When Vicente del Bosque was once asked about Sergio Busquets and his contributions to the national team, Spain’s former manager said with admiration, “If you watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. But if you watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”
It’s a quote that serves both as a compliment and an accurate description of the 30-year-old defensive midfielder, an unsung hero who has always been about effective simplicity without really wowing the audience.
“It’s true," a laughing Busquets tells SI.com. "I’m in a position where I’m not always noticed. I don’t score many goals or do much dribbling, but I still feel very much an important part of the team."
As he approaches the end of his 11th season with Barcelona, the one-club veteran stresses that the key for his own success is consistency.
“Defensively, my game has changed slightly, given the changes of managers in recent years," Busquets said. "But honestly, in terms of what I do as a player, I’ve stayed the same.”
Making the correct decision over and over again is a defining characteristic for Busquets and Barcelona. Make the smart pass, move, then repeat. But for him, there is also another role, and that’s creating the bridge between defense and attack. When in possession, the midfielders usually push higher up the final third (before it was Xavi and Andres Iniesta, now Ivan Rakitic and Arthur Melo), leaving Busquets as the defenders' insurance policy as he takes on the role of protector–or as Francisco J. Molina titled his 2013 book: Barça’s Guardian.
But Busi, as he is nicknamed by friends and peers, doesn’t like compliments. He would rather talk about other important teammates such as Gerard Pique, players he admires (he is a big fan of Kylian Mbappe) or those who share similar attributes to his own game (he's effusive in his praise of Atletico Madrid's Rodrigo Hernandez).
He sees Barça as a team that, through the teaching of its academy, embraces the collective effort above the needs of the individual in order to win.
“Every player who has played for this club has contributed towards its success," Busquets said. "Many of us have been together for a while now and have kept approaching the game the same way, thanks to the team philosophy we learned together years and years ago.”
After playing for local teams in Catalonia, Busquets arrived in Barcelona’s La Masia in 2005 and was eventually promoted to the senior team in 2008 thanks to Pep Guardiola. He’s never known another home since his arrival, and after Lionel Messi, he’s the longest-serving member of Barça’s first team alongside Pique, so there’s no player better suited to analyze how his club has changed.
“Since the days of Johan Cruyff and years later with Pep Guardiola, I think Barcelona has changed a lot, but still remains if not the best, one of the top three clubs in the world,” says Busquets, who has won seven La Liga championships, six Copa del Rey trophies and three Champions League titles with Barça–and could add one more of each this season. “You only have to see Barça’s trajectory and everything it has won but most importantly how all the players, past and present, have kept the same level of consistency.”
Busquets has worked under five managers, but no matter who has come through the door, each one understood the characteristics of each player and learning the Barça way.
“Every manager is different in one way or another, but what stays the same is coaching Barcelona players–players who want the ball, who want to be protagonists on the field–so each manager who’s been here has been able to take advantage of that, and, luckily, I feel we’ve become more complete because of it,” Busquets said.
Despite past successes, however, the club has struggled by its own lofty standards in Europe in recent years and hasn’t won the Champions League in the last four seasons. As a result, Barcelona has needed to evolve from the tiki-taka system to turn into a more aggressive, direct team when in possession. There have been matches in the league where the side has needed to sacrifice the heavy-possession mentality in order to get results.
Last month for example, Barça defeated Real Betis thanks to a wonderful hat trick from Messi and a goal from Luis Suarez all while maintaining just 43.9% possession–its lowest total in a league game that data and stats firm Opta Sports recorded for the club since 2004-2005. Under Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona still aims to keep the ball, but as opponents favor the pressing or counterattacking game, there are now other priorities, such as improving in dead-ball situations, being more physical and going wide faster.
“Obviously, the game has changed these last 10 years, so we’ve had to change and adapt," Busquets said. "Our opponents are now more prepared, both tactically and physically, and the game has professionally improved so much. Football is definitely more demanding from a decade ago.”
But as Barcelona stays in the hunt for a treble, with a Champions League semifinal vs. Liverpool on the horizon, Busquets sees this current squad as an answer to the demands of the modern game. It’s a diverse group, mixed with youth, experience, academy and international talent.
“This season has been great," Busquets said. "We have the greatest player in the history of Barcelona in Leo (Messi) and obviously, it’s important–especially for our club–to have homegrown talent be part of the first team, but it’s also valuable to complement this with the best players from around the world, whether it’s Europe or the rest of the world.”
One teammate-in-waiting whom Busquets is excited about is Frenkie de Jong, the 21-year-old star who has had a tremendous season with Ajax–and could wind up facing his future teammates in the Champions League final should both sides advance.
“He is a spectacular player," Busquets said. "There really aren’t many players his age with that level of control with the ball and mobility. And after coming from Ajax’s academy, which is very similar to our own, he has all the fundamentals to succeed here.”
But Busquets is not naïve and knows De Jong’s arrival also means the last pages of his Barcelona story are approaching, as the Dutch star is there to act as his successor. He believes he has two or three seasons left in which he can offer the consistent quality for which he's become known, but after that, he will evaluate his options. His contract with the club runs through 2023.
“I’ve always said that I won’t be a Barcelona player for 20 years with a secondary role," Busquets said. "The moment that I feel my ambition is fading or that I am not able to deliver physically, I will step aside and leave feeling privileged and content of what I gave to the club.”
His eventual exit from Barcelona does not mean retirement. Just like his friends and former teammates, Iniesta and Xavi, Busquets is intrigued by life abroad.
“You can’t obviously predict the future, but I am a fan of the United States and soccer over there continues to grow,” he says. “(MLS)’s competitive style and playoff format is different to what we’re used to over here, and that really appeals to me.”
When presented with the idea of perhaps playing for David Beckham’s Inter Miami, he smiles and jokingly says that living by the beach would be approved by his partner, Elena Galera, and two children.
But for now, Busquets has no plans for the beach. His focus, as has always been the case, is on helping Barcelona win–whether he’s noticed or not.