With faster, more aggressive defenders and a game that has increasingly seen the use of the press, moving a playmaker deeper makes sense. Many teams have shifted their creative hub behind the first midfield line, just ahead of the defence: it allows teams to build from the back, while protecting their primary schemer behind a dynamic midfield that moves to provide options. This can draw a press forwards and open space further up the pitch; it also shifts the opposition’s stifling player from sitting in front of the defence in the classic six position to higher up, which can, in turn, limit the opposition’s own creativity.
Two of the great deep-lying midfielders of the recent era have been Andrea Pirlo and Sergio Busquets, but they are different players who bring different qualities. While Pirlo was and Busquets is an exceptional player, their individual attributes show the variety that can be found in the deep-lying playmaker role, with team systems and a player’s own abilities shaping the function and execution of one of the most important roles in modern football.
Both players found a home in the modern 4-3-3 at the base of a midfield three, though Pirlo was also used often in a midfield diamond and in front of a back three, while Busquets has also recently played a fair bit as part of a double pivot in a midfield four.
First and foremost, the role of the classic ‘six’ was to sit in front of the back line, protect them and, crucially, the space in front of them, and negate the creative player from the opposition who played in the ‘ten’ spot.
Of course, Pirlo never really intended to be a classic six. He started as a creative attacking midfielder at Inter, but was loaned to Brescia; the use of the great Roberto Baggio in that role forced his then manager Carlo Mazzone to push Pirlo further back to play as a deep-lying playmaker – a regista. This means that Pirlo’s defensive responsibilities reflected that his job was to be the deepest creator, not a defensive player. In addition, so did the make-up of the team around him.
Pirlo patrolled the space in front of the back three or four, but he generally marked the zone, while other players, shuttling midfielders like Danielle de Rossi or Gennaro Gattuso, or defenders who could step out, like Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci, closed down and attacked the ball and players in possession.
While Pirlo could use his superb reading of the game to make interceptions and, indeed, often play a brilliant counterattacking pass with it, his job was not about defence; instead, the rest of the team compensated for Pirlo’s lack of pace, strength and aggression, because he brought so much.
By contrast, Sergio Busquets is a marvellous screening presence, but this is, again, a function of the team created around him. When he came into the Barcelona side, which facilitated Xavi’s move up from the pivot position into central midfield, Busquets was able to offer Barca’s diminutive midfielders a more physical presence behind them. Andres Iniesta and Xavi, and now players like Arthur and Ivan Rakitic, are superb passers and movers, and do press well, but Busquets is a more solid screen, assisting the defence, winning aerial balls, and even slotting in between the centre backs if there are periods of sustained pressure.
So what do the players do that is similar? Both are brilliant passers, but again, this is often done differently. Pirlo liked to have a bit of space to pass, and would often use the full backs at AC Milan to create a bit of room for himself, before he received the ball back and then drove the ball vertically forwards to the other creative fulcrum in the ten position, someone like Rui Costa or Kaka. Or, especially at Juventus, who used the 3-5-2, he would launch long balls forwards to the strikers or wing backs like a quarterback. The key was space – although Pirlo could and did play in tight spaces brilliantly, he wanted the time to use his vision and range to pick a defence-splitting pass.
Busquets, on the other hand, is much more geared towards ball retention. While he too can play Pirlo-esque long balls out wide or vertically, he is superb at receiving the ball under pressure, using the angle of his body to keep a wide array of passing options open. He will receivce the ball from Barca’s centre backs and either shift it up or wide, or return the ball and move to find more space, allowing play to reset from deeper again if the option to shift the ball into space isn’t yet there.
Both these style reflect both the team system in which both players operated and their personal abilities – Barcelona are more about keeping possession, working it forwards methodically in a way that achieves superiority; AC Milan and Juventus actively used Pirlo’s passing as their main weapon to bypass a midfield or defensive line and set up duels in attacking areas.
In other respects, both players have qualities that make them superb – both have an extraordinary sense of what is happening on the pitch and both scan constantly, looking around to know where the opposition, their own team, and the space is. Both use their bodies brilliantly to shield the ball, create passing options and, in Pirlo’s case, create changes of the angle of attack by keeping his body square and then passing in a totally different direction to lure the opposition in.
Both Andrea Pirlo and Sergio Busquets helped define the modern defensive midfielder, in very different ways, but in ways that reflected what their team needed as much as what they themselves could do. Pirlo is perhaps the greatest true regista that has ever played the game; Busquets is perhaps the most complete all-round defensive midfielder. Different players, different qualities, but both among the greatest footballers that have ever played the game.