Why Barcelona's Sergio Busquets Is The Best Non-Attacking Footballer In The World
July 13, 2010, Madrid - Spain have just won their first World Cup. The now ubiquitous tiki taka has conquered the planet and the players are paraded through their capital amidst a level of national euphoria usually saved for Mandela and Wyclef Jean. A stage awaits the returning heroes in the Puerta del Sol and their unofficial cheerleader, third-choice goalkeeper Pepe Reina, leads the crowd in chanting.
Reina proceeds to go through each of the squad’s players by shirt number, bestowing compliments and telling jokes along the way, but when he arrives at number 16 he declares 21-year-old Sergio Busquets his ‘man of the World Cup’. High praise indeed, especially when one considers that Busquets played in a midfield consisting of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso – three of the most exquisite players La Roja have ever produced. What is more is that ‘The Octopus of Badia’, as Reina appeared to relish calling him, made his La Liga debut just two years previous to appearing in the victor’s first XI in a World Cup Final.
Reina’s superlatives are matched, however, by champions of the modern game. His coaches at the time of the World Cup, Pep Guardiola and Vicente Del Bosque both commented that if they were reincarnated as players they would like to be Busquets. Xavi himself claims Busquets is ‘the best one-touch player in the world’. World Cup-winning Argentine manager Cesar Luis Menotti claims the young Catalan is ‘one of the greatest talents that has been given to Spanish football’. Even the now almost mythical, spiritual god of the Barca style, Johann Cruyff, said when Busquets was a mere 19 years of age that ‘Positionally, he seems like a veteran with or without the ball. With the ball he makes what is difficult look easy…with the ball he gives us a lesson…he is a gift for any coach’.
So why is it that Busquets, particularly in England, is constantly overlooked when it comes to discussions of the cream of the crop, and is often seen as overrated? There are two principal reasons.
He cheats. The first suggestion in YouTube’s search bar when one types in the name of Barca’s gangly pivote is ‘Sergio Busquets dive’. Yes, he dives. He feigns injury, he almost constantly clips opposition ankles and complains in the referee’s face. Accusation accepted. But who doesn’t? ‘Messi!’ cry the non-believers, whom, had they done the most basic research would not be so quick to mention the sneaky Argentinian wizard. There is hardly a world class player, Messi included, who does not engage in this (admittedly poor) behaviour, so why single out Busquets? The reason is probably linked to another which I will come onto, but one thing that did not help Busquets was his frankly despicable play-acting when facing Inter in the Champions League semi-final at Camp Nou in 2010.
The English media need a narrative, and love a scapegoat. This terrestrially televised and eminently entertaining tie (featuring darling of the British tabloids - the always gracious and even-handed Jose Mourinho) was possibly the point at which many viewers were introduced to the young defensive midfielder, as the World Cup would not follow until a month after. Busquets glamour-less role in a glamorous side did him no favours, and the media, particularly the always gracious and even-handed Daily Mail, sided with the Special One.
Which leads us neatly to another reason Busquets is often overlooked – his job is not a glamorous one. Whilst Messi, Iniesta et al (deservedly) take all the plaudits, Busquets goes about his hard work relatively quietly, which is perhaps why his sporting indiscretions often overshadow his achievements. There are obvious comparisons to be drawn between him and Guardiola, who as a player toiled in the midfield of Cruyff’s successful Dream Team with such stars as Laudrup, Stoichkov and Romario ahead of him. It is often said that the mark of a great defensive midfielder is that his work goes unnoticed, and Busquets embodies this notion perfectly.
His teammates, of course, recognize and appreciate his work, and his ability is hardly to be sniffed at, especially when one notes the ease with which he manages to maintain possession during Barca’s famous warm-up exercise, El Rondo. His place in the first XI is well and truly cemented - when current Barca coach Tito Vilanova was asked why he’d shelled out 15m Euros on Arsenal’s defensive midfielder Alex Song, his response was simply that Busquets cannot play every game. Song is possibly the world’s most expensive understudy.
The most recent big game that encapsulated Busquets’ potent cocktail of wise positional play, flawless passing and an ability to go largely unnoticed is probably Spain’s emphatic 4-0 hammering of Italy in the final of Euro 2012. Whilst Iniesta, Jordi Alba and David Silva shared the majority of the limelight, Busquets went about his business in the middle of the park for the full 90 minutes. His objectives were complete: Italy did not score and his pass completion rate stood at a remarkable match-best 96%.
Honours rarely belie ability, and by the age of just 23 Busquets had three La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey, two UEFA Champions League titles, a European Championship and a World Cup to his name. Now 24, he looks likely to add at least another league title this year to his astonishing tally. The Busquets bandwagon shows no sign of stopping. Jump on.