At the end of 2018/19, Sergio Busquets was at a crossroads. He had not had a bad season by any means but his importance was waning. Ernesto Valverde’s 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid negated his importance as an anchor between the lines, and instead focused on numerical superiority in the middle. This was coupled with a slight downturn in overall numbers, which led to murmurs. “The end of Busquets?”
A year on, things have changed. Busquets has just come off of a stellar campaign where he has performed under both managers and has held together a shaky defence and midfield. Even in a disjointed Valverde side, he held his own, and continued to produce stellar performances.
With the arrival of Setién, however, things took a dramatic turn. Suddenly, Busi was the first name on the team sheet and was the leader in the first phase of build-up. He was often charged with progression, both in Setién’s 3-2-5 and 2-3-5, where he’d either be an auxiliary centre-back or an anchor right ahead.
Busi was suddenly far more influential in all thirds of the pitch and was dictating both phase 1 and 2 of Barcelona’s build-up. Perhaps expectedly, most of his underlying progressive numbers went up as well, as did his defensive actions. There was more of Busquets everywhere. In pockets of space, in between the lines and in the defensive third. With Setién’s beloved interiors pushing high and wide, Busquets was tasked with protecting centrality, both in the middle and defensive third. This was key, especially as the centre-backs were stretched wide, due to the offensive workload on the full-backs. It was a busier Busquets than we’d seen under Valverde. Setién, who is a self-professed fan of the elusive midfielder, made sure he was the central pillar in his team.
The Spaniard went on to produce some standout performances in this redefined role. He was far more mobile, and as a consequence, played a more substantial role in Barça’s offensive play, especially with the injury of Frenkie de Jong. Setién’s arrival was almost like a wake-up call for the dormant, Swiss-army knife style Busquets of old. Valverde’s system had restricted him, and his overall impact on games had reduced. The Cantabrian coach, on the other hand, allowed Busquets to inhabit large swathes of pitch, and without much restriction.
As a result, Busquets has been one of Barça’s best performers this season, bar Lionel Messi. He’s been able to work around his physical decline by continuing to inhabit and interpret space. Yes, being a pivot is no easy task but Busquets isn’t really slowing down. Maybe he isn’t quite the all-round behemoth he used to be, but he’s working smarter now, not necessarily harder. At his age, perhaps that is the only way. The one advantage Busquets does have over other defensive midfielders is that he’s never relied on his physicality; his slight build has forced him to use guile and timing instead of pace and strength. Therefore, his ageing and subsequent decline isn’t/won’t be as apparent. It is more gradual, easy on the eye.
Much like Busquets himself.