Busquets’ absence going to be felt by Barcelona
Sergio Busquets is one of those players who you would only notice when they are not there. And now Barcelona are going to know what that feels like.
This week, the 34-year-old decided to say goodbye to his home of 18 footballing years. He is perhaps the last of the greatest academy production line in the club; many clubs can purport to guiding first team players through their youth system, but nobody can say they did it as consistently and with such quality as Barça. There was a time that it felt as though the conveyor belt of superstars would never stop moving, but over a decade on from one of the greatest club sides to ever play the game, Pep Guardiola’s two-time Champions League winners, it is time to reflect on just how incredible that era of talent really was.
Busquets is the last remaining player of that team to leave it behind. Of course, Xavi Hernandez, his one-time midfield partner, is coach, and rumours of a return for Lionel Messi are gathering in intensity. But it is incredible that the spine of that team, and its manager, all came from within. Perhaps Busquets never got the credit he deserved next to his more illustrious contemporaries, but there is an argument to say his role, and the skillset he brought to the base of that midfield, made him one of the most important cogs in a beautiful, poetic winning machine.
To many, his job was simple. So simple, in fact, that critics often wondered why he was doing it. Sitting beside Xavi and Andres Iniesta and supplying them with ammunition may appear a simple task, but that does Busquets’ wider role and the real complexity of that part of it a disservice. To disregard Busquets is to misunderstand him; in the Guardiola years particularly, but even since, when managers have come and gone with their own take on the same overarching possession-based ideology, he is the man who has made it tick.
He would control a game from deep in the middle, never to be pressured or rushed, taking the sort of customary risks with the ball that became so defining for both Barcelona and Spain during that era. The way he turned away from onrushing opponents was as nonchalant as it was effective, allowing his team to overload in the areas of attacking threat, fully aware that he could be trusted to hold the keys to the defence, marshalling a huge amount of space on the pitch without covering a huge amount og ground, relying on his impeccable reading of the game instead. When seemingly everyone was playing with two holding players, Barcelona were taking advantage.
It was Busquets who would drop into defence to receive the ball from the goalkeeper as the centre backs and the fullbacks pushed up. With a high line to match, the risks would have been too much for most; there were occasions when they were caught out, but the rewards outweighed them a huge amount.
Busquets was tall and gangly. Looking at him, there wasn’t much suggestion that he would have the level of ball control needed to become a staple in that midfield; he certainly seemed to be an outlier compared to most of his teammates and fellow graduates from La Masia, whose games were predicated on a low centre of gravity that would allow them to glide upon the pitch. To possess all of the same traits, plus the added height and all the positives that brought, created an incredible platform from which Busquets developed into one of the most decorated midfielders in football history.
It was Guardiola who first saw his potential in the Barcelona B side. When he took over from Frank Rijkaard and 2008, the decision to cut losses on ageing, flailing stars like Ronaldinho and Deco took most of the headlines, but his trust in promoting both Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez spoke volumes of their quality. 15 years on, Guardiola has been vindicated in every sense, especially with the man who perhaps best represents a continuation from his own style and view of the beautiful game.
Perhaps in recent years, Busquets’ effectiveness has dwindled. With levels so high and age catching up with him, that was always likely to happen at some stage. But Xavi didn’t want to lose him, nor did Luis Enrique when he decided to retire from Spain duty. Neither team has a readymade replacement to step in, and in Barça’s case, that might just mean a forced tweak in approach. It will be time for Frenkie de Jong, a man who has struggled to impose himself at the club since a 2019 move from Ajax, to step up.
Busquets isn’t retiring; there is a lot of talk of a move to Major League Soccer and Inter Miami FC. Whatever happens, though, his departure from the Camp Nou will always stand as closure on one of the best teams ever. That is a legacy he deserves.