Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde has a big decision to make ahead of his team’s tough meeting with Sevilla at Camp Nou on Sunday night.
In fact, he has a few decisions, starting in the centre of defence where he must choose whether to replace the suspended Clement Lenglet with the inexperienced Jean-Clair Todibo, or by repositioning a more senior player.
At the other end of the field, Valverde is dealing with the conundrum of how to deal with Lionel Messi’s continuing rehabilitation from the injuries which sidelined him during the opening weeks of the season. Messi played the full 90 minutes for the first time in three months as he helped his team earn a 2-1 Champions League victory over Inter Milan on Wednesday, but is it realistic to expect the skipper to play another full game just four days later?
The biggest decision facing Valverde, however, is in the centre of the pitch, where he faces a dilemma over a long-serving and iconic stalwart of the club: Sergio Busquets.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that Busquets has been a magnificent performer for Barca over the last ten years, playing a fundamental role in arguably the greatest team in history as he helped Xavi and Andres Iniesta control the middle of the field and orchestrate their passing carousel.
Time, though, spares nobody. Busquets is now 31-years old and showing all the signs of wear and tear you would expect from a man who has played nearly 700 games for club and country in the last decade. He is also surrounded by different team-mates, who play in a more direct manner with less obsession over dominating the area of the pitch he patrols.
For those reasons, he is starting to look, in short, over the hill. Busquets has never possessed particularly impressive physical powers, but in the past his lack of speed and dynamism were masked. Now, they are being brutally exposed and making him a liability.
Perhaps the starkest indication of his struggles yet came in Wednesday’s meeting with Inter, when the Italian team were far superior in the first half as they regularly succeeded in driving through the middle of the pitch and towards Barca’s area, virtually without impediment as Busquets looked on helplessly. Antonio Conte’s men also made a point of harrying Busquets in possession, constantly looking capable of robbing him of the ball in a dangerous part of the pitch.
Early in the second half, Valverde took remedial action. Busquets was replaced and Frenkie de Jong and Arthur – who had been playing either side in a classic midfield trio – were positioned more centrally in a double-pivot in front of the back four.
Barca’s improvement was instant and dramatic, with the new midfield duo establishing a control and calmness which had been entirely lacking in the first half, while the advanced position of substitute Arturo Vidal – taking advantage of the security offered by de Jong and Arthur – added an entirely different dimension to the team’s previously toothless attack.
The contrast between Barca’s vulnerability with Busquets and their effectiveness without him must surely have set thoughts running in Valverde’s head – and, in truth, those thoughts were probably already there, because Busquets has been looking frail for a couple of years now, with Wednesday’s struggles only really reaffirming what had gone before.
The future of Barca’s midfield, and maybe even the present, will probably consist of the Arthur and De Jong double axis protecting the back four and providing a solid base for another midfielder – Vidal, Sergi Roberto, Carles Alena or maybe even Messi – to roam forward in support of the attack.
Busquets, of course, could adapt and play alongside De Jong or Arthur in the double-pivot himself – he did so with huge success next to Xabi Alonso for many years in the Spanish national team.
But the hard truth is that, against top-class opposition, Busquets no longer looks good enough. His qualities are being drowned out by his deficiencies, and many pundits are starting to conclude that his time in the limelight could be coming to a close.
Sunday’s team sheet should provide a big club over whether Valverde shares that belief.
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