The challenge that injured Sergio Busquets against Eibar two weeks ago highlighted the most underappreciated aspect of the perennially underrated midfielder’s game: his ability to stop opposition counterattacks before they happen. And with Busquets stretchered off and Andres Iniesta still recovering from a knee injury, Barcelona finished the match without any midfield graduates from La Masia. There was a sigh of relief as the prognosis for Busquets’ injury improved to just two weeks out of the lineup. But subsequent matches still provided a telling glimpse into Barcelona’s play without their midfield metronome.
Former manager Tata Martino observed the importance of Barcelona replacing the midfield trio of Iniesta, Xavi, and Busquets with graduates from the youth academy. There was the pragmatic side of his analysis in that the team needed to three world class midfielders to continue their domestic and European success. On the other hand, there was the philosophical consequences of their youth academy having gone dry. We know that Barcelona can win matches and trophies with any style of play - but they must win their way, with a manner perfectly orchestrated by Busquets’ quick passing and positional sense.
In the three matches since the injury, his position has been filled by a combination of Ivan Rakitic, Andres Gomes, and Javier Mascherano. Rakitic struggled both in attack and defense against the counter attacking minded Real Betis, who presented Barcelona’s defense challenges in transition in drawing the side 1-1. It was then Gomes’ turn to interpret the role, which allowed Rakitic to move further up the field. They scored the game tying goal with Gomes as the pivot, and had another ruled out. Gomes presents an interesting option having struggled to justify his $35 million transfer fee thus far in his Barcelona career. If there was ever a time for Gomes to regain his confidence and dynamism on the ball, this would be it.
Enrique undoubtedly has quality midfielders in his squad. Yet to replace what Busquets offers in both attack and defense requires a class unique to himself and maybe one or two others players in the world. Plus, each of Barcelona’s current options have their own flaws. To put Rakitic in the position would rob him of his energy in midfield. Mascherano may be the best pure defensive midfielder in Europe, but cannot construct play with the quickness of his counterpart. Gomes’ intelligence and quickness from midfield is what put him on Barcelona’s radar in the first place, but he has struggled to find his voice. Sergi Roberto, Busquets’ most natural successor, plays right back.
There are roundabout solutions to set up the possession phase through Marc ter Stegen’s passing ability (Claudio Bravo would have represented another interesting option had he stayed). Barcelona’s passing pattern out of goal kicks is juego de posicion 101 with two center backs split wide to find space in an opponent’s press. We’ve seen ter Stegen take on the responsibility of setting the passing rhythm of the side, in effect turning the keeper into a false regista.
Busquets’ injury highlights a lack of continuity that’s pervaded the side as they’ve gone more direct under Martino and Enrique. They win more frequently in the manner they beat Atletico Madrid in the first leg Copa Del Ray semifinals - through individual goals that only Luis Suarez and Messi can score. Again, we know Barcelona can win. But it was the way in which they won that mattered more.
You could write a modern day, soccer version of Walden with the praise showered on Busquets throughout the years. Former Spanish national team manager Vicente Del Bosque lavished the most famous praise on Busquets by saying “You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets...you watch Busquets, you see the whole game.” He then added that he would be Busquets if he could be any player. All this before the rise of YouTube highlight compilations, when the midfielder and his supporters were fighting for his footballing respect.
But how far we’ve come since then, with video titles ranging from “The Emperor” to “The Scientist” to “Silent Genius”. at one point took the title of “Most Underrated Player in the World”. He was a litmus test for how we saw how a match unfolded. Sergi Samper, one of many players from La Masia labeled “The Next Busquets”, was asked on a TV show where Busquets would pass the ball as a barometer of his vision. As Del Bosque hinted, Busquets’ IQ is a soccer version of the Wonderlic.
As an aside, he may also be the king of the rondo. Gerard Pique rates him as the best one touch passer in the world. His simplicity represents the Barcelona DNA as much as Messi or Xavi. After all, Busquets made his debut in 2008 under Guardiola’s first season. The success of the tiki taka era was defined by his play as much as anyone else.
All roads lead back to Barcelona and the youth academy, although nostalgia is a harsh judge of the present. Busquets was the only academy graduate in the starting 11 for a match last September. The next generation without Busquets (or Iniesta) will presumably be very good side, just as Barcelona continue to get results. Whether there be another side uniquely Barcelona’s is a more expansive question. But Busquets is only 28 years old. For now, we have the small victories of no longer having to defend his quality or his role. He was never Barcelona or Spain’s best player, but he was always the most important.