Kiyan Sobhani’s column, on freeze-frame Clasico moments, tactical wrinkles, under-the-radar performances, and more.
These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
A win in this Clasico meant everything. Most Clasicos are pivotal, but not all have equal weight riding on them. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have won and lost Clasicos without the result significantly impacting the title race, and some have even been played with the title race being well over. Some of these melees are only about pride, and some of them are about much more. This one was the works — so much so that it may have been the most electric and important night at the Bernabeu since the 2018 semi-final against Bayern Munich.
In press row, most journalists who were neutral agreed that they wanted Real Madrid to win. A win for Barca meant a five-point gap and a subdued domestic campaign to write about. And even though both Real and Barca are still expected to drop points in a strong league where neither of them are at the peak of their powers, five points is not easy to make up against a team led by Lionel Messi — particularly when the tie-breaker has swung away from you.
But something intangible infused the Bernabeu along with the three points which took Real Madrid to the top of the table. Before the game, Sergio Ramos spoke about the the positive impact a Clasico win has on the team’s morale. The stage on Sunday was heightened, and two of the team’s vice captains — Marcelo and Dani Carvajal — raised the call and beat the drums. They championed Real Madrid’s flag into battle. They couldn’t possibly let the team lose again. There’s been too much losing in the last two seasons.
As a reminder, they still nearly lost anyway. Those are the margins of football. Barcelona were not particularly strong, but like the earlier Clasico at Camp Nou, they had the better chances, even if Real Madrid visibly looked like the team that was in control, or causing the most offensive chaos, at least. Courtois saved a Messi breakaway. Pique botched a wide-open header. Braithwaite and Arthur missed on the break too (with a hat-tip to Courtois). But this isn’t just about margins, it’s about football. Real Madrid had a psychological edge during their European three-peat. They — like any champion — created their own luck. They had heroic individual performances, and heroic moments — both offensively and defensively. Some of that returned on Sunday.
As another reminder: This could’ve been the equivalent of last season’s ‘week from hell’, where Real Madrid lost against Ajax and Barcelona. (Of course, nothing will ever be as bad as that. The team was decapitated in all three competitions in just one week. Two of those competitions were lost to Barcelona. The other, at the hands of Barcelona’s romantic partner, Ajax — on a night where Amsterdam invaded the Bernabeu and took over the city.) I was there during that week, as I was this week. Let me tell you: the mood at the end of the Manchester City game felt eerily similar to the Ajax funeral. It was filled with resignation. But everything flipped by the end of Sunday night. Cheers and chants were back. The fans were given a jolt. Crisis avoided, for now.
But psychology can only be measured in football writing so far. The tactical battle this team will need to overcome, particularly offensively, still feels vast. Still, there was a lot to take away from El Clasico — a game that will have effects long beyond the match itself.
Casemiro was unbelievable
In Casemiro’s best performance in his best season ever, the case is there to be made: This may have been Casemiro’s best performance as a footballer. He made several long distance switches just when you thought Barcelona had isolated and suffocated him on the flank; made line-breaking runs; made crucial interceptions; and defended Lionel Messi about as well as you possibly can. All this, on the back of maybe his worst performance of the season against Manchester City where he was a liability with the ball at his feet.
Seriously, he went from treating the ball like a raging sphere of lava against City, to doing things like this:
Casemiro’s ball-playing needed to be good against Barcelona, and it was. But it’s the other side of the ball where he bolted and fortified the spine of the team. He circled Messi like a hawk, and pounced into successful tackles against him in key areas.
Bare with me on this extra-long sequence, which starts with a Casemiro interception on a Busquets pass. Fast forward if you want to see the final dispossession on Messi in the end; but I’ve included the whole clip so you can see Casemiro’s movement as the team transitions into its defensive shape. Casemiro has Messi in his peripheral the entire time, even when he’s moving away from him to close other markers. The final tackle is ridiculous:
Not all defensive sequences were crisp. The team’s structure was not always air tight, and there were instances where both Messi and Vidal snuck in behind the midfield undetected — especially when Real Madrid gave the ball away coming out of the back and didn’t have time to get into their collective defensive stance. But Casemiro always had that extra gear to tap into, like some kind of Terminator who sprung into its coordinates when Messi touched the ball:
But it wasn’t just Messi that had to be dealt with. Antoine Griezmann and Messi often made the same runs at the top of the box, making it near-impossible to man-mark either of them. There had to be constant switching and communication among the defenders. But anyone who showed up at the top of the box had to face a Casemiro onslaught, including Busquets:
Defending all those runs can feel like an endless job, even against this defanged version of Barcelona. But part of the reason Barcelona’s attack was defanged was down to Casemiro taking their teeth out and shoving them somewhere else. He was constantly scanning and in-sync with the team’s press. Here he knows exactly when to hedge off his initial marker — Antoine Griezmann — before throwing Arturo Vidal around like he’s made of paper:
The Carvajal redemption arc
Dani Carvajal, like Casemiro, put in his worst performance of the season against Manchester City. His first half against Barcelona was not much better. The worrying giveaways continued, leaving little room for hope that anything would change in the second half:
That pass wasn’t the right one to make, but at least he was pressured before putting the team in a difficult spot. This one, higher up the pitch, just kills the attack:
Dani Carvajal didn’t come truly alive until the second half, but he did have one intervention just before half-time on Arturdo Vidal, which ensured the team got into the break on level terms:
It was around this moment where Carvajal decided he was going to take over the game. As soon as Semedo puts Sergio Ramos into a toaster, Carvajal realizes Varane can’t stick to Griezmann while giving Semedo a free lane. Carvajal then has to be ready to take a gamble and pounce on the right pass. Either that ball gets squared to Griezmann, or its cut back to Vidal — with both options being dangerous. Carvajal stays in between both, and closes Vidal’s shot as soon as it goes there. He sticks with the play to make sure De Jong and Messi don’t do any lingering damage.
Carvajal grew with each passing minute, like he was being charged up by some invisible power. He grew stronger as the game wore on. He was vocal in marshalling the team’s press higher up the pitch in the second half, came out on top on his defensive duels, and carved out chances from a pseudo-central role where he found himself on the left-hand side or down the middle on multiple occassions, overloading Barcelona’s midfield.
Carvajal’s role in that half befuddled Setien. What are you supposed to do with a right back that starts acting as a sporadic 10? You either exploit the heck out of it and make Zidane look bad, or just start treading water dealing with all the chaos. Barcelona just melted on several sequences not knowing how to deal with the sheer numbers in the press. Ter Stegen, normally a solid vertical passer, had no idea what to do with the ball at times.
Carvajal is the last player you’d expect to be popping up here:
Fede Valverde, productive right winger
Fede Valverde is far from your traditional right winger. He is not even a pseudo attacking midfielder that gets deployed on the wing at times (think Zidane as a player under Del Bosque, or Isco before his diamond role). Playing Fede on the right wing is something Diego Simeone would do.
But Simeone would never have Fede playing like this. Fede is a bowling ball offensively. He is direct with his runs and his movement creates space for others, both in the final third and progressing the ball out of the back. He is still underrated in what he brings to the table offensively.
But before we get to some of the things he does in the final third, it’s important to highlight what his movement does for team’s overall press-resistancy:
Fede moves into multiple zones. He does not leave Isco hanging after passing to him on the flank in what can easily end as a dead alley. He immediately sprints into a new passing triangle, leaving Umtiti chasing shadows while ultimately being dragged away from the ball by the end of the clip.
Fede will make unpredictable runs. Here, he’s the obvious pass, but points Carvajal to Benzema instead, knowing he can peel off Alba’s shoulder as the left-back gambles on cutting off the central pass. It’s a good example of ball-progression:
Even seemingly little actions give the team extra juice:
Zidane also just lets Fede loose on the right wing at times, where he acts as some kind of hybrid right winger that gets past his man with raw horsepower before putting a cross in. He did this in the SuperCopa. He did it again against Barcelona. People often ask: Who is the answer to Real Madrid’s right wing void? It might be someone who is not a right winger but can do a bunch of things in an asymmetrical scheme. That’s worked in the past with Luka Modric. It seems to work with Fede.
Barcelona aren’t as press-resistant as they used to be, and they haven’t looked good dealing with Zidane’s press this season. That’s also down to Real Madrid’s understanding and effort in the final third without the ball. The second half saw them go to another gear. Fede is good at reading those passes coming out of the back:
The return of clean sheets
It was the first clean sheet since shutting out Atletico Madrid in early February — right before the bad run of form started against Real Sociedad where the team conceded four goals and the defense dwindled.
The defense was far from perfect, but it at least showed signs of life. Besides, Courtois coming up big should count as part of the defense, even if relying on last ditch heroics is something you want to generally avoid by having a more airtight scheme.
Again, this was a story of two halves. I did not like how easily Real Madrid let Barcelona into the half-spaces unmarked in the first half. In deeper areas, Vidal was given too much space to help Barcelona advance the ball:
Everything went to a higher gear in the second half. While there were some counter-pressing moments in the first half, the pressing didn’t truly unsettle Barcelona consistently until the second half, where the team also pressed Ter Stegen’s goal-kicks really well. Once Real Madrid got attacking momentum, it fuelled them to win the ball back quickly in Barca’s half:
Big game Isco
Is this ‘16-17 Isco? Not yet. It’s close. After a year of turmoil — appendicitis, Solari (he’ll tell you those are both the same thing) — he’s rounded back into the important player he once was. We didn’t know what version of Isco still exists after a drop in form and a year-long hiatus. Now we know. As a reminder, Isco is still only 27.
What stood out on the broadcast from Isco is his long distance shooting, forcing Pique into a goal-line clearance, and his dribbling out of tight spaces. You can zoom out and find plenty more. His pressing remains elite, and he empties every ounce of energy on the field with his effort. His movement has been so good in two big games this season: PSG and Barcelona. He makes runs into the half-space where he should be getting the ball, but often doesn’t:
Real Madrid are struggling to score goals this season. The two they scored against Barcelona were from unlikely circumstances. They haven’t gotten many offensive bounces their way, and they may not get them against Manchester City. If the team is to unlock Guardiola at least twice later in March, they’ll need this version of Isco.