Twice this season, Sergio Busquets has been hooked off at half time. It happened after the first half of Barcelona’s Champions League win over Juventus and after 45 minutes of the 1-1 draw against Alaves. Identified as a weak point in Ronald Koeman’s team, the Dutchman wasted no time in making a change to his midfield by withdrawing Busquets.
It’s not so long ago that, along with Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique, the 32-year-old was viewed as indispensable to the Catalans. He had formed a part of Barcelona’s spine for the best part of a decade, even defining a position that came to be known across European soccer as ‘The Busquets Role.’
Situated in front of the back, and sometimes as a member of the back four as an auxiliary centre back to pick the ball up and drive it forward, Busquets changed expectations of defensive midfielders. No longer are players in this position merely defined by the tackles and defensive structure they provide. Busquets underlined the role they could play as the first line of attack.
A certain level of physicality and fitness is, however, required to perform this role effectively and that’s something which appears to be leaving Busquets on the basis of his performances over 2020. It’s not just that the 32-year-old has started this season out of form, it’s that his form has been poor for almost an entire calendar year, possibly even longer.
On both occasions this season Busquets was withdrawn at half time, Barcelona improved. It was hoped Koeman’s new 4-2-3-1 shape, which has Frenkie de Jong alongside Busquets, would help ease some of the burden on the 32-year-old and would allow him to focus on getting on the ball in deep areas rather than trying to cover as much ground, but the theory hasn’t quite panned out in practice.
Instead, Miralem Pjanic has staked his claim for a starting place at the base of Barca’s midfield, with the Bosnian particularly impressive in the away win over Juventus. He appears to be a more natural midfield partner for de Jong, capable of passing from deep and covering enough ground to provide the back four with some much-needed protection.
There are questions over who should play in the number 10 role in Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 formation, with Philippe Coutinho, Pedri and even Messi played in the position over the first few weeks of the season, but the signing of Pjanic from Juventus, coupled with the harnessing of de Jong, appears to have given Barcelona a stronger midfield base to build on top of.
Barcelona are in the midst of a generational shift. Busquets was part of a group of players that changed the face of European football and set the sport’s zeitgeist for an era. What Barca did between 2009 and 2011 in particular will be spoken about a golden age unrivalled by any other team in the history of the game.
Busquets was a central part of that team, but with Barcelona set to elect a new president soon, with the club’s very identity and principles on the ballot paper, it’s time for something new to be built at the Camp Nou. If this isn’t the beginning of the end for Busquets at Barca, it probably should be.
This isn’t to say the 32-year-old can’t continue to play a role for the club. Busquets is still capable of providing a steadying influence for spells of matches, but not to the extent he was once capable of. He might not even be capable of playing 90 minutes, never mind two full games in a week as Barca frequently have to do between La Liga and the Champions League. Koeman already has a system that doesn’t depend on Busquets in the same way Barcelona’s previous 4-3-3 formation did. The framework is in place for a transition.
Of course, Pjanic isn’t a long term option either, with the Bosnian only two years younger than Busquets. But without looking after the short term, Barcelona can’t even begin to think about the long-term. There is a process happening at the Camp Nou, particularly as the club looks to move on from the Josep Bartomeu era, and the phasing out of Busquets must be a part of it.