Real Madrid’s 3-1 victory in El Clasico on Saturday afternoon was exactly what Zinedine Zidane needed off the back of a pair of humiliating results over the past week.
It wasn’t just the result which would’ve satisfied the Frenchman and the Los Blancos faithful, but the performance too.
Following a frenetic start which saw Ansu Fati cancel out Federico Valverde’s opener inside eight minutes, the two rivals played out a first-half which almost threw those watching back to the 2008-2012 days where this fixture was, without reasonable doubt, the greatest spectacle the sport had to offer.
But instead of Pep Guardiola pulling the Catalonian strings, on this occasion, it was Ronald Koeman marauding the home dugout.
His appointment was undoubtedly questioned by some and although the early signs suggest that La Blaugrana could be transitioning into a prosperous new era under the Dutchman – until Xavi inevitably replaces him next summer – this certainly wasn’t Koeman’s finest hour from a coaching perspective.
He took until the 80th minute to make changes, after Sergio Ramos had given Real a 2-1 lead from the spot, despite the ineffective displays of Philippe Coutinho and Pedri. Then, once the long-overdue attacking trio entered the fray, Barcelona lost all resemblance of a structure, such was the ‘throw them on and pray’ nature of Koeman’s substitutions.
Thus, with the Catalans totally imbalanced, they failed to test Thibaut Courtois’ goal in the closing stages while they left themselves hopelessly exposed to the counter at the other end. It was no surprise that a twinkle-toed Luka Modric secured a Real victory in the final minute of normal time.
There are things to like from Koeman’s Barça; the trusting of youth, the dynamic down the left and the fluidity of their front four. But today, they looked naive and the coach has to take much of the responsibility for their ever-dwindling second-half display.
Nevertheless, there was a more crucial factor in Real’s Clasico triumph. They absolutely dominated the midfield battle at the Camp Nou.
Some reports emerged pre-match regarding a possible switch to 4-4-2 – the system Zidane deployed effectively in the last Clasico (a 2-0 victory) – with Valverde out on the right tasked with tracking the runs of Jordi Alba from left-back.
However, Zizou opted for the most typical of Los Blancos lineups, sticking with the 4-3-3. It was Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Valverde who occupied the three midfield spots and the triumvirate were immense.
While on paper it seemed Real would enjoy a numerical superiority in midfield against Barça’s pivot, the nature of the likes of Pedri and Coutinho to drift inside from wide areas and occupy spaces between the lines meant it was, in fact, the visitors’ midfield who were outnumbered. This was further exacerbated by Lionel Messi dropping in from his false nine role to almost function as a number ten.
Zidane’s trio had their work cut out but they were incredibly diligent in their defensive work. A staggered shape prevented gaps from opening up between the lines frequently, while a well-orchestrated central press ensured that plenty of Barcelona’s attacks were cut out at source.
Barca’s pivot of Sergio Busquets and even the press-resistant Frenkie de Jong seemed overwhelmed by the visitors’ intensity, with Real using Busquets as a trigger to press to tremendous effect. They were able to take advantage of the ageing Spaniard’s lack of athleticism throughout the contest.
On the occasions where Barcelona had success penetrating centrally, so often was either Casemiro or Kroos savvy enough to recover the ball working barely within the laws of the game. The Brazilian, however, did have make some tremendous – and totally legal – recoveries on Saturday. Kroos, meanwhile, notched a game-high four tackles as the trio combined for nine overall.
But it was perhaps Valverde who stole the show despite his afternoon being cut short through injury. It was a masterclass in box-to-box midfield play as the young Uruguayan reminded us of his unique talent. He covered every blade of the Camp Nou grass, with his surges from midfield – as highlighted Real’s first – causing Barca’s pivot and defence all sorts of problems.
Even Casemiro started to receive possession between the lines at times, while Kroos had a good chance in the second period following a late run into the Barcelona box. The German controller was typically efficient with the ball, completing 66 passes at a success rate of 93.9%. His five ‘key passes’ also topped the contest by some distance. The next best was two.
Nevertheless, their rather unorthodox approach to attack had caught Koeman and Barcelona off guard.
Thus, with Casemiro screening, Valverde marauding and Kroos controlling, the dynamic established in the Real Madrid midfield on Saturday afternoon was perfect. Totally harmonious, and it helped the visitors establish control and thwart the hosts as the contest wore on.
This sort of rugged, astute display has been the blueprint’s of Zidane Real ever since he took the reins for a second time, with their tremendous midfield three encapsulating the Frenchman’s approach in Saturday’s Clasico.
This was a huge victory for Los Blancos, as they attempt to hold off a potential season of stagnation following a quiet summer window.