Why Spain's Sergio Busquets is past his prime
A lot of you will snigger at the very suggestion that Sergio Busquets is past his prime – here's looking at you, Barcelona fans.
The adulation for him, though, is not at all misplaced. After all, Busquets was the one man engine room that made Barcelona tick in what is the club’s most successful period in history. He has been compared to Pep Guardiola from his playing days – an eloquent and unassuming team man who bossed the midfield, seemingly without breaking sweat.
What’s more, he even literally has football in his blood, being the son of former Barcelona and Spain goalkeeper Carlos Busquets and having won every possible trophy there is to win, his status as an iconic player cannot be questioned.
Perennially in the shadow of his more illustrious midfield counterparts, Xavi and Iniesta, he would make no fuss about his unfashionable role in the team of breaking up opposition attacks. His consistent efficacy made him one of the most underrated players of his generation.
So, where did it all go wrong?
Barcelona were European Champions in 2009 and 2011 and sandwiched between their successes was Spain’s maiden World Cup victory. The world went gaga over the eye catching brand of possession based football that these two teams, mostly comprising the same set of core players, played. The ‘tika-taka’ model, as it was fondly called by the Spaniards themselves, was suddenly in vogue and tacticians lost sleep over how to pose a challenge to the seemingly unbeatable system.
At the heart of it was the midfield triumvirate where Xavi and Iniesta’s silky passes left fans salivating, while Busquets quietly went about his own business, cleaning up the leftovers of the footballing four course meal that the Barcelona duo conjured up almost at will. This set up was unbeatable, declared pundits the world over.
Alas, when you’re on top, things could only go downhill. The signs were ominous as Spain’s celebrated midfield trio gradually hung up their boots one by one.
In 2014, Spain began their World Cup defence by ending up on the wrong end of a 5-1 hammering at the hands of The Netherlands. The much vaunted midfield was non-existent. Chile kicked the Spaniards while they were down with a 2-0 success over them in the second round of matches, and Spain were on their way home within a week. The unbeatable system had been tamed quite easily, internationally, as well as domestically, where Barcelona were pipped to the Spanish league title by pragmatic upstarts Atletico Madrid.
What didn’t help Spain further was the fading away of their most successful generation: David Villla, Fernando Torres, Carles Puyol, Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Xavi all retired in a glut.
Which brings us back to Busquets. At the club level, Barcelona decided to recruit Ivan Rakitic to partner up with him in midfield.
In the national team, however, he was all alone as the sole midfield enforcer; the sole combative in a team of creative. The problems were laid out bare by an ageing Italy side in the European Championship in 2016, when they overran the Spanish midfield at will. Busquets was all over the place, leaving his defenders exposed. It was a sorry elimination for Spain in the round of sixteen.
The fundamental problem with Sergio Busquets is his chronic lack of pace. Earlier, he would make up for his it through his positional understanding and snuff out attacks while starting his team’s own offensives, however, the game has become faster than ever, and the Barcelona man has been unable to cope.
Also, while lesser quality opposition, which La Liga isn’t devoid of, fail to exploit this, better teams have started targeting him and his most obvious weakness with the pace of their counter attacks, while putting an extra body in midfield by playing a three man defence.
Examples of this approach working include Spain’s opposition in the 2014 World Cup and the European Championship in 2016 – The Netherlands, Chile and Italy all played with a back three, allowing them to overrun the midfield, while the likes of Arjen Robben, Alexis Sanchez and Lorenzo Insigne respectively wreaked havoc with their pace on the counter attack. This wasn’t limited to just the Spanish team, as even Barcelona struggled in their European campaigns, being dumped out by Juventus last year with Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa too hot to handle for Barca.
It was almost a repeat this year in the quarterfinals, as AS Roma’s sensational comeback from three goals down being orchestrated by the blistering Cengiz Under and Patrick Schink. Both the aforementioned Italian teams play with three at the back.
The blueprint for defeating Barcelona and Spain is now glaringly obvious, and while the former can always shore up their midfield with a spate of signings, the latter cannot. What the national team can do, however, is introduce Thiago Alcantara.
Another one of Pep Guardiola’s protégés, the Bayern Munich midfielder has been making waves in the German Bundesliga, as his team went on to win the league title six times in a row. He has the physique to not be overpowered easily, the youth to establish himself as the midfield mainstay for another decade, and the hunger to prove himself at the international level. He even offers a goal-scoring threat, something Sergio Busquets didn’t offer in the remotest. Most importantly, he has the pace and the stamina, and coupled with a footballing brain, he is Spain’s complete midfielder.
As Portugal, by no means favourites to lift the World Cup, ran riot on the counter attack in their thrilling 3-3 opener against Spain, and as puny Iran threw caution to the wind and almost snatched a point or three against the 2010 champions, Spain’s answer lay rotting on the bench.
With Spain’s qualification to the knockout rounds almost certain, tougher opposition await. If they are to go all the way, the midfield needs to be worked upon – once Spain’s greatest strength, it is now the obvious Achilles’ heel, characterized by none more so than Busquets himself.
Sergio Busquets has been a great servant to Spanish football throughout his tenure with the national team, but now, the show must go on - and the earlier Fernando Hierro realizes this, the better.