Busquets, Guardiola and the ever changing role of the defensive midfielder

Sergio Busquets and Pep Guardiola

Like a visiting goalkeeper at Anfield, shots were raining down on me from all sides. Apparently my analysis “lacked direction”, I did not see the impact Sergio Busquets had, and it was even questioned whether I had ever seen him play. I like to promote discussion with my articles, but it seems on this topic, I hit a nerve with a few people.

Within hours of writing my last article I was inundated with Tweets from avid Busquets supporters. Some of the responses proving to be very insightful and informative, with one commentator writing a particularly detailed and lengthy piece to show me the error of my ways.

I would like to clarify here though, that at no point was I attacking Busquets, and at no point was I saying that Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo, or Xabi Alonso were better players. They are simply different players. Perhaps my words were misinterpreted, or perhaps my words were lost in translation, but I do not doubt for a second the incredible talent Busquets has. He is an outstanding defensive midfielder and he performs his role exceptionally.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article in response to my piece, I couldn’t help but feel it had its limitations. In particular was the over-reliance on YouTube clips. I understand the logic behind it, but YouTube videos can make any player look world class, as this video of Marouane Fellaini shows.

I believe that the discussion and focus on certain players will almost always tell you more about the analyst, than it will about the player. Each commentator will have their preferences, as will each coach, and each manager. Rather than talking about certain players – as they come and go fairly frequently anyway – I try to focus more on roles.

Different teams play different systems, and with the system in place at Barcelona, it seems to be paramount that the defensive midfielder is precisely that. Busquets is given little freedom to express himself and get forward because his main duty, and the duty that is essential for his teams success, is to defend and break up attacks. Therefore his passing tends to be short, precise and into the feet of someone with more of an attacking threat.

Busquets is essential to the workings of Barcelona, as without him Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta could not create what they do, and Jordi Alba, Adriano and Dani Alves could not push up-field to join attacks. For the tiki-taka machine to function effectively, I do not doubt that Busquets needs to be in the team.

However, for the last few seasons we have seen teams combat the tiki-taka strategy. Teams now know how to play against it, and because of this the system itself is having to change. Barcelona under Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino played noticeably different styles to the Barcelona that was managed by Pep Guardiola.

Even towards the end of Guardiola’s reign, the signs were there that opposition teams had the measure of Barcelona. A manager of his quality must have known this, and he must have known that when he took charge at Bayern Munchen, his tried and tested system at Barcelona would have to be adjusted and amended slightly. And so it was.

Football is an industry that moves incredibly quickly, what is revolutionary one moment becomes obsolete the next. The possession based, death-by-a-thousand-passes style of football no longer seems to work the wonders it once did. As I stated, oppositions now know how to play against it, they sit deep and they catch the team on a counter-attack. The opposition are content for Barcelona to have 700+ passes, as long as they score one more goal.

As I stated in my last article, Brendan Rodgers was quick to abandon possession for possession sake. He was aware of how teams played against his possession oriented team, and so at times he conceded the ball in order to draw the opposition out. As is the case with chess, sometimes you have to abandon board position, in order to gain a victory at the end of a match. This is evidenced by the fact that Liverpool had a lower average possession and a lower average number of passes per game this season than they did last season. (All statistics courtesy of Squawka).

It is clear that Guardiola has also changed his tactics slightly since his time at Barcelona. I believe this is due to two factors, firstly because the Bayern team that he inherited differed from the Barcelona team, i.e. they were bigger in size and had nobody in the false nine role, and secondly because he knew that he could not rest on his laurels, playing a five year old tactic that many teams could now oppose. After all to stand still in football, is to fall behind.

Though Barcelona’s tactics under Martino and Vilanova moved away from what they were under Guardiola, they have not moved enough. At Bayern, Guardiola is pushing the boundaries once more. Not content with simply replicating what he used at Barcelona he is looking to take it to the next level. The progress, and evolution must continue.

On average Bayern are playing longer passes than both Vilanova’s and Martino’s Barcelona, they are shooting more often from outside the area, and they are scoring more goals with their head. This is clear evidence of a shift towards a slightly more direct style of play. Bayern are not opposed to shooting from range if the opposition sit deep, they are not afraid to cross the ball into the box from wide areas, and passes no longer have to be short in distance and straight to feet.

These are the teams changes, structurally and strategically. I assume that Guardiola hopes that these sort of changes will help his tactics to progress and evolve. This can only happen though, if the players within the team also change and evolve.

It is my opinion, that as fantastic a player as Busquets is, he would not play in this Bayern side. And the reason for this is that his role, the type of player that he is, does not suit the tactics Guardiola wishes to implement. Guardiola is moving away from the tactics he used at the Nou Camp, and as essential as Busquets was to those tactics, I don’t believe a player with his role has a place in the new ones.

If we compare Busquets at Barcelona under Martino and Vilanova, to Lahm at Bayern – Lahm of course being the man chosen by Guardiola to play in that defensive midfield role – we see that they are completely different players. Lahm has more freedom with his passing and has a wider range of passing. On average, his passes are longer, there are more key passes, he creates more chances, and he gets more assists.

Not only do Lahm’s statistics show that he is more attack minded and creative, they also show that less emphasis is placed upon defending. Busquets under Martino and Vilanova has significantly higher average ratings for tackles won, blocks and interceptions.

Lahm’s statistics coupled with Bayern’s show that the defensive midfield role which Guardiola likes to use, has changed, or perhaps, is changing. The player in that role is allowed to be more expressive and more creative, he is encouraged to be more attacking and less one dimensional in terms of what he brings to the team.

It is for this reason that I stated that the role of the defensive midfielder is evolving, and it is for this reason that I put more preference on players such as Xabi Alonso, Gerrard and Pirlo. It is my belief that as football continues to evolve, players will have to perform multiple duties in any single role. A player that is performing only one duty on the pitch is a luxury that you cannot afford in the modern game.

Paddy is an opinionated, cynical old man trapped in a twenty-something year olds body. An activist on both local and national events, and with articles focusing on topics as varied as democracy, class, tattoos and football, there is little that escapes his criticism. After spending time in the voluntary and charitable sector he is now walking the career path of journalism. You can find him @PaddyVipond or view his blog here.
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