The final analysis, part three: brilliant Busquets

July 16, 2010

As is customary after a Spain or Barcelona success, the performance of Sergio Busquets (two La Ligas, a Champions League and a World Cup after two seasons of professional football) has largely been ignored.

In the World Cup final he was one of the key players for Spain – keeping Wesley Sneijder quiet, providing his usual solid, reliable passing from a deep midfield position, and dropping between his centre-backs to turn Spain’s 4-2-3-1 into something more like a 3-3-3-1 or 3-4-3 when in possession.

Busquets was crucial in Spain’s early dominance in the final. He was the midfielder with most time on the ball (see the amount of space he is in on the ball below), and retained possession well.

Many have commented on the fact that Wesley Sneijder (apparently in the running for the Golden Ball award before the final) had a very quiet game, but few have pinpointed Busquets as the reason why. He (red) performed a near-man-marking job on Sneijder (blue) throughout the game, always remaining tight and goalside whenever Holland got the ball, denying Sneijder space to work in.

That would probably be expected of a defensive midfielder playing against a playmaker, but what made Busquets’ role close to a man-marking responsibility was that he was given the instruction of following Sneijder, even when the Dutchman was behind the ball.

In this example below, Arjen Robben is carrying the ball forward towards goal, but despite being the central midfielder with most responsibility, Busquets (red) vacates his natural zone, and is primarily concerned with tracking the runs of Sneijder (blue). Because Spain’s 4-2-3-1 system features two holding players, Xabi Alonso (yellow) is able to drop in and occupy the zone in front of the back four.

And this continued for 120 minutes, with Busquets so effective in his defensive responsibilities that it’s difficult to remember a single thing Sneijder did in the match. This tackle from Busquets (pink) on Sneijder is in extra time, with the two players in almost exactly the same position as in picture two above, which was taken in the first ten minutes of the first half.

The most interesting thing about Busquets’ role, however, was the frequency with which he dropped between the centre-backs, allowing them to spread into a back three, and giving the full-backs license to get forward and provide the width Spain often lacked throughout the tournament. This concept has been discussed at length previously on ZM, and it was great to see Busquets, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol switching seamlessly between the two systems, as they do at Barcelona.

The two centre-backs spread to the flanks, and Busquets (yellow) drops between them, expanding the active playing area in defence. The same happens below.

Spain were able to keep the ball and played out from the back rather easily, for Busquets frequently had time to look up and play a good pass.

Holland surprisingly didn’t respond to this by trying to close him down (Sneijder was in a good position to do so) but they did try and recreate it themselves.

Here, Joris Mathijsen and John Heitinga have moved wide when Maarten Stekenlenburg has the ball, and Mark van Bommel (orange) attempts to drop between them and receive the ball. Spain are more aware with their pressing high up the pitch, however, and Xavi (green) follows him all the way. Van Bommel turns to see Xavi, then puts his hand up to Stekelenburg, instructing him not to send the ball his way, and Holland instead have to play through their centre-backs – not as assured passers as van Bommel.

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