Football is in an era where live television, Internet and, most recently, social media coverage mean that virtually everything is covered from all angles. There is a school of thought that there are no more surprises in the world of football, especially when it comes to tactics. The World Cup used to be place where managers pitted wits against each other and displayed tactical “evolutions” which would go on to trickle down towards club football until the next show-and-tell four years later. Each country brought a bit of what they’d been undertaking domestically over recent years and displayed it in front of world cameras. Had there been similar coverage to what we have today then the impact of the “Mighty Magyars” tactical performance against England at Wembley in 1953 would’ve been diminished as it would have been noted earlier. The WM, the Ajax model, the libero, the 4-2-3-1, the “Makelele role” and the “false 9” provide a range of tactical cornerstones and innovations in the history of football. Now, we’ve been introduced to what can, and very well should, be another cornerstone. We’re going to call it “the Busquets role”.
In 2009, Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, spoke about the potential return of the sweeper in modern football. Whilst taking that argument as a basis, renowned tactical expert Michael Cox, of Zonalmarking, stated that due to the popularity of one-striker formations, the modern “sweeper” may not be the spare man pushing up into midfield leaving a 1 vs 1 situation, but rather a defensive midfielder dropping into defence. This would effectively split the central defenders as the said player slots into the middle, whilst the “full backs” already starting a little further ahead than their central defensive colleagues, would have further license to bombard forward. At the time, Cox theorized that a crucial aspect of Pep Guardiola’s tactical success in overloading the midfield, pressing his opponents and keeping possession, had seen Sergio Busquets, the defensive midfielder, drop into defence, pushing up Eric Abidal and especially Dani Alves into extremely advanced positions. This allowed Busquets to drop into space, dictate possession and spray the ball across from the back. His performances and role for Barcelona are often overlooked by people with less of an eye for the smallest details defining success. Cox labelled Busquets role as a traditional “center half”, a term used to describe a player dropping into central defence from midfield, before it was falsely mirrored, largely by British “pundits”, to reflect a center back.
Whilst on paper Barcelona may line up 4-3-3, in practice it has become much harder to decipher their formation. However, by using an analysis of average positions, it is safer to call their formation a 3-4-3 (if not a 2-1-4-3) system with Busquets as the traditional center half between two central defenders. As a consequence, both full backs are able to play the role of wide midfielders and sometimes even wingers. Sometimes, if Guardiola picks Puyol, Pique and Mascherano as 3 members of the “back four” in defence, the remaining full back, likely to be Dani Alves, pushes up to a winger’s role, whilst Busquets holds his ground next to a more disciplined midfielder such as Seydou Keita, effectively forming a belt of three as a second line in front of the back three. Barcelona used this shape against Milan in the Champions League Quarter Final First Leg, where they virtually lined up as a 3-3-3-1. In this instance, Busquets continues to provide cover but not necessarily as the “center half” which he usually does. Incidentally, its the presence of Javier Mascherano, a natural defensive midfielder, in central defence, which frees up Busquets and gives the tactical flexibility to Barcelona. In either shape, Barcelona are able to free up their wide players and provide adequate cover in defence too. Only Xavi and Dani Alves pass the ball more per game than Sergio Busquets does from his center half position.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao has played some of the best football in Europe this season. Even though they are on the verge of making it two cup final appearances for the season, the lack of depth in the squad has meant Athletic has not been able to fight on three fronts, without hampering their league form. Nevertheless, one of the cornerstones of their play has been the placement of Javi Martinez, arguably a world class central midfielder, in central defence, probably more a la Mascherano than Busquets, but still worth a mention. Can we classify him as a center half?
Interestingly, whilst, on paper, Athletic have largely set up as 4-3-3 this season, in reality, they play a 3-4-3 (or 2-1-4-3 to be precise) similar to Barcelona in many ways. Javi Martinez plays at center back but the “center half” role is largely filled by Ander Iturraspe, who drops in from central midfield. Javi Martinez plays as more of a conventional center back with passing ability, an added bonus. His reading of the game and athleticism like Mascherano’s has allowed him to fit in at the back rather effortlessly. The end result is the same, as Iturraspe’s presence allows Aurtenexte and Iraola to bombard forward with the “right back” effectively playing as a winger. However, the consequence of playing someone with Javi Martinez’s passing ability in defence is that he is able to dictate play from deep. He averages over 50 passes a match and touches the ball more than any other Athletic player. Furthermore, the space and time that he has on the ball helps him to confirm his accuracy, where once again he leads his teammates. Just to illustrate the difference it has made to his game as opposed to the past when he has played in central midfield, his passing accuracy is up by 10% whilst he is averaging 20 more passes a game compared to his performances last season. It must be stated that Bielsa’s Bilbao side implement a much more passing game as opposed to the more direct approach of last season, however, Javi Martinez’s coming of age as an individual in his new role must not be downplayed either.
For Mascherano, whilst he can’t expect to be the biggest passer of the ball at Barcelona, he does average 20 and 25 passes a game higher than Pique and Puyol, the other regular center backs, respectively, and that is another significant statistic. He may have been labelled as someone who can’t “pass the Barcelona way” after joining them from Liverpool, but the faith that Guardiola has kept in him is reciprocated by his performances, even from a passing perspective. One positive of playing players such as Javi Martinez and Mascherano in orthodox central defensive roles is that their reading of the game and intelligence from midfield is translated to higher interceptions and successful tackles than anyone else in their respective squads, hence winning the ball back and getting on it far more than other counterparts. The bottom line is their passing statistic. But as its clear, there is a whole chain of thought, by their managers, and events that lead one there.
The Busquets experimented has been exported abroad too. In Serie A, Roma’s Luis Enrique, with obvious strong influences from Barcelona, has sought to play an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Pressured to include Francesco Totti, Luis Enrique has varied his 4-3-3 somewhat resembling a diamond-shape in the middle with Totti or at times Erik Lamela, dropping behind two strikers at the top end. At the other end, Danielle De Rossi has played in the Busquets role dropping in between the two center backs, Juan and Simon Kjaer, and dictated play from deep. His reading of the game has been vital in allowing further risks to be taken by Roma’s players in advancing forward. Whilst results have been mixed, the same cannot be said of De Rossi’s performances. Arguably, Roma’s best and most consistent performer this season, he also leads them in passes, interceptions and is amongst their best tacklers. He also plays 1 key pass per game (WhoScored), which is impressive for someone who is playing so deep. According to James Horncastle, a leading European football writer and expert in Italian football, the Busquets role is labelled the “Parachute” in Italy. Horncastle states that, according to De Rossi himself, Luis Enrique gave him tapes of Oriel Romeu and not Busquets when explaining the role to the Italian. Horncastle added “De Rossi plays this role. Its the keystone of Roma’s play under Luis Enrique. Without it, they are a different side”.
Interestingly, De Rossi has also played as a center back on a couple of occasions, against Juventus in December, as well as Novara this past weekend. Whilst he performed admirably against Juventus and scored a goal, he was less influential in terms of dictating play. Nevertheless, Roma looked more solid and drew 1-1 at home. He averaged between 25 and 35 fewer passes compared to his season average on both occasions of playing in central defence. Nevertheless, it allows Roma to take extra attacking liberties. They virtually played as a 2-3-3-1-1 against Novara. However, the inability of Fernando Gago to provide better defensive cover a la Busquets or even Iturraspe means that Roma will not benefit by playing Danielle De Rossi in central defence as much as they potentially could. This is further confirmed by the influence that he holds by playing in the Parachute for Roma. As much as Luis Enrique has tried to bring in the Barcelona-system (2-1-4-3), he has been let down largely due to the parts (players) not fitting the system as quickly as he would have hoped.
When you implement the Busquets role, you will need two attacking full backs who are able to provide width as well as undertake their fair share of defending as a prerequisite. Adriano, Dani Alves and Andoni Iraola fulfill those duties for their respective clubs. Luis Enrique has been unable to nail down the right players for those roles. Jose Angel and Aleandro Rosi, whilst talented, have needed time to adapt to their roles, whilst Rodrigo Taddei has been converted to a full back this season and has not been able to produce an acceptable transition back to defence yet. Nevertheless, De Rossi’s role and performances has never been in question. When in full flow and everything falling into place, De Rossi’s performances in between the two central defenders provides both cover as well as passing tempo, setting every attack into motion. One such example was when Roma played Inter Milan in February and came out 4-0 winners. De Rossi dominated the game on both fronts, whilst the Roma shape and flow was as disciplined as it was beautiful. De Rossi made 99 passes, the most on the pitch, and the team kept the right width, shape and positions on the field, perfectly illustrating a 3-4-3 (2-1-4-3) formation, as it should be.
In the forum of tactical “innovation”, managers are always looking for ways to gain an advantage over the opposition. This has led to the reincarnation of the center half. The benefits of having a center half in front of the defence instead of a traditional destroyer, anchor or even an Andrea Pirlo-esque deep-lying playmaker is that in many ways it blends facets of those roles into one. This allows more attacking full backs (and in some ways requires them more than allows for them), as well as the ability to flood the midfield and dominate possession with up to seven players (usually in a 2-1-4-3 shape) outnumbering the opposition. Spain has been the setting for the most experiments when it comes to the re-emergence of the role, as well as other variants of the re-inventing traditional midfielders. We’ve talked about Busquets and Iturraspe as well as Mascherano and Javi Martinez who have been turned into ball-playing center backs. It is no coincidence that Guardiola and Bielsa share similar values and visions on football. In Italy, Luis Enrique has done the same with Danielle De Rossi. He has played in both the Busquets role, or Parachute as it is referred to in Italy, as well as at times in the Mascherano one. His influence and performances have never been better throughout his career. Roberto Guana of Cesena has also played as the Parachute this season. However, as we’ve found out in order to get the best out of playing a center half, the set up, shape, and movement must follow suit too. Otherwise, one man may shine more than the team does, which would be, ultimately, fruitless in the pursuit of success. The English Premier League, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have yet to delve into experimenting with such a role but if one had to pick a player who the role would fit like a glove then Rennes Yann M’Vila would be that player. His intelligence, reading of the game and passing ability provide him with all the necessary ingredients to benefit his next club side. Food for thought for a club like Arsenal.
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I would like to thank ESPN Soccernet’s GAMECAST services for providing key in-game diagrams that were used during the analysis above. With special thanks to work previously done by Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox of Zonal Marking as well as conversations held with James Horncastle.