Is Sergio Busquets Still The King of Pivots?
This player analysis was first featured on our dedicated Barcelona site, barcelonaanalysis.com.
“You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game” were the famous words of Vicente del Bosque when describing a man who is one of the best, if not the very best, defensive midfielder in the whole footballing world.
Still, even those who we call “best” can have an off day (or two). Busquets is one of those players who can rarely afford a bad day at the office because when he suffers, the whole team does so too. This season we have seen “The Octopus of Badia” or shorter, “El Pulpo”, struggle to remain at his incredibly high standard with some uncharacteristic performances.
For that reason, this tactical analysis will use statistics to determine whether Sergio is still on top of the food chain in the pivot position or is the guard slowly changing.
What is a “pivot”?
Before actually diving into the stats and the analysis itself, we have to determine what are some of the roles of the defensive (or holding) midfielders. Since we will be focusing on Spain’s best CDM, we’ll use their term for that role which is a “pivot”, similar to the term used in handball.
Roughly speaking, all of them have the task to be that link between midfield and defense and to stop the opposition’s attack from making progress into the final third of the field. You can see pivots breaking up the play and roaming and usually, this would be true for most of the players occupying that position. The true examples of those “destroyers” are Casemiro and Kante.
On top of having to be ready to tackle, and stop the opposition, pivots also have the most responsibility when their team is attacking. Usually, they will be the ones who will distribute the ball to the attackers or orchestrate play. Depending on the team’s tactics, they will also retain and recycle possession.
At the end of the day, we can say there are several different roles when it comes to that one single position, and that is telling enough of the complexity of the pivots. Ranging from the destroyers to the more advanced creators, they truly represent the backbone of almost every team.
Meet the contestants
It’s difficult to judge an individual performance in a sport that is so heavily influenced by the whole team but for the sake of the analysis, we’ll take a look at some of the most prominent “pivot” names in world football and players who have similar characteristics as Busi.
Busquets’ biggest rival, at the moment, in the “world’s best defensive midfielder discussion” is N’Golo Kante of Chelsea. The little Frenchman is a true winner, a world champion and Blues’ engine from the back. He will be at the core of this analysis. Other honorable mentions will go to Luka Modrić of Real Madrid for a similar team role even though he is not a CDM, to Thiago Alcantara, Busquets’ countryman from Spain, and Casemiro, Real’s own destroyer.
What makes this comparison even more difficult is the fact that those players have distinctively different styles even though they play in, more or less, similar positions on the field. Still, they share some of the responsibility on the pitch.
Busquets is a different breed altogether. Tasked to both be the brains and the broad of the team, El Pulpo creates and destroys at the same time. His most prominent trait is the ability to solve any problem on the spot and to completely lift the pressure off of his team. All this is achieved by reading the game properly and finding the best possible way out.
More often than not, the things he does cannot really be properly captured by stats but to say that he is heavily involved in the build-up for the goal is the closest thing.
While he may not really participate directly in changing the scoreline or the final product, he will be the one to start it all up and make the attack that leads to the goal happen.
By the numbers
When it comes to midfielders of all kinds, whether we are talking about pivots, box-to-box midfielders or even attacking ones, we mostly judge them by the quality (and sometimes quantity) of their passes. In this area, there is no one quite like Busquets.
Out of the four other mentioned midfielders, the only one that comes close to Sergio in this regard is his compatriot, Thiago Alcantara. This season alone, Busquets has completed a total of 735 passes while Thiago sits on 673. The same thing happens when we compare the number of backward and sideways passes.
But what about advancing the play? A total number of forward passes is slightly lower for El Pulpo (157), and in this category, N’Golo Kante takes the cake with 227. It’s difficult to determine how many of those have actually been lethal or made into clear-cut chances but considering that Busquets this season made 11.5 passes to the final third on average (86.2%) to Kante’s 7.34 (83.4%) might be a sign after all.
Neither of the players passes the ball directly into the opposition’s box quite as often since both have less than two balls on average (Busi 1.59 vs. Kante 1.14) with a below 50% completion rate.
Still, Kante tends to position himself a bit higher up the pitch on most occasions since he occupies that right side of the midfield rather than the standard deep position where Busquets operates.
This more advanced position allows him to be more present in the attack, and the direct result of that can be seen in the number of chances he has created this season. Sarri has revolutionized Chelsea and allowed Kante to be braver both on and off the ball, and the incorporation of Jorginho has transformed N’Golo into a more of a box-to-box midfielder who is involved in the build-up as well as the defensive duties.
15 created chances, as opposed to Busquets’ eight, is more than enough proof that Kante has slowly drifted away from that deep-lying position that he started off in back in season 2015/16 in Caen.
Still, Busquets does start (and successfully finish) more total actions. He roughly averages a 100 with a 75.7% completion rate which edges out Kante’s 77.8 (67.9% completed ones).
As far as the defensive specter of this analysis goes, Busquets is still the king of the hill as well. None of the four other players are quite as dominant in this category, although Casmiro and Kante do get close in some instances.
The highest tally of interceptions, total blocks, blocked passes and crosses goes to the Octopus of Badia with Casemiro sharing the number one spot in interceptions and blocked crosses.
It has to be noted that Casemiro has the highest number of clearances but this is due to the fact that Busquets rarely (or almost never) clears the ball as it goes against Barcelona’s philosophy in general.
Casemiro also wins more duels on average out of all five mentioned players, and Busquets only leads the pack in the number of fouls suffered.
Numbers never tell the full story by themselves. But this goes both ways – sometimes they will mask a bad performance and sometimes they will harm the player’s personal score. Busquets often sacrifices his own stats for the “greater good”, and the same can be said for his teammate Ivan Rakitić.
Still, this season, there have been a couple of instances, or rather matches, where Busquets did look shaky. We’ll take a look at two specific games: Barcelona’s defeat to Real Betis (3:4), and Spain’s downfall to World Cup runners-up, Croatia (2:3).
In both of those games, his average scores stand at below 7.0, which is rather low for a player of his caliber. Interestingly enough, on the surface, the two games could not be any different than they are: One was a completely open and attacking football while the other could (partly) be described as a siege, the first half, at least.
Maybe the best proof of a bad game is the fact that Busquets was actually subbed off in the 69th minute in the match against Real Betis, which is a weird fact in itself. The numbers also don’t really mask the performance as we said they sometimes can.
The most glaring difference was the number of touches. Busquets only had 34 total, and 31 completed throughout the game. This, combined with only three won duels out of nine, and seven losses of the ball clearly showed that Sergio was having an off day.
Whether playing for Spain or Barcelona, Busquets operated in a more or less identical role. Intercept the opposition, and orchestrate the attack. Upon losing the ball, press immediately and effectively to recover possession.
What was also identical was the fact that full-backs overlapped to give width, and the teams played in a 4-3-3 system, which was, in the end, heavily exploited.
The key here was a fast transition, and outnumbering in midfield. Betis was great at circulating the ball at high pace and with one or two touches most. With Barca’s full-backs positioned too high, there would often be space in-between the lines for the visitors to exploit.
Busquets was always the one to stay a bit deeper just in case this does happen, and happen it did. However, with his lack of pace, and often poor first touch (yes, that also happened), Busi was guilty of giving the ball away in a dangerous position more than once.
Betis also used their own high-press tactic which was effective in many ways. Mostly it forced mistakes, even out of Busquets, and since almost all Barcelona’s players were in the opposition’s half, the road was always open to quickly transition through free space.
The same thing happened to Spain who left far too much free space when going forward. When Croatia deployed their low defensive block, Busquets was unable to penetrate and create much.
He made nine passes to the final third but only one into the box and not a single accurate through ball. This was mostly due to Croatia’s narrow setup which made the middle of the field extremely congested.
The thing that seemed to work wonders to neutralize Busquets was tight man-marking. In the Betis game, Lo Celso would follow him regularly, while two other players did the same for the remaining two Barca’s midfielders.
This broke the fluency of their attack and never afforded him with enough time to do his magic. What was also evident was that he often dropped all the way in-between the two center-backs, which kept him pinned down and far from reach.
This, combined with tight man-marking, ensured that he wouldn’t see much of the ball (vs. Betis), and if he did (vs. Croatia), it was as far away as possible.
Still, all those shortcomings are not really individual errors, bar the misplaced passes and bad giveaways, but a tactical oversight or one manager outfoxing the other.
This last month has been extremely difficult for Busquets who has not really been up to his usual sky-high standard. This, however, is more of a system mistake than his own.
In Barcelona’s case, the 4-3-3 with Messi on the right leaves that side far too vulnerable. Last season, this was negated with the introduction of double pivots in Busquets and Rakitić, which compensated for the shortcomings of Messi’s absence in defense.
Spain had a similar problem: When full-backs overlap, and the team is caught in a transition, the duty falls on Busquets only to recover possession. This could be fixed with the return of Thiago Alcantara but it hugely depends on the system used and the way it is implemented.
To conclude – Yes, Busquets experienced a small fall from grace and provided us with a couple of subpar performances but his rank in the world of defensive midfielders has remained mostly intact.
It seems that he was more a victim of a bad setup rather than his own hiccups but the moment he started struggling, the whole team(s) went down with him. And that proves his value in the first place.
So to answer the question from the title: Yes, Busquets is very much still on top of his game but teams and coaches have found some ways to either negate his impact or neutralize him as much as possible since it usually disrupts the whole team.
However, we are yet to find a problem that Busquets fails to find a solution for. Will it be the same with this one? Only time will tell.
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