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Iceberg Busquets

In which we consider the slow-moving, long-lasting midfield force of nature with more below the surface than meets the eye.

According to Ernest Hemingway's "Iceberg Theory," the words a writer leaves out of a story are just important as, if not more than, the words that are written. Hemingway believed that the parts of a story that were left out would actually strengthen the story, as long as the author intentionally omitted information that he or she knew and could have easily included. These omissions ensure only the most "true" information appears on the page, and they allow the reader to feel or imagine the subtexts lying below the surface of the story. With this approach, and through his use of simple and plain language, Hemingway became one of the most distinctive writers of the 20th century.

"Hemingway said that only the tip of the iceberg showed in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg." -Jenna Blum

If we look out across the undulating surface of a soccer game, there are several events that might rise to the top and crest as a wave might: goals, penalties, reckless or aggressive fouls, feats of super-human athleticism, post-goal shirt removal, etc, and there are countless players that might deliver these moments on a regular basis: your Messis, Ronaldos, your Son Heung-mins, Salahs--this list goes on.

There's a much shorter list of players whose genius lies below the surface of the water, deep underneath the cresting and curling waves, so far down they're almost impossible to see without pressurized cabins and depth-rated lights. These are players with impeccable technical skills that they appear to not actually use on a regular basis. Players with body shapes one might not associate with elite athletes. These players have made careers of non-goal craftsmanship, churning out spectacular moments that you might miss if you don't have your spyglass at the ready, high atop a crow's nest, looking through the spray of the waves for something lying deeper.

At the top of this depth-dwelling list is Sergio Busquets. Born in Barcelona and belonging professionally only to FC Barcelona during his long career, he is a study in consistency. A master of efficient movement, an unrivaled anticipator, and unmistakably the slowest guy on the field at any given time, Busquets' limited physical gifts require heightened mental performance. Like the blind bat maneuvering with echolocation, Busquets has become one of the best midfielders of his generation as an archetypal under-the-surface player. Almost everything he does is unremarkable at first glance. For example, most players use their skills on the ball to get past an opponent and move toward the goal; Busquets is more likely to use his limited but effective repertoire to escape pressure and find space moving backward or sideways. While many players want the ball so they can carry it until they're forced to give it up, Busquets wants the ball only so he can deliver it safely to someone in a better position than he is.

Here's an example. Look at this amazing goal by Leo Messi. An undeniably great individual effort. Only he doesn't do it alone. Sure, he does about 99% of it, but without the under-the-surface genius of Busquets, this goal wouldn't even get started. As you watch this clip thinking, "Busquets does absolutely nothing here," ask yourself what he omits from this sequence. He begins by making a run up the field, but he abruptly stops after a few feet. He receives the ball from Messi, but he doesn't turn and head toward the goal like many players might. He holds still and allows Messi to run past him, using his own body to almost imperceptibly screen the defender and buy Messi just a microsecond to get up to top speed with the ball at his feet. Finally, with the most spare and almost non-existent touch on the ball, Busquets gently places the ball at Messi's feet. And after that, there really is nothing for him to do but watch Messi weave his way through the Madrid defense on his way to one of the great Clasico goals of all time.

All the work is below the surface. It's in his understanding of the game, his instinct and experience that lead him to omit where others would indulge in paragraphs of ornate description and flowery dribbling.

This is Busquets. Many of the things one expects of a soccer player in 2022: running around at high speed, flashy footwork, jumping high into the air, a stylish haircut, scoring goals, elaborate celebrations, have all been omitted. Only the most "true" elements of the game remain, strengthening his team by leaving out the inessential.

"If you watch the whole game, you won't see Busquets—but watch Busquets, and you will see the whole game." -Vicente del Bosque


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