Last Wednesday Lionel Messi walked off the Camp Nou pitch with a match ball under his arm and so too did Luis Suárez. Valencia sporting director Suso García Pitarch declared on Spanish television that it had been one of the worst defeats in club history, while Gary Neville was asked three times in his press conference if his time as coach had already come to an end.
“Seven goals and a funeral,” read the headline of Marca the following day, while both Barcelona papers Sport and El Mundo Deportivo ran with “Festival”. All three naturally accompanied the headlines with pictures of Messi and Suárez celebrating.
Meanwhile, the real match hero, the true mastermind behind the 7-0 Barcelona win and the man most responsible for making Gary Neville’s tactics so suicidal was nowhere to be seen.
Sergio Busquets remains probably the world’s most underrated footballer. Although he’s given a lot more recognition today than he was a few years ago, it is still not even close to what he deserves.
As so often is the case when Barcelona put together a startling performance, Busquets had a nearly perfect game against Valencia. Winning back possession no less than 27 times, he ensured that his opponents were constantly under pressure. Busquets’ passing wasn’t bad either, with 97 completions out of 106 passes attempted – a success rate of 92 per cent.
But that’s not even the half of it. Statistics can only go so far in illustrating the work the midfielder actually does during a game. Busquets stops opponents while keeping his own side ticking over, all the while protecting his team-mates and making more tackles and covering more distance than anyone else on his team. Nobody in the Barcelona squad puts in the same amount of work and he is a constant component of everything that happens on the pitch.
Busquets is not just a part of the game, but the master of it. He not only directs the game, he is the one who scripts the whole plot.
Four days after the display at Camp Nou, the Barcelona squad travelled to Valencia to face bottom team Levante. With Busquets on the bench to get some well-earned rest, it was not the same dominant Barça on the field. It was far from the first time that Busquets has been conspicuous by his absence. All of their poorer results during the last few years seem to coincide with Busquets either not playing or having an off-day.
Just how important Busquets has been to the successes of FC Barcelona and Spain in recent years cannot be stressed enough. Former Barça manager Pep Guardiola stated that what they achieved during his time at the club – winning 14 titles in four years – would not been possible without Busquets. Xavi agrees… and so too would any player in the squad.
Spain boss Vicente del Bosque and Guardiola have stated that if they were reincarnated as a player they would like to be Busquets, while Luis Enrique recently opined that Busquets isn’t just the best defensive midfielder in the world – he is the best midfielder, period.
At the beginning of the 2008-09 league campaign, Guardiola was criticised for replacing Yaya Touré – at the top of his game – for the unknown 20-year old. Seven years and 21 major trophies later, few seem to remember how Barça even played before Busquets.
Ahead of the World Cup in 2010, many criticised Del Bosque for naming the Barcelona man in the squad. After a tournament which saw Spain crowned world champions the first time in history, Pepe Reina presented Busquets to the fans in Madrid with these words: “For me the MVP of the World Cup, the snowplough from Badia, the octopus from Badia. He’s the tentacles of Spain. The man who steals the ball, passes it and makes plays: SERGIO BUSQUETS.”
There is unlikely to be a single person who has played or coached him that won’t argue he is the most vital player of his team.
“The best thing for the team would be if Busquets plays. I prefer that he plays, even if that means I won’t be in the starting eleven,” Javier Mascherano told Sport last season as the question was raised if Busquets would make it back from injury in time for El Clásico.
The entire way Barcelona play their football is dependent on Busquets, and remarkably, that didn’t even change when their style of play did. When manager Luis Enrique moved away from the tiki-taka style of Guardiola it made his role a lot more difficult, leaving him more isolated and more vulnerable in the middle. But the brilliant player that he is, Busquets adapted… and not only did he adapt, but he became the master of the new style. It doesn’t matter how Barça play, Busquets will always be the heart of it. And when he is not there then the team won’t be able to play as well, regardless of who they put in his position.
This makes me question if there has ever really been any football player as vital to their team as Busquets is to FC Barcelona. I, for one, can’t come up with a contender. And yet he remains quietly in the shadows; maybe that’s exactly what makes him so great.
As Rinus Michels once said: “If you don’t notice the role of the defensive midfielder then he is doing a perfect job.” But maybe the now famous quote from Del Bosque describes him best: “You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”