Well I stood stone-like at midnight
Suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair ‘til it was just right
And commanded the night brigade (“Growin’ Up” Bruce Springsteen)
Sporting Kansas City’s Gianluca Busio, now 18, was always an attacking midfielder or forward. Yet, after playing holding midfield – a critical spot in the 4-3-3 Kansas City mostly employs – all 90 minutes for six straight matches, the North Carolina native with the distinct, bountiful, bouncing mane may have found his growin’ up place.
Positive reviews. Completing a high percentage of his passes. One of the top in MLS in tackles won since the restart. All things that are characteristic of a successful holding midfielder. The overriding question seems to be: Is Gianluca Busio shining because of the nature of the position he is playing or is he shining because of what he does in that position?
The following is an analysis of Busio’s play as I put my eyes solely on the 5’7” 135 lbs Italian passport holder in the recent 2-1 loss at Houston Dynamo and the 1-0 home win versus Minnesota United FC.
In spaces. On the ball. In the attack.
A holding midfielder is tasked with moving the ball from the back line to the midfield and up to the forward line. And Busio does this, always making sure he is available in channels and spaces to receive from the center backs and the wing backs as well. He is always purposefully trotting on the pitch.
What likely showed itself at a very young age – perhaps even at five – is an innate spatial awareness, an ability to recognize space and how to use it quickly. This intelligence aids that trotting, but it is also where Busio induces not just approving nods from his coaches, but oohs and aahs from all.
This intelligence shows itself in finding positional space between defensive lines and his awareness of traffic around him. Then, combined with his skill on the ball and his cleverness, Busio makes his most distinct marks. If he turns and dribbles a step or two, Busio does well to move across a marker, cutting off his defender’s ability to win the ball back. In moving the ball in mostly one touches, Busio has a bag of tricks to help keep possession in small spaces. That one touch passing – enabled by his spatial awareness and vision – keeps the ball moving, back, wide, or forward, to relieve pressure, say in his own final third, but also serves to not allow the defense to predict, or rest, all over the field.
As Busio is about to receive a backwards pass from advanced left back Luis Martins in the 27th minute against Minnesota, he feints towards the coming ball, shields the defender at his back with his body, and plays a quick one-touch pass to center back Roberto Puncec just in front of the center circle in United’s half. These subtle movements allow Kansas City to change the point of attack out of a bottleneck deep on the left side.
Later, in the 63rd, Busio’s subtleness turns spectacular. He purposefully moves away from his marker as center back Matt Besler advances on the left. Besler plays Busio, who quickly looks right at Graham Zusi but then clips a skillful pass in for fellow midfielder Felipe Hernandez, positioned forward and in space between Minnesota’s midfield and backs. Hernandez drives at the defense and an attack ensues.
But the thing is... While serving as the top of a triangle with Puncec and Besler surrounded by a diamond of defenders, Busio peeked twice before even receiving to see how the defense was positioned and where Hernandez was. The attacking series eventually resulted in a corner for Sporting, one that would not have happened without Busio’s awareness, skill, and tactical thought.
However... However... However... (You knew it was coming.) Busio seems restrained. Is it due to his role within the system? Is it due to tactics? Maybe. Maybe. Either way, his play is often conservative in this position. There is little urgency (and too much of that trotting) to get into advantageous positions when the Kansas City attack is working out wide or near the box. When he receives with space and time, Busio should open his body for a full, quicker view of the forward field to perhaps make passes he otherwise cannot see.
Yes, Busio is clearly beyond passive on the ball, even asking (demanding?) for the ball and directing teammates on where the ball should go. At this stage, Busio is much more conduit than playmaker in this deep-lying role, able to defeat defensive organization and help his team not only keep possession, but get into the attack quickly. His soccer soul is “untouched.” He is not yet the first-team mainstay, dictating force, an ambitious, top-of-the-league-aiming team like Kansas City needs in his critical role.
Defending that vast territory…
It must be said, Busio is responsible for a lot defensively in that concentrated midfield triangle within the 4-3-3. And he is not operating in an ideal context. As the dual 8s and Busio’s midfield companions, Gadi Kinda and Hernandez are not veterans astute at their own midfield roles. Kinda is much a free-wheeling playmaker and dribbler, and Hernandez is a 22-year-old who gained only his third MLS start and fourth appearance this season. These three are responsible for protecting the vital underbelly of Sporting’s defense, shielding the jewels at the back.
For his part, Busio is still youthful in his defensive approach. He ball watches. He is adequate in anticipating in his zones and pressuring the man on ball. He lacks the urgency (or is just ignorant of the need) to get into a strong position of cover and/or balance in more threatening moments. He needs to drop deeper to fill gaps and keep play in front of him when the opposition goes wide. When an attacker running next to him is not marked tightly or space is left open, Sporting’s defense is quickly broken.
As he defends a Houston counterattack in the 43rd minute, Busio’s failure to fill the gap where the ball is played to Christian Ramirez is a significant factor in the chance that is eventually banged off Sporting’s crossbar. Even though Busio’s sliding attempt to block the penetrating pass to Ramirez seems valiant, it is evidence more of being out of position.
Overall, this defensive “drifting” puts him in generally good areas; however, once in these areas, Busio is often not intentional – he lacks a specific purpose in his mission.
This becomes near embarrassing when Busio is passed by a more urgent, more aware retreating Hernandez - who began five yards behind – endeavoring to defend in the box in the 53rd minute at Houston while Busio floats.
Against Minnesota, Busio was often better: anticipating well to regain possession and, in particular, double-teaming a United attacker in Kansas City’s end with Hernandez to win possession.
In the 85th minute, Busio is nutmegged by Emanuel Reynoso; he then puts his body between the Argentine maestro and the ball to squander the attack. Yes, Busio drew a foul for a shirt tug and maybe an elbow on the play, but a necessary physicality and a strong awareness and understanding of his role in his own final third shown bright.
The learning curve is real. Once Busio reads play better and learns from his mistakes, he will be more aggressive and purposeful in the proper moments. But that will not happen until he does what is perhaps the vital ingredient: take his defensive job and the results more personally. Like you did with Reynoso, don’t let anyone come into your house (or zone) and have his way, Gianluca. And lock the doors in danger spaces.
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain
And I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone
And came out with my soul untouched
Is Gianluca Busio shining because of the nature of the position he is playing or is he shining because of what he does in that position?
The answer lies in the ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ camp, in the symbiotic relationship; holding midfield allows Busio the opportunity to grow and to shine, and Busio adds his unique personality and shining abilities to it. There is no betrayal of who Busio is as a soccer player. The “6” is making him a more rounded soccer player.
There is an irony to Busio’s current status. The vivacious young attacker is plunged into a position often manned by a more wily, less flashy veteran, and he takes root. Who knows whether he is destined to go back to a more attacking role.
Well, my feet they finally took root in the earth
But I got me a nice little place in the stars
And I swear I found the key to the universe
In the engine of an old parked car
To further grow, Busio must attain comfort in all that is being a holding midfielder. After comfort, boldness must come. He must become more aggressive to influence the match in the proper moments. I do not think at 18 that Gianluca Busio is in danger of being complacent.
Has Busio supplanted the Barcelona-trained Ilie Sanchez (recently absent due to family issues) at holding midfield for Sporting Kansas City? Perhaps. Busio’s contract runs through 2020 with team options for 2021 and 2022. So he could be featured in the midfield for Kansas City for two more years.
But the line of suitors for his services will continue to grow. He holds an Italian passport. He has repeatedly mentioned his desire to play in Europe. Juventus? Manchester United? Napoli? Inter Milan? Roma?
For a potential-laden, modern day prospect (read not prodigy), Busio is right where he should be developmentally. Nothing more. Finishing this season getting lots of minutes, which it seems he will, will position him strongly for a move to Europe where his development can hit the next gear. Or, what the heck, he can just stay in Kansas City.