The Spanish international dropped from center midfield into his teams' defense, splitting the teams' centerback tandem of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. This allowed Barcelona to push up their outside defenders into the attack, creating width and adding numbers forward; all the while constricting the space in the middle for Atletico's deadly striking duo of Diego Forlan and Kun Aguero.
A former teammate at Barcelona, Rafael Márquez mirrored Busquets during the New York Red Bulls' victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy on Friday night. Red Bulls manager Hans Backe gave Marquez the instruction to check back between Carlos Mendes and Tim Ream and maintain possession.
Since his arrival in New York, Márquez has often been found drifting deep and demanding the ball. Friday night differed from past matches in that it was a definite pre-game plan for Rafa to align himself between Mendes and Ream. The Mexican was noticeably pointing out when the defense should part, allowing his arrival.
"LA had a huge problem to defend against Márquez and Carlos Mendes and Tim Ream when we built up from the back with only three players and pushed the two fullbacks," Backe explained after the match.
From that deeper position, Márquez had the space to dictate the outcome of the match. The Red Bulls, with five crammed into the midfield, gave him a plethora of options to select, from Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere pushing up the flanks to simpler options like Mehdi Ballouchy and Tony Tchani in the central spaces vacated by Marquez.
"We didn't deserve to win the game tonight," Los Angeles head coach Bruce Arena said. "They outplayed us in the first half. No question about that. Their midfield dominated us."
Márquez though was not solely constrained to the middle of the park. He appeared on both sides of the pitch, distributing calmly as always. Márquez didn't play any outrageous splitting through-balls, but he quietly showed the array of passes that only he and David Beckham possess in MLS. Long, floated passes effortlessly landed on the chests of Márquez's teammates.
Although ESPN commentator John Harkes seemed bemused by Márquez's positioning, commenting that it could leave the Red Bulls exposed, the New York victory was built upon their solid defensive display.
The team, now tied for first in the Eastern Conference with the victory, had no problems adjusting to Márquez's positioning. Tchani, Ballouchy, and Márquez neutralized the normally busting midfield of Dema Kovalenko and Juninho. The energy of Lindpere and Richards on the wings meant that the Galaxy, unlike the visitors, couldn't send their outside backs or even midfielders into the attack. Ream and Mendes (or Mike Petke later in the match) had no troubles transitioning between the four-man and three-man backlines. All had solid performances with Ream looking particularly comfortable in stopping MLS leading goal-scorer Edson Buddle when Buddle tried to exploit the space on New York's left side.
Carl Robinson, who was substituted in at the 65th minute for Márquez, inadvertently illustrated the importance of the man he replaced. Robinson put in a fine 25-minute shift, but he lacks the mobility or range of passing that Márquez possesses. The former Toronto FC man played a traditional central midfield role, never attempting to take over as a libero or sweeper.
After the "massive on the road win" (Backe's words), the Swede praised Márquez for his under-appreciated work.
"It was good," said Backe of the Mexican captain. "We decided at halftime to play him maximum 65 minutes because he has been fatigued and he is still fatigued and we didn't want to take any risks with picking up a stupid injury at this stage in the season. He was the guy at the beginning of the first half that started our buildup. He is so precise in the passing game."
The current Red Bulls, the best crop New York supporters have seen in the franchise's brief history, hinge on Márquez. The team would have certainly been improved by having Thierry Henry in the lineup, but they would have had no chance of defeating the league leaders in California without Rafa.
For wry non sequiturs follow Goal.com correspondent Avery Raimondo on Twitter @averyraimondo
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