By Dermot Corrigan
Even as they hoover up title after title, it is hard to dislike Barcelona. Mention Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández or Andrés Iniesta and the eyes of any football fan will light up. Talk about Carlés Puyol or Javier Mascherano and there will be mostly praise for their commitment and attitude. As soon as Josep Guardiola enters the conversation, many will swoon. Bring up Sergio Busquets though, and frowns and even some snarls quickly appear.
This dislike is not just limited to neutral or opposition fans. Arsene Wenger recently shared his at best ambivalent view of Barca’s one bad guy.
“He is very smart and knows how to help the team,” Wenger told Eurosport. “He is clever, he forces the ref to give yellow cards to opponents. He pretends to be hurt whereas he is the one who kicked. He has all the moral weaknesses that help in football. His intelligence really helps the team.”
Wenger’s opinion of Busquets is widely shared by non-Barca fans, and there’s plenty of evidence to call upon. Internazionale supporters in particular will remember the “peek-a-boo” incident when Thiago Motta was sent off in the 2010 Champions League semi-final. As well over-reacting to opponent’s tackles, Busquets can make some nasty challenges himself, while the most unsavoury charges against him were the never really proven or disproven allegations of racism in last season’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid.
Coaches who have worked with the player take a very different view. Upon taking charge of Barcelona’s first team in summer 2008, Guardiola immediately promoted the then 20 year old midfielder (along with Pedro Rodríguez) from the Barca B squad where all three had just won the Spanish third division. That decision was quickly vindicated. Busquets picked up that season’s La Liga’s ‘young player of the year’ award, Barca won the treble and the no-longer-needed Yaya Touré was sold to Manchester City.
The transition to key player at international level was almost as rapid. Vicente del Bosque gave Busquets his senior Spanish debut in April 2009, sending him on for David Silva with Spain 1-1 away at Turkey in a vital World Cup qualifier. Spain got a late winner and by the following year’s finals he was an automatic starter alongside Xabi Alonso in deep midfield. The decision was not always understood in Spain, particularly in Madrid, where pundits argued that it forced Xavi too far forward and left no place for Cesc Fábregas.
Del Bosque dismissed these protests before the tournament started:
“If I could be any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets,” the ex-Real Madrid coach said. “He does everything. He is always ready to help the team, he is generous, he works hard defensively and he gets the team playing. When he plays well, our football is more fluid.”
Spain of course went on to win the title, with Busquets starting each game and Spain not conceding a goal in the knock-out stages. The generous help which Del Bosque speaks of is equally important at club level. While team-mates zip back and forth, he usually holds his position near the centre circle. With full-backs like Dani Alves and Adriano Correia often spending more time in the oppositions half than their own, and Guardiola regularly experimenting with a three-man defence, Busquets’ job is vital. Nicknamed ‘el pulpo’ (‘the octopus’), his rangy frame and speed across the ground mean he’s often cut out opposition attacks almost before they’ve begun, by fair means if possible, by (tactical) foul if not.
Marti Pernarau, author of a book called ‘The Path of Champions – From La Masia to the Camp Nou’, calls Busquets an “invisible friend”:
“He is the hub around which the blaugrana machine turns,” writes Pernarau quite poetically. “The best midfielder in the world for their style of play. As an anchor he breaks up the play and generates spaces. As a sail he contributes the air to unfurl attacks. He is the first fireman to arrive at the fire and the last to collect the hoses and return the helmets to the locker… He is not fast or agile or flexible. He is not strong, or powerful, nor does he have a low centre of gravity to support himself. But he is indispensable. You do not see him, but he is always there. He is the invisible friend.”
This ability to “unfurl” attacks is perhaps a less widely appreciated part of Busquets’ game. He is always available for a pass from a team-mate and almost always chooses the right option – whether a first time ball forward to Messi or Iniesta to quickly attack, a short ball to Xavi to let him begin another move or a pass backwards to Piqué or Puyol to calm things down and start again. And when opposition teams look to man-mark Xavi or Iniesta, Busquets is more than capable of stepping forward and picking a pass himself. In pretty much any other side in the world he would be the main playmaking midfielder, but ‘Busi’ deliberately limits himself to the role which Barca and Spain require.
With Guardiola currently managing his resources ahead of the upcoming visit of Real Madrid to the Camp Nou between two Champions League semi-final legs against Chelsea, his requirements are changing from game to game. Last Saturday at Real Zaragoza Busquets was rested, and in a frantic first-half Zaragoza’s Carlos Aranda missed a penalty before putting his side 1-0 ahead. Puyol and Messi scored for Barca, but even against ten men they struggled to control the game and it looked dicey until Guardiola introduced Busquets for Seydou Keita on 55 minutes. The Catalan side immediately looked calmer, took control of possession and eventually won 4-1.
Then on Tuesday at the Camp Nou against Getafe, Guardiola loaded his side with pacy attackers to get around the opposition’s predictably massed defence. Busquets this time had a double role, stepping back beside Mascherano at centre-half when required, but also moving the ball quickly to the wings to set Pedro or Isaac Cuenca away behind Getafe’s ‘parked bus’. Barca won 4-0, Getafe had no shots on target in the entire game, and Spanish sports daily AS gave Busquets three ‘aces’ out of three.
On Wednesday Busi himself was on media duties after Barcelona training. As journalists tried in vain to get him to comment on Real Madrid’s faltering title charge, the responses were typically restrained and modest.
“I feel very well physically, and the team is also doing well,” he said. “Every day I am learning all kinds of new things, I am very young and I hope that my best moment is still to come.”
The almost-upon-us three games in six days against Chelsea and Madrid will likely give Busquets more opportunities to test both sides of his game. These look the type of even, tense, tight games where teams need to use all the tools available to them. For all their neat passing play and beautifully constructed goals, Guardiola’s Barcelona would not have won 13 of 16 available trophies without occasionally edging into territory Wenger might see as distasteful.
Barcelona-based Scottish writer Graham Hunter, in his recently published ‘Barca: The Greatest Team in the World‘, argues that Guardiola promoted Busquets so quickly as he recognised that the two shared a winning mentality he wanted his team to show on the pitch.
“(Busquets) is a ferocious competitor and there are many people who believe he uses those instincts to nefarious ends,” writes Hunter. “Nevertheless, I believe he is the member of Guardiola’s team who, in percentage terms, most resembles his manager as a player.”
If Barca do come out on top in the coming days and deliver a final knockout blow to Chelsea’s old guard and further eating into Madrid’s once decisive-looking La Liga lead. there will surely be more moans about Busquets from opposition fans and players. Nobody on his own side will be complaining though, least off all his coach.
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for publications including The Score, FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360° and When Saturday Comes. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.