by Laudrup, playing as a false nine, Stoitchkov in Messi’s 08/09 role and mostly Txiki Begiristain on the left flank. No one was a winger, no one was a number nine. Even when Julio Salinas came in he wasn’t used as a striker but as a false winger.

        Another difference would be the very nature of the players where as Cruyff have very good passers but not too dynamic players, I think van Gaal have the opposite (alongside with remarkable exceptions). And my guess is that both were comfortable that way.
        I think Cruyff was more open-minded and ready to adapt his notions to the players he could count with (which finally led him to be very innovative). I wouldn’t say van Gaal has that open-minded character.

        Anyway, I’m talking mainly about Ajax 95 and Barça’s Dream Team, their most succeful efforts. I haven’t seen much of Cruyff’s coached Ajax and for what I recall, even though it won two leagues, van Gaal’s Barça was a project that was never fully blossomed. Either the perception of its success was shadowed by Real Madrid’s “Septima” or van Gaal’s reluctancy to adapt his plan to the stars of those teams (first Rivaldo and then Riquelme) prevented that team from succeding in a greater way.

        What is your view?



  3. possessionplay says:

    Hey, Roberticus, does your website have an e-mail account where I can ask detailed questions to you that don´t have to do with this article here?

  4. Pingback: Would Fellaini fit at Chelsea ? « The West Stand Observer

    • santapelota says:

      That’s an intriguing possibility, though I can’t see Benitez contemplating such a role for Fellaini. Don’t get me wrong, he might occasionally try Fellaini in an advanced midfield role, but more for goal-getting or high-pressing purposes than as a pivot to bring other midfielders into play.

      • SeBlueLion says:

        My point was rather that Fellaini isn’t really suited for that role giving his average passing range. It was a postulate about a possible use of Mikel by Guardiola if he happens to become the next Chelsea manager… But that’s not likely to happen considering he didn’t even attempted that with Busquets at Barcelona.

      • santapelota says:

        Right, neither can I see it happening with Mikel.

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