After the appointment of Quique Setién in January this year, Sergio Busquets has been on a journey of resurgence. Termed as ‘The Octopus’, the Spanish international has been on a flair after a managerial change that suits Barcelona’s possession-based approach. Quique Setién has been open enough to share his admiration for Busquets openly and has looked to play with his powers to strengthen his Barcelona side. Setién’s appointment has seen Busquets get frequently involved in Barca’s play compared to Valverde’s system and has really reignited the defensive midfielder’s approach.
In this tactical analysis scout report, we will be looking at how Busquets offers more than just a conventional defensive midfielder in Setién’s tactics. Similarly, the analysis will consist of his ability to connect defence and attack, ability to break down the opponent’s attacks with interceptions and overall movement under Setién.
More than a pivot
The past couple of managerial changes have seen Barca regularly adopt a 4-3-3 approach and occasionally a dynamic 4-4-2. Busquets becomes an instrumental figure when it comes to the 4-3-3 set-up, as he acts as the single pivot that shields the defence as well as initiates moves for front-lying attackers.
However, Busquets’ prowess doesn’t stop with conventional pivot’s roles.
Playing in front of a four-man defensive setup, Busquets is seen dealing with the space between the centre-backs while defending in addition to making up for stretched centre-backs while defending.
This doesn’t only allow Barcelona to have a numerical advantage while defending, rather allows defensively superior men, that is, the centre-backs to spot the blind runs and focus on defending them. Although Barcelona are seeing a relative decline in their centre-backs’ form, Busquets has certainly been an asset to the team.
Similarly, while playing against sides that mostly rely on counter-attacks, a possession-based high-pressing side like Setién’s Barcelona can get caught up and concede due to quick transitions. In this manner, Busquets has shown his excellent sense of positioning under Setién. Typically, Setién’s Barcelona have used advanced full-backs to control possession and occupy numerical superiority higher up the pitch. The full-backs, higher up the pitch, cannot regularly cope-up with sides that tend to counter with pace from the wings. Hence, Sergio Busquets occupies the ‘false centre-back’ role to allow the other CBs to operate as the wider defenders as if it was a three-man defensive set-up.
Not only does this practice limit Barcelona’s chances of conceding counter-attacking goals, it gives them a 2v1 situation against the wider players with dropping full-backs.
The reference point
In simple terms, Busquets has been an element that has kept the whole Barcelona set-up ticking with a flow ever since he made his first-team debut under Guardiola. With Setién continuing the trend, Busquets has been a man that controls the overall shape that the other lines form around him.
As a possession-based side with a ball-playing goalkeeper, Barcelona under Quique Setién have looked to play with options available anywhere in the pitch. Hence, it is important to keep the shape intact and make sure a player has at least two if not three passing options to avoid losing the ball. In this regard, Busquets acts like that one extra passing option for the defenders, helping them maintain their shape without losing one extra passing player.
In case of loss of possession inside their own half, Barcelona can afford to re-build and cause problems for the opposition attackers with intact shape. As shown in the picture, Busquets organizes the set-up even without the ball, making it easier for Barcelona to regain possession while defending.
The move ends up with the defence closing in on the attackers, regaining the possession. Busquets acts as the transition from defence to attacks here, quickly connecting the ball regained and flowing it to the midfielders/deep-lying forwards.
The Ball Winner
Anyone who watches Barcelona play has noticed Busquets’ importance in the ball-winning process. Busquets averages only two tackles per game under Setién and you might be surprised seeing such low numbers for a ball winner.
The secret here lies in winning the ball through smart positioning and organization, rather than making last-minute instinctive decisions and ending up with a tackle.
Busquets, while Barcelona are on the ball, is seen towards the centre of the pitch, allowing his ball-carriers to afford a mobile man for passing. This not only reduces Barcelona’s chances of regaining the ball but also maintaining the ball-flow.
Busquets, however, provides insurance of getting the ball back within the opponent’s half by closing in on the opposition player as soon as the ball is lost.
Here, in this instance, Busquets is seen in the middle, virtually allowing the ball-carrier to turn and pass in case of lack of other passing options. However, this is what Busquets does when the attacker loses possession:
Busquets places himself as close as possible to the attacker, thereby winning the ball high up the opponents’ half to continue Barcelona’s operations. A regular sight under Setién has been Busquets positioning himself as close as the ball-carrier whenever Barcelona are out of possession.
Similarly, another attribute for which Setién has used Busquets quite well under him has been Busquets’ ability to decide the right time and the right moment to break opponent’s attacks and inside their own half as far as possible. Busquets often does this by tracking the potential direction of opposition attack, which can be well-explained by the following instance:
Here, Sergio Busquets spots the potential direction that the attacker will opt to, as he will be looking to get rid of the player in front of him. Similarly, this way seems obvious for an attacker to go. Thus, Busquets, instead of making the run into his own half to defend, waits for the attacker to come at him and win the ball. This sense of making defensive runs only when it is necessary makes him technically better than any given defensive midfielder in his day.
The transition from defence to attack
A pivot, as the name suggests, has to be the fulcrum with which a side tips its balance throughout the match. Not only is Busquets a key defensive figure under Setién, but his ability to spot-free passing options and get through the opponents with a turn also makes him and equally important player for passing and tailoring attacks.
Setién puts Sergio Busquets deep in front of the four-man set-up not only to shield the defence but also to make him the man that transforms defensive moves to attacking ones.
As the above picture demonstrates, Busquets is well-likely to receive the ball from any of the available defenders, hence ready to turn them into the attack with a run or a pass. In this case, he has two forward players in case he opts to pass and has a void between two players if he decides to make a run.
Similarly, the name ‘Octopus’ is given for a reason, as Busquets is frequently seen at the centre, grasping what comes to his half and turning them into attacks. He is also seen making frequent progressive runs in the process under Setién, which has been a key-thing to note under Setién’s Barcelona.
While transitioning from defence to attack, Busquets is seen linking up with deep-lying forward (frequently Messi) to create attacks from scraps.
In this instance against Real Madrid, Busquets makes a progressive run starting from his own half, and hence spots the void that he can exploit. By running into the void, he can spot other passing options close to the goal and provide an extra man in attack. The attack ends up with a shot on target, as Busquets effectively gets into the void, links-up with Messi to give him enough space to shoot.
Similarly, Busquets’ resurgence has seen him register two goals already and his heat-map is evident to two things: Setién’s attempts to use Busquets to win the ball higher up the pitch and his role to advance attacks from defensive moves.
If Barcelona were a circle, Busquets would be the centre of it, where everyone is based on. Busquets, under Setién, has found himself regain that spot yet again, as he’s seen often combining with different options to continue possession towards goal. Keeping the goal of advancement in mind, Busquets here acts as the central point, to which every player is available with a quick movement for passing.
Similarly, like a metronome, Busquets’ role in dictating the play is based on helping to retain the ball, thereby allowing the tempo of the game to go according to Barcelona’s will. Setién’s Barcelona look to achieve this by creating small channels of passing triangles throughout the pitch and Busquets has mastered creating favourable channels out of nowhere. He combines with defenders and attackers to truly act as a reference and reduces the threat of losing the ball anywhere in the pitch.
In the given instance against Granada, Busquets steps up into the equation as he sees Antoine Griezmann struggling to keep-up with his marker. To ensure he keeps hold of the ball, he manipulates himself as a passing option and seeking out for the option he’ll make a pass afterwards to declutter the opposition press.
Effectively, he creates a triangle and gets the ball to the other midfielder, who, with a couple of touches can pass it to the advanced man, who has got rid of his marker. In this way, Sergio Busquets is the regular move-maker and the rhythm to Barcelona’s possession to the goal.
‘You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.’
As Vicente del Bosque quoted and this tactical analysis pointed out, Busquets is a sublime player that thrives under tactics that encourage ‘brain over muscle’ philosophy. Ever since Setién has set foot at the Camp Nou, the ageing Spaniard looks to have matured like a fine wine and everyone that loves possessional play will be excited to see what wonders Busquets will do under the Basque manager.