Context is everything. It’s an inconvenient and omnipresent fact, however much we attempt to simplify a subject to make it more edible, you can’t separate an event from its context. It stops the subject in question looking out of place, nonsensical or even vulgar. It’s a law that applies to footballers too, who are inextricably linked with their context; it’s what managers are employed to provide and it’s why players can look so vastly different from one game to the next.
Perhaps there is no top level footballer who is as anchored to their context as Sergio Busquets. Often a figure of fun for his hearse-like sprint speed, his form for La Roja is a jarring return to his vintage. Busquets’ mind was once more working faster than the legs of others. Rarely has a player’s international form been so superior to that of their club and that contrast has created much debate around the management of the under-fire Ronald Koeman and the empowered Luis Enrique.
Often over the years Busquets has acted as a thermometer for Barcelona – by watching him, you can see the whole game according to the cliché. In their midfield metronome, all the gory details of Barcelona’s gaping wounds are visible. Some say that his deficiencies prevent him entirely from competing against physicality. Yet this theory was dealt a confusing blow as he won Player of the Nations League against a midfield containing Paul Pogba and Aurelien Tchouameni. Not only do France possess a wonderful technical side that would mix it in the Champions League, but Les Blues also have a team of breathtaking athletes.
That’s not to say his growing weaknesses do not require accommodating, but there has never been an argument that Busquets’ performances hinge on the circumstances around him. Those same issues are the reason he was slated for the lower divisions as an 18-year-old, before encountering Pep Guardiola’s dogmatic system. Extrapolating that idea out, this need holds true to varying degrees for any player, but especially for those in the Barcelona and Spain team. It’s no coincidence that Gavi and Eric Garcia also produced comfortably their best performances of the season for La Seleccion.
Both Barcelona and Spain as a nation made conscious choices to play a game which relied on shortening the pitch and thus began educating, training and growing their footballers to do so. It was a decision made on the assumption that Spain were not producing comparable athletes and to ask those players to play a contrasting system, is to remove many of them from their natural habitat.
Looking across the pitch at Luis Enrique’s charges, it’s a task to spot a member of the squad who is not at least the equal of their club form if not an improvement. Casting glances back to Catalonia, it’s hard to point out any player who thrives in the conditions Koeman provides for them. Quite simply, they are being asked to do things they were never built for. For both, the identity discussion is always framed as a vanity question but it’s much more a necessity of their business model. Busquets is merely the one who makes the least sense out of context.