From Milla to Busquets via Guardiola: The passing of the Barcelona midfield baton
When Luis Milla moved on a free transfer from FC Barcelona to Real Madrid, becoming one of just 37 players to play for both in the 120 years they have just about coexisted, he committed a betrayal. Peculiar as it is, 22 of those 37 have switched directly to the other in what must be considered the cardinal sin for fans. In Milla’s case, a heated contract dispute with Barcelona and more specifically, the flammable Johan Cruyff, led to him departing for Los Blancos. Curiously, Barcelona’s current midfielder of choice in that position, Sergio Busquets, in some small way owes his career to Milla and his demands.
As the great Eduardo Galeano once remarked, “In his life, a man can change wives, political parties or religions but he cannot change his favourite football team.” To do so in front of millions of people - who have loved and adored and revered them - instantly turns the perpetrator into the sort of clearcut villain that reality rarely provides.
Of course, it is football’s tacit admission that footballers are not only scarcely fans of the teams they represent these days but are barely linked by anything more than a direct debit at times. “The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty,” was another observation from the ever-introspective Galeano.
Fans know that for the most part their heroes do not feel the same passion, obsession or even deeply resigned disdain for a poor performance as they do. To the benefit of everyone, it must be said. One only has to glance across a fan forum to know that a dressing room of the same composition would be a disaster. Although this can cause irritation, it’s a fact that is for the most part accepted.
Yet if there is one thing that cannot be abided, it is crossing the divide. In this modern marriage of convenience between footballers, clubs and fans, the illusion of love serves everyone. Even if we are aware of the fallacy, even if reality sometimes appears through the cracks in their make-up, we look the other way. But what continues to be sacred in football is that you cannot sleep with the enemy. That vow remains.
When Luis Milla went to Real Madrid, it was unforgivable. As was the case when his namesake Figo repeated the feat a decade later. After the initial destructive anger, the bitter taste gradually fades to the point where it only returns on direct sight of the perpetrator. Eventually, through either maturity or necessity, the betrayed become reflective and call it growth. Maybe they even remember some of the good times, but they become convinced they have moved on to something better thereafter.
Regardless of any residual anger recalled by Luis Milla’s name, that idea could not be more pronounced in the Catalan capital. It was Milla’s doomed negotiation that culés have to thank for not just one, but two of their greatest eras.
"As a player at Barcelona they wanted to get rid of Pep because they thought he was a lanky great beanpole who couldn't defend, who had no strength and couldn't do anything in the air,” chuckled Johan Cruyff in his book. When Milla left, Cruyff in his infinite stubbornness decided against bringing in a top player and instead promoted that skinny child to the first team.
That kid, of course, was Josep Guardiola. He would blossom into a fine midfielder, a captain and a Spanish international on 49 occasions. Not that he was the first, but he came to make the English description of his position, a defensive midfielder, look like an insult.
It would take time for Cruyff’s edifying of Camp Nou to filter through into English nomenclature – even a holding midfielder feels patronising. The Spanish word for the position, pivote or pivot, is much more accurate, a far more just characterisation. Guardiola was still skinny and a bit slow, but he would be the axis upon which ‘The Dream Team’ would turn. It didn’t take long for him to become much less awkward and by the time Cruyff left four years later, Guardiola was fluent in football.
When Guardiola began constructing his own dynasty as manager of the Blaugrana, it was inspired by and publicly modelled on Cruyff’s side. Only Guardiola spent so long on the re-enactment, he put so much work into every detail, the replica arguably came out better than the original.
If problems or dilemmas presented themselves, he did exactly as his president Joan Laporta did: he asked, what would Johan do?
So, when Guardiola noted a gangly, stick thin 19-year-old in the Juvenil A side with even less speed than himself and a terrific touch, he demanded the club give him a professional deal. Sergio Busquets became a key part of Guardiola’s Barcelona B team, despite having been slated for an exit before his arrival. When Guardiola was promoted to the first team, Busquets came with him. Two years after Guardiola was appointed B-team manager, Barcelona would be moving on the incredibly talented Yaya Touré in favour of their lanky new pivote. It was not without criticism nor confusion.
Yet in that very moment, acting in the knowledge that Touré would not accept a reduced role for his second season in charge, Pep did exactly what Johan would do. He promoted the eerie reincarnation of himself and made him the fixed point in Barcelona’s most successful era.
Watching teams press Busquets at his best has its thrills and at times, can be comedic. Cartoonish, even. Precise like an expert putter, his passes do most of the work for the recipient. Author of perhaps the slowest effective drag-back in the modern game, his mind wins him space his athleticism has no right to. It’s also the reason Barcelona look so clunky without him.
“In the Barça style it’s a bit of a complicated position, a bit difficult,” he told Rac1 when they asked who might replace him. “Lately there aren’t players of the same profile. The majority of teams play with a double pivot, or with box-to-box ‘interiors’, that want to go forward and back. Here it’s a position in which you can’t move much, you have to think a lot and have everything in your head.”
Although it’s clear Busquets will need a replacement in the coming years, he still remains the barometer for Barcelona’s play. Regardless of results, which can be falsified by individual quality, by watching Busquets you can gauge how well the team is functioning. According to Vicente del Bosque, you see the whole game through him.
Yet it was all quirk of timing. That Cruyff was the manager and Guardiola happened to be there while Milla forced his exit is equivalent to winning the lottery. Arguably no other manager in Spain would have handled the situation in the same manner. It’s no secret that others at the club believed Guardiola was destined for the third division. Stardom was never on the cards for Busquets either. To coincide with perhaps the one manager with the power, audacity and vision to prioritise him over Touré was a glitch in the matrix.
Beyond having the talent and temperament to make it at the top level, which buys you a ticket, so much of modern football is given to the finest ability of all: being there when the sliding door opens. Busquets and Guardiola owe their achievements partly to fortune but then maximised it with their superb timing on the pitch. Real Madrid got one over on Barcelona in 1990 when Luis Milla left their greatest rivals to join them. And yet, if they had just offered a little less money.
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