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.
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.