The defensive midfield position is one that's a little tricky to quantify. Some defensive midfielders have no defensive responsibilities at all, with all of their focus on offensive creation - such as Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard (at the end of his career). Other defensive midfielders only have defensive responsibilities - such as Nemanja Matic, with Chelsea. Still, others have responsibilities both offensively and defensively - and they're perhaps the toughest to quantify.
It isn't hard to tell whether a midfielder is creating chances. Their passing accuracy and chances created tallies give a pretty great depiction of whether or not the player is doing his job. Similarly, it's not hard to tell whether a player is doing his job defensively. Either the midfielder is winning tackles and intercepting balls (among other things) or he's not. With the players who have responsibilities at both ends of the pitch, though, the quantification becomes difficult. The players are tasked with playing defensively, so their offensive numbers will suffer accordingly. They're also tasked with pushing forward during the attack, and their defensive numbers often take a hit from that, as well.
While numbers generally give you a pretty good idea of the players excelling in that role, the point of balance isn't exactly quantifiable. There's not a point where the trade-off becomes worth it or more valuable, and so the players require a bit of a deeper look. One of those players is Sergio Busquets - Barcelona's lone pivot for the better part of a decade.
Busquets is possibly the epitome of being tasked at both ends - more so under Luis Enrique than under previous managers. Under previous managers Barcelona had Xavi and Iniesta to create opportunities in the final third, which allowed Busquets to sit deeper and play a more defensive role. While he was quite stellar in his passing, his passes that led to opportunities were fewer as there was a "buffer" zone between Busquets and the attack. Under managers like Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, and Tata Martino, Barcelona played what could be considered a 4-1-2-3 - using Busquets, alone, as a buffer between the midfield and back line.
In this role, he was tasked with cutting out all counter attacks before they could reach the back line. He was tasked with slowing down the opposition so that players like Dani Alves, Xavi, and Abidal could get back into defensive position. When he was in that role, he excelled. Under Tito, Busquets won over 65% of his tackle attempts and averaged over 5 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes.
Under new boss Luis Enrique things have changed for Busquets. Instead of playing a 4-1-2-3, with Xavi playing the creative role during attacks, Enrique has opted for more of a 4-3-3, with Busquets joining the attack more often and pushing forward on several plays. As a result, Busquets tackles plus interceptions rate was down to 4.3 last season (which is still really good - for what it's worth). This year, being forced forward even more due to injuries, Busquets' rate is down to a respectable 3.5 per 90 minutes.
The decline in defensive production has caused some to question whether Busquets was still the man to run Barcelona's pivot - some opting for Javier Mascherano as a replacement, with others going for options outside the club. Jumping to that conclusion doesn't quite get the entire picture, though. While Busquets tackle plus interception rate has fallen each of the last four years, he's offset it with an increase in chances created - going from 0.40 per 90 minutes under Tito in 2012/13 to 0.90 per 90 minutes under Luis Enrique this season.
Under his new role, Busquets is getting the opportunity to show why some have questioned whether Busquets is the best midfielder in the world. With him advancing during the attack, Busquets is getting the opportunity to show what made him so special as a pivot under the previous three coaches while also showing what makes him so special now. Busquets possesses the vision to make great interceptions, has a unique ability to create plays immediately after forcing a turnover, has precise passing accuracy, and is one of the most subtly creative players on the planet. What follows is just a look at Busquets' showing off all four skills over the last year, and how they positively impacted FC Barcelona on their run to the treble.
Most people refer to passing and creation when they refer to vision on a football pitch. Busquets, though, has a different sort of vision that's allowed him to succeed for years. Busquets is often able to read the play, and cut out attacks before they really have a chance to get started. Take, for example, this play:
Immediately following losing the ball, the opponent (Celta Vigo, I believe) makes an attempt to move forward and catch the defense out of position. Instead, the pass finds an unintended target - Sergio Busquets, cutting the pass out and allowing the attack to continue to pressure the opponent. That's not the only play he made like that, either.
Here he is, again, cutting out an attempt to turn a change in possession into a counter attack. This time, instead of just cutting out the pass, he's immediately transitioning - ready to attack as soon as the ball hits his foot. No matter where Busquets is on the pitch, he's got a vision of where the ball is headed, where he needs to be, and how he needs to get there - and that combination allows him to make plays like this.
Turnover to Creation
That last gif is a great segue into the next ability that Busquets has that has allowed him to excel both in deep and advanced positions. Busquets does possess great vision off the ball, but it doesn't exactly disappear when he turns from super natural defender into elite passer. Busquets has an incredibly unique, but valuable ability to quickly change from defense to offense - which has allowed the club to gain an advantage in numbers on a counter. Last year, in Paris, Busquets did just that - turning a tackle into a pass to Iniesta. Two passes later, and Neymar scored in a one-on-one with the keeper.
He was also great at turning interceptions into quick counter attacks. Like the second gif covering his vision showed, Busquets is always looking for what should happen next. Whether he's just made an interception or just received a pass, he's always looking for where the ball needs to go next. While this won't show up in the stats, here's Busquets creating another one-on-one for Neymar - who turned it into another Barcelona goal.
Part of what makes the Barcelona triumvirate so dangerous is their speed during a counter attack. While their creativity in possession is deadly, and resulted in a great many goals last season, their speed is something that's tough to neutralize defensively. It takes great positioning and speed in order to stop a counter attack spear-headed by Messi, Suarez, and Neymar - and Busquets does a great job of putting the defense in a position where they have to defend Barcelona's counter attack. Part of what helps him do that is his pristine passing.
Let's be honest, most of these gifs could go under the same category and make sense. Busquets' passes that turned into goals for Neymar didn't just happen by accident. They were a result of an elite accuracy that Busquets possesses. Whether you're looking for through balls
Or a ball over the top
Busquets has you covered. Just glancing through the numbers, it's easy to see why Busquets has shifted so seamlessly into a role that requires him to control play more often than before. Since the start of the 2012/13 season, Busquets has completed 6,771 passes out of 7,376 attempts in league play - a 91.8% completion rate. During that span, that rate was only topped in a single season by three players - Thiago Alcantara, Xavi (thrice), and Toni Kroos. The only player with more than 5,000 attempts during that span to top Busquets in terms of pass completion is Xavi - which isn't exactly bad company to be in. Busquets also has a knack for combining that precision with a simple, yet effective style of play that opens space in the defense better than nearly anyone.
Part of what makes Busquets so dangerous is that it's nearly impossible to read him when he's on the ball. His signature move is quickly pulling back a dribble, putting him in position to draw a foul, open the entire pitch ahead of him, or both - like he did against Athletic Bilbao.
Don't let that fool you, though. That's not all he has up his sleeve. When he's not dribbling, he likes to trick people with his hips. Busquets has all but mastered using his body to open space to pass into. Last season, in Paris for Champions League, Busquets did just that. Busquets turned to pass to Alves on the right flank - forcing Matuidi to run in that direction. That movement by Busquets open a hole for Messi to slide into - and receive the ball.
He also did it in Valencia, in Barcelona's 1-0 win over the home club, with the pass (again) going to Messi.
That's a pretty common theme, here. Most of the time, Busquets' fake is used to open space for Messi - who's loaded down with defenders. By showing the pass one way, he forces the defense to spread - opening space for the magic Argentine to receive the ball.
As if those two moves weren't enough, though, he's also incredibly great at using his body as a shield and finding space around him simply by how he positions himself. Against Bayern Munich, he did just that for Iniesta - combining his defense, his vision, his fake pass, and his body position to allow Iniesta space to make a run and get the ball away from danger.
Here he is, again - this time setting up one of the most famous goals in Barcelona history. While most people remember this goal for Messi's insane dribbling and beating five Real Madrid defenders in one run, Busquets found his ingenious creativity open space for Messi to begin that run.
This one seems really small, but something as simple as body positioning provided Messi enough space to be without pressure for roughly 10 yards - which was a huge benefit. If Busquets make the turn to face the camera, instead of away, the Real defender is immediately on top of Messi. While I wouldn't put it past Messi to make this run regardless, simply turning his body to shield Messi from having for face a sixth man and provided momentum, space, and leverage - which made this possible.
Busquets used to be a great defensive midfielder. He used to stop everything in his path, using incredible vision and technique to cut many plays out before they even had a chance to truly get started. Busquets used to be the best player at protecting the back line. He's not that player any more. He's no longer the best defensive midfielder in the game. Instead, Busquets has evolved into the best overall midfielder in the sport.