After a few days packed with overreactions to the Madrid-Barça, it’s time to cut through the clutter and see what’s next for both clubs. Granted that the following reflections have matured as my closest relatives and friends kept filling my glass with top-quality wines and spirits – pretty much any wine that you drink with someone you love improves immensely –, so some of these comments might belong to different phases of the drunken state. In any case, I do believe that the effect of the alcohol has enrichened the depth of these thoughts, rather than the opposite.
The match has already been analysed in painstaking detail, as usual, but if you want a lighter, yet more insightful review here you have Phil’s. What has surprised me is that most analyses have treated the match as though it were the full season. It indeed represented well what has happened so far in La Liga, but it’s obviously a huge leap of faith to believe that these 90 minutes will fatally mark the rest of the term in all competitions.
Both clubs won and lost on Saturday because they did well or poorly those same things they’ve been doing well or poorly since September. As Real Madrid wasted chances, their energy and perhaps their self-confidence waned, a movie that their supporters have seen too many times this season. You can’t understate the importance of putting away a scoring opportunity and its impact on the team’s intensity. And of course, missing chances as badly as Real Madrid’s forwards have been missing this season kills whatever faith the rest of the squad might have in any given match.
In Barcelona’s case, they have also played a few matches like this one since Ernesto Valverde took over. Against Atletico, they looked hesitant in their first half, but improved steadily and finished dominating the match in every aspect. In Spanish, we’d say they cooked the match. On Saturday, this was reinforced by Real Madrid’s surrender since the opening minutes of the second half, but the Azulgranas had already grown in the final third of the first half. They know well how to manage a top-level match.
Plenty has been said about Luis Suárez’s goal, but I found two points that went almost unnoticed. First, supposedly Real Madrid had been pulled back by Zidane after half time to catch Barcelona at the counter. Then, how is it possible that Kroos misplaces a pass in the final third of the pitch, presses Busquets and – although Sergio’s manoeuvre is excellent – makes him lose a few seconds, and even with all that field up front for Barcelona and precious time for Real Madrid to organize its defence, the play becomes a counter?
The fact is that most of the team hadn’t changed their approach to wait for Barcelona after the break, or even more likely, they don’t really know how to sit back. As the play unfolded, the fullbacks were nowhere to be found, as neither tracked back on time to prevent Sergi Roberto (right) or Suárez (left) to finish the play. Casemiro had gone back to mark Iniesta man-to-man, similarly to Kovacic with Messi. And thus Rakitic found the motorway free, straight until Real Madrid’s box.
The growth of the Croatian in a central midfielder position has been remarkable. Having played on one side or another since he joined Barcelona, he did extremely well next to Busquets, and not only was he instrumental in the most important play of the match, but he was alert on defence. A few of his interceptions frustrated his illustrious opponents.
The second aspect is that Luis Suarez scored. When you watch the match again – I’ve done it three times, among glasses of wine — it comes as a surprise because, leaving aside his usual range of antics, he did pretty much everything wrong at the Bernabeu, except for the goal. He missed a couple of glorious chances fabricated by Mr Messi, and probably as a reflection of his lack of confidence, he decided to pass the ball in another two occasions in which any self-respecting number 9 would have taken a shot.
Which takes us to the kettle, Karim Benzema. One of Zidane’s main traits since he took over Real Madrid has been meritocracy, with one mindboggling exception: Mr Benzema. It’s not only that he does not score, which is something that Real Madrid fans had almost taken as a trait of the French man. His ability to improve any play that went through him has turned into the opposite: he screws up great plays with a wrong pass, a poor first touch, a defective shot.
How Zidane refuses to see this is hard to explain. While there’s no real alternative to Suarez on Barcelona’s bench, there’s at least three options for Benzema in Real Madrid’s. Insisting on starting Benz damages the team, the atmosphere and the intensity with every mistake he makes on the pitch.
Zidane changed his team’s usual approach twice in this match: first, starting Kovacic. In this one, I agree with Phil that he played well in the first half. His infantile marking mistake in the second half had to do more with his – and his coach’s – understandable obsession with Messi than with a real error. That said, Zidane’s decision made his team more hesitant. And this only got worse with the team’s retreat after the break. This squad does not know how to play like this.
In fact, against Barcelona Zidane showed a lack of confidence in his line-up that is the exact opposite of what we saw against Juventus in Cardiff. In June, he stuck to his guns with Isco and the team responded, especially in the second half. How different these two matches were show how important it is to keep your confidence in the side.
The French coach now faces his toughest situation since he became Real Madrid’s manager, and the only option is to go back to what he did brilliantly last season: meritocracy, time for the youngsters against weaker opposition and ambition to press up in every match.
Zidane’s doubts are in stark contrast with Valverde’s firm command. Indeed, he took his gambles at the Santiago Bernabeu, and they worked. Having the classy Sergi Roberto as the right fullback could have been costly, as he got burned three times by Kroos, Ronaldo and Marcelo in situations that could have ended up in Barcelona trailing during the first half. Again, it was a calculated gamble that paid off as the match opened up and Sergi Roberto started to carry the ball forward, helping his team to threaten Navas.
But the fact is that Valverde has been building this version of his team with patience and calm for the last two months. He’s reached the end of 2017 with a four-man midfield that plays well together, something that hadn’t been the case in a long while for his club. He has steel, work-rate and defence in Busquets, Rakitic and Paulinho, and plenty of different offensive options in Raki, Paulinho and of course Iniesta. He’s recovered the Messi-Alba connection, the forgotten Vermaelen, has used Semedo and Sergi when required… In summary, he has a clear view of what he wants to do, and even with injuries, he’s been able to structure the team to make the most out of its members. Something very similar to what Zidane did last season.
For Valverde, the challenge now will be to integrate Dembele in the rotations and keep everyone happy with them. The intimidating thing is that Suarez is bound to improve at some point, so we haven’t seen the ceiling of this Barcelona yet.
Zidane needs to take a hard look at what has happened in this last quarter of 2017. Time to make tough decisions and recover the spirit of Cardiff. Even if some supporters may miss last season’s squad, he’s got enough to make this one work a lot better.