Why Arsenal Must Stop Sergio Busquets To Beat Barcelona
Barcelona are hot favourites to become the first team to defend the European Cup in the Champions League era and are currently on a 32-game unbeaten run in all competitions. So how can Arsenal stop them on Tuesday night? Start with Sergio Busquets…
Unstoppable. That’s the verdict of many regarding this Barcelona team. There might be 16 clubs left in this season’s Champions League but the current holders are little more than 2/1 to retain the trophy in May. It’s a side full of players capable of hurting the opposition.
Luis Suarez is the top scorer in Spain, while Lionel Messi recently reclaimed the Ballon d’Or for a record fifth time by edging out fellow Barcelona forward Neymar. But if all that sounds so daunting that Arsenal need not show up on Tuesday, there might be hope nevertheless.
Even the most beautiful of machines requires an engine and Barcelona’s is Sergio Busquets. “He is a fundamental player for us,” said coach Luis Enrique earlier this season. “When he is there the team gains solidity in defence and attack. He is a unique player.”
Fundamental. Unique. And worth stopping. Barcelona might be unbeaten in 32 games but there is some evidence that disrupting Busquets can have an impact on the team’s fluency. That’s something opposition sides appear to have picked up on this season.
Some teams are opting to press Barca. It means being brave and abandoning the tried and trusted method of stifling Barcelona – a template made famous by Jose Mourinho’s Inter side in 2010. But it’s a tactic that Arsenal might well be better suited to employing.
“We saw team after team play a narrow back-four, tuck their wide midfielders into a back-six and completely give up on possession,” explains Sky Sports’ Spanish football expert Terry Gibson. “You tracked runners and plugged gaps and hoped to somehow stay in the game.
“I believe now that more teams are pressing them high up the pitch. I think a lot of teams recognise now that if you stop, surprisingly enough, Sergio Busquets, and put him under pressure it forces Barcelona into going a little bit more direct than they would like.
“They can go direct, but it’s normally balls played into channels, slid down the side for Suarez, rather than the long clearance from Javier Mascherano that’s easy for a centre-half to clear. It’s the latter that you want to try to force Barcelona to do.”
Pep Guardiola attempted this uber-aggressive approach with Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final first leg last season. The tactic was dismissed by some as reckless. But as so often with Guardiola, he might just have been on to something.
Eduardo Berizzo, a fellow Marcelo Bielsa admirer, enjoyed spectacular success in coaching Celta Vigo to a 4-1 win over Barcelona in Galicia in September. Playing a high-pressing game, they were all over the visitors, leaving Barcelona – and Busquets, in particular – rattled.
Roberto Rodriguez, writing in Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia, reported that “Celta raised a cyclone of total football” and that “the team suffered, especially Busquets” who was said to be “overwhelmed and found little support” from his fellow Barcelona midfielders.
The stats illustrate the point. Busquets’ pass completion rate so far this season in La Liga is 89.2 per cent. In the Champions League it’s up at 92.5 per cent. But against Celta that evening, he was allowed to complete only 80.5 per cent of his passes – his lowest accuracy so far this season. The video below shows how they did it…
Busquets was substituted midway through the second half with his team 3-0 down. Vanquished. As Spain-based journalist Sid Lowe put it in The Guardian: “The talk is often of a team struggling to find the final pass; Barcelona could not find the first.”
Celta’s strategy should be particularly intriguing for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal because this was a team not merely defending against Barcelona but taking the game to them. “We’ve honoured football,” as Berizzo grandly put it. It’s something for Arsenal to aspire to.
Sky Sports pundit Guillem Balague believes the parallels are there. “Some people say Arsenal is the closest team to Barcelona,” said Balague. “It is not. It is Celta – pressure high, discipline, positional game, ball possession.”
But it’s not just Celta that have employed these tactics with some success. Malaga troubled Barca as recently as January before eventually succumbing to a 2-1 defeat, and once again Busquets was targeted. His pass completion rate dipped to 86.4 per cent in La Rosaleda.
“They played particularly badly against Malaga in the first half and that’s what Malaga did – they set about Busquets,” adds Gibson. “He wasn’t at his best, and Barcelona found it hard work. Celta did the same with six first-team players missing.”
It’s a long shot. But what’s clear is that there’s no hope of beating Barcelona without a plan, and the template is there. Bus parking might not be Arsenal’s style but maybe there’s another way for Wenger’s men. Stop Busquets, and maybe you can think about stopping Barcelona.