Busquets the battery in Barca watch
Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30
When Arsenal hosted Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 five years ago, the most prominent characteristic in the atmosphere in the Emirates was fear at what Messi, Xavi, Villa, Alves and Iniesta might do to a back four which included Emmanuel Eboue and Johan Djourou.
At one point in the first half, after Barcelona had popped passes around for fun in the early stages, a tricky pass came towards Sergio Busquets, who was put under pressure by an Arsenal player hoping to win possession and set up a counter-attack.
The optimism in the crowd built for a moment before Busquets killed the ball and took another touch past the on-rushing player to begin yet another Barcelona move and prompt a collective deflation from tens of thousands of home supporters.
At the Clock End, a father turned to his son with a mixture of exasperation and admiration at what Busquets had just done. "And he's one of their s*** players", was his summation of the moment.
On Saturday against Las Palmas, Barcelona were without that s*** player as well as Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Pique and looked relatively ordinary by comparison to the extraordinary second-half performance against Celta the previous week.
Perhaps it was a sop to those who felt that the Lionel Messi/Luis Suarez penalty routine had been disrespectful and that those critics might enjoy it more if Barcelona were a little bit more boring and didn't produce moments of flair that will live long in the memory.
Or maybe it was because they were without several players who, as Claude Makelele was once described, are the battery in the watch.
The Messi-Suarez-Neymar combination is certainly the greatest of the modern era - 'SNM' might be a better moniker than 'MSN' given how enjoyable it is to watch them inflict pain on opponents - but without Pique, Rakitic and Busquets to get the ball to them, the trio had a rare off-day, albeit with Suarez and Neymar both scoring to leave Barcelona eight points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Busquets has double the number of major trophies in his club and international career as he does goals, with five La Ligas, three Spanish Cups, World Club Cups and Champions Leagues, one World Cup and one European Championships tallying 16, to which he has contributed the grand total of eight goals.
That might well be the reason why so many fail to recognise the brilliance of what he does, including those who nominate the Ballon d'Or long-list, who put forward the likes of Luca Modric, Toni Kroos, Andrea Pirlo and Yaya Toure but not Busquets, despite him being the heart-beat of another Barcelona treble-winning season.
His YouTube highlights are mostly made up of tackles and interceptions which, while appreciated by a certain kind of audience and hugely by his team-mates, won't exactly have children running out to the back garden trying to practise nicking the ball away from the back wall.
'Transition' is one of the great buzz-words in modern football regarding turning defence into attack and vice versa and it is here where, even though it requires concentration on YouTube, it's possible to see why the 27-year-old is so important.
When Barcelona attack, Busquets acts like an offensive rebounder in basketball where the team are allowed to attack and fail before he gives them the chance to do it again.
When they defend, his tackling has the ability to turn opponents' strength into their weakness, which is something that Arsenal will have to avoid particularly given the amount of time Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez like to spend on the ball.
By comparison to many of his team-mates over the years it's a particularly unglamorous part of being a Barcelona player but if he ever fancied a change, a switch to the Premier League would probably allow him to be more appreciated, albeit with fewer trophies.
Toure moved from Barcelona water-carrier to highest paid player in the Premier League on the back of being released from the shackles of the Catalans' engine room.
The suspicion here is that Busquets is fully capable of breaking forward with panache, scoring free-kicks and rocketing 30-yarders into the top corner and would quickly become the best midfielder in the Premier League by quite some distance.
Tomorrow, again, Arsenal are the Premier League team who must find a way to counter his influence which, if he was their main threat, would mean pushing up and denying him space in the way that the best teams so often did to negate the threat of a player like Pirlo. The obvious problem in doing that, however, is that it must be the entire team that presses the opponents meaning that there is space behind the Arsenal defence which has Per Mertesacker as its lynchpin/lamp-post.
Instead, Arsenal - as almost every team do against Barcelona - are likely to sit back, which allows space for Busquets to flourish with his exceptional simplicity of passing.
One option to counter his influence may be to drop the centre-forward back into his space but, if that player is Olivier Giroud, Busquets will probably call on the other part of his game in which he excels: refereeing.
Giroud regularly likes to show how much he cares by sliding into tackles and, if he does that against Busquets, he could suffer the same fate as Thiago Motta in the 2010 Champions League semi-final - his brush with Busquets face resulted the Barca man falling to the ground and getting Motta sent off.
It was an ugly piece of work delivered with panache that served its purpose: to make life easier for his team-mates, which is what Busquets' career is all about.
It wasn't appreciated by almost everyone who saw it, but Busquets should be used to that by now.