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What We Can Take Away From El Clasico

Kiyan Sobhani’s column: This did not feel like a traditional Clasico, and naturally, distractions were present, but what are some things Zidane will take away?

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid: La Liga Photo by Adria Puig/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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.

The aftermath of Real Madrid’s 0 - 0 draw at Camp Nou on Wednesday night — the first goalless draw in a Clasico in 17 years — saw Real Madrid fans feel snubbed of a victory. Not least because they played better than Barcelona — but because they were robbed of two penalties too. They felt the larceny so unjust that the entire organization — from Director of International Relations Emilio Butrageuño and Captain Sergio Ramos, to the social media team which manifested the club’s wishes on Twitter — were publicly vocal about Varane getting fouled in the box twice. And not just passively either. No one danced around it as they usually might. The league campaign could come down to one or two points. These fine margins matter.

But this game was a lot more than just two decisions. Actual (good) football was played, and there are things Real Madrid can take away from Wednesday night that will give them good fuel heading into the rest of the season.

And there are plenty of takeaways. Since October, Zidane has given us a glimpse of the three-peat team. He’s revealed a part of that dynasty in short bursts. The whole cloak has yet to be lifted, and if I were to guess, all we’ve seen is a pin-size hole of the team’s ceiling, but this team is now closer to that three-peat form than it was to last season’s meltdown.

It required some patience. It was hard to sing this same tune back in September when there were glaring issues and the stench of whatever happened in ‘18 / ‘19 still lingering. And, who knows if there are still regressions awaiting. This is football — the least sure thing we could possibly write about.

Wednesday’s match had kinks — some high-volume shooting and little clear-cut chances carved out. Defensively it was good, but at times patchy. Keep in mind: This was all done without the usual (and potent) left flank, with both Hazard and Marcelo out injured. Real Madrid didn’t have the natural offensive threat down the left side, and without any pure winger on that flank, Mendy’s defensive performance should be noted with an asterisk. He was important in sealing his side; whereas Carvajal had defensive production from Bale on the right to lend a hand.

After some time to reflect on Wednesday’s Clasico performance, it’s worth noting a few tactical wrinkles to ponder as these two teams dance around each other in the standings heading into the winter break ahead of the ultimate race.

Let’s not let the officiating suck the life out of the football completely.

The takeaways:

Casemiro and Valverde together gives you elite defensive coverage

Think about how much this tandem makes sense on paper. Casemiro’s been positionally disciplined for a good two months now and counting. The team doesn’t sweat his bombarding runs anymore, which means he acts as a safety net as the anchor. His ability to sweep the midfield means Real Madrid can counter-press and bring a higher line to the opponent’s half. That extra lynchpin between midfield and defense makes the lives of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane that much easier.

Then jostle in Fede. No one on the team covers as much ground as him. Real Madrid has so much attacking talent. For them to thrive, it only makes sense to have Fede and Casemiro together to relieve the pressure of the team’s transition defense. Modric’s legs aren’t what they used to be. Fede will never be Modric stylistically, but those two have an underrated resemblance when it comes to helping the team wherever it’s needed. Ground-coverage really matters for Zidane. He’s said so publicly. Fede himself said of his role earlier in the fall that his job is to “press, go, and return.” And eventually, to “arrive in the box”.

The above sequence is low-key a perfect play to showcase the cohesion between Casemiro and Fede. The team had lost possession seconds earlier. Fede and Casemiro go on red alert immediately. As the ball goes to Antoine Griezmann, Fede runs and funnels the Croatian’s path into a Real Madrid trap where Casemiro ultimately reads the play and the ball is retained in a good position. There was a nice coherence in the team’s off-ball structure for large stretches in this game.

Real Madrid were not perfect defensively, but that’s almost unfair to state. Messi created things — whoop-de-doo. No matter how good you defend, he will ‘get his’ the same way James Harden or Steph Curry will on any given night. Messi was still relatively kept in check. The biggest chance of the game came from the unstoppable Messi to Alba diagonal dagger-ball just before half-time. Messi fumbled another clear-cut chance in the second half. Zidane’s men held Barcelona to an xG of just .72 at home. Let that sink in!

This Casemiro tackle on Luis Suarez is just too good not to shoehorn in:

Fede won’t show up in any glaring way on the stat sheet. His inclusion gives Casemiro, and others, good relief on both ends of the field. Casemiro was the best player on the pitch Wednesday night.

Casemiro’s passing in tight spaces

I thought about that moment for nearly 48 hours straight. That play should’ve been dead. Casemiro was full-steam ahead and had seemingly already lost his window to play the square pass to Kroos, or slip Benzema through ahead of him. He somehow pulls off the best case scenario — sucking three Barca players into a vortex before making an outrageous Rondo-behind-the-back dish to get the team in transition. I stood out of my seat.

Here’s one more:

The margins on that pass are very fine. If that back-heel doesn’t wrap behind Ivan Rakitic, Real Madrid are in trouble. But Casemiro gets it just right. His passing was, overall, good. One classic Casemiro giveaway in the second half occurred, and he took a yellow card shortly after. Overall, it’s safe to say Casemiro has steadily improved on the ball as he ages.

Side to side

This has been a ploy for a few games straight now. Real Madrid don’t force the issue offensively. Sometimes they probably should make a bigger effort to make off-ball runs in Zone 14. But the general idea is: move the defense around, side to side, without surrendering possession. Eventually something will budge. Someone will slip. Someone on the defensive line will switch off.

This is more of a ‘take what the defense gives you’ sequence — a testament that Barcelona actually had a solid defensive structure in this game. People expect more from Barcelona, who had a poor offensive performance at home. If they did anything right, it was defend. And those long spells of possession show something that not enough people have discussed: Yes, Real Madrid controlled play, limited chances, and outshot their opponents. But how many clear chances did they carve out by the end of it? Eight of their shots were outside of the box.

Again, it is really harsh to punish Real Madrid for the lack of goals. As we stated on the post-game podcast, while many will point to xG on a night like this, that data won’t produce Mendy’s marginal offside in the build-up to the goal (audio clip here), and more importantly, it won’t register the additional 1.5 xG spike the two penalties would’ve provided.

This game didn’t open up mostly because Barcelona didn’t let it open up — and when they were stretched, Real Madrid just couldn’t get that final pass or shot quite right. And that’s probably why many neutrals, almost understandably, didn’t find this game exciting. Barcelona clogged passing lanes and were patient defensively — while panicky with the ball at their feet. That’s not how Clasicos generally go in the modern era.

Things don’t get much easier from this point on. Real Madrid host Athletic (a team that has sustained good form this season) without Casemiro in the first hurdle post-Clasico-hangover. Predicting anything that happens next is silly unless you’re Doctor Strange. But, no one will stop you for getting at least a little hopeful that the team has started to hit another gear, and that the offense will be more efficient when Hazard comes back.

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