There was a surprise name in the Barcelona starting XI. It was September 2008 and the Blaugrana were at home to Racing Santander in Pep Guardiola’s second La Liga game in charge. The Catalan coach, already under pressure after losing his first one away at lowly Numancia, selected a little-known 20-year-old from Barça B in central midfield. “I was very nervous,” the youngster said later. But he didn’t look it. And although Barça drew, their performance was encouraging. It was the start of something special: a remarkable run of results; a treble-winning season; a period of dominance. Sergio Busquets was there at the heart of it all.
After the game against Racing, the midfielder earned eulogies from Johan Cruyff. “Technically he’s superior to [Yaya] Touré and [Seydou] Keita,” the Dutch legend wrote in El Periódico. “Positionally, [he has the] appearance of a veteran. With the ball, he made the difficult look easy: letting it go in one or two touches. Without the ball, another lesson: that of being in the right place to incercept and recover while running just as much as needed to.”
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High praise. Cruyff saw similar qualities in Busquets to those he had identified in a young Pep Guardiola. Like Sergio, Pep was not quick but made up for his lack of pace with technical excellence, tactical awareness and positional intelligence. Defensive midfielders both, though much more than that. Guardiola was Cruyff’s coach on the pitch; Busquets has been something similar for all his managers through the years.
Outside Barcelona, he was often misunderstood. Underrated. Perhaps that is because his worth cannot be measured in numbers. He has scored 18 goals across 15 seasons at Barça and it is hard to remember any of them. And although he has set a few up over the years, his most famous assist is the one where he lays the ball off to Lionel Messi with a tiny touch some 45 yards out and the Argentine runs through the entire Real Madrid midfield and defence at the Santiago Bernabéu to score one of the Champions League’s greatest goals. Even there, though, he knew just when to leave it.
“You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game,” former Spain coach Vicente del Bosque once famously said of the midfielder. And with Sergio under scrutiny from the press following the World Cup group stages in 2010, Del Bosque said: “If I were a player, I would like to be reincarnated as Busquets.” Guardiola later echoed those thoughts.
With both Barcelona and Spain, everyone talked about Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. Busquets was more understated, but every bit as important. Before his rise to prominence, defensive midfielders had largely been destroyers. With the Makélélé role in vogue, that had been the trend. But just as Busquets did when he received the ball, he made it into something more: he was a defensive midfielder who did not defend, an interceptor and a creator all in one.
That ability to recover the ball, to evade challenges with quick feet in tight spaces, to recycle possession and also create made him more of a deep-lying playmaker than a defensive midfielder. In Barça terminology, he was a pivot – and he definitely played a pivotal part at the heart of the greatest team in the club’s history. Arguably the greatest midfield in football history, too.
Up against stronger, more physical and faster teams, he has sometimes struggled and looked off the pace, but he has remained key for club and country well into his thirties. Spain’s former coach Luis Enrique had wanted him to stay on after the World Cup in December. Xavi too had hoped he would extend his time at Barcelona.
While he was at his peak, Barça never quite seemed themselves when he was not on the pitch. It was as if they did not know what to do when he wasn’t there. It had been a similar story with Pep during his playing days. And after Messi, he was the most important player on the pitch in the post-Xavi years. Everything went through him.
“On the pitch you always wore 5, but in reality, as a player and a person you are a 10,” Messi wrote on Instagram this week when he learned that Busquets will be leaving Barcelona at the end of the season.
“The time has come to announce that this will be my last season with Barça,” Busquets had said on Wednesday in a video posted on the club’s social media channels. Like the man himself, it was typically understated.
Busquets, son of Barça’s reserve goalkeeper Carles from the Dream Team era, has played 719 first-team matches for the Blaugrana. “Goodbye to the midfield metronome from the best FC Barcelona side ever,” the Catalan club said after the news was announced this week.
But it is not quite over yet. On Sunday, as captain, Busquets will win his ninth LaLiga title if FCB beat Espanyol in the derby. Overall, it will be his 32nd trophy for the Catalan club. He has also won an extraordinary 143 caps with Spain, and is a World Cup winner and a European champion with La Roja. Now he is leaving, the last remnant of the all-conquering Barça and Spain sides. Both club and country will now need to find a slightly different way of playing.
“He’s a guarantee, an exceptional player,” Luis Enrique said during his time as Spain coach. “I’d like to rest him but I can’t afford that luxury.” Meanwhile, former Barça boss Quique Setién revealed when he joined the Catalan club that he held the midfielder in such esteem that he had one of Sergio’s signed shirts on the wall at his home. “His ability to understand everything is unique,” Setién said. And Guardiola once called him “the best mediocentro in the world”.
Guardiola was asked before a Champions League game early in his coaching career how he himself would fit into his Barça side. “I wouldn’t,” replied. “These guys are better.” That was when Busquets was just starting out. And his best years were yet to come.
“There will be a before and after in the defensive pivot [position] with and without Busi,” Xavi said recently. “We’ll always see him as an example, a mould… ‘this player is like Busi, that one isn’t…’ He is vital.”
Busquets has been vital for so long and just like when Guardiola left Camp Nou as a player in 2001, it could take a number of years for the Catalan club to find a worthy heir. It is time to leave, the right time probably, but now Barça will have to redefine their midfield without a man who helped to redefine it himself back in 2008 and kickstart the club’s most successful era. It will seem strange without him.