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.
There was a question floating around in the wind before El Clasico until officially being posed to Carlo Ancelotti in the pre-game press conference: Would last year’s 0 - 4 infiltrate the minds of Real Madrid’s players in the form of a psychological barrier? Ancelotti, confidently, didn’t believe so, and he was right.
After the match, Ancelotti said that the Clasico “had a Champions League atmosphere on a Sunday afternoon.” I had a similar thought before he said it, and I interpret it not just in the realm of the stadium’s atmosphere, but in the team’s belief, one that, in reality, shouldn’t have been doubted over a Clasico last season that was experimental, had avant-garde tactical inventions that wouldn’t have been risked had the league title not been done and dusted, and quite frankly, meant more to one team than the other.
After last season’s Clasico, Gerard Pique said on social media “We’re back.” and this was, mind you, months after they proclaimed a ‘moral victory’ in a Clasico earlier that winter. Since Pique’s tweet, Barcelona were eliminated from the Europa League, and Real Madrid won the double. After last night’s loss, Xavi claimed Barcelona ‘dominated’ Real in the first half. When pressed in the post-game press conference about running up the scoreline against Barcelona instead of a mere 3 - 1 victory, Ancelotti said “we’re interested in the three points, not a thrashing.”
Real Madrid didn’t play that dominant to suggest a thrashing was fair. A narrow win is a just result for a team that was better than their opponents without running up chance after chance. Maybe they could’ve created more transition attacks, but they didn’t. But while the scoreline is narrow in margin, the current state of both teams tells the story of a larger gap in mentality and sporting project.
Xavi said Real Madrid beat Barcelona in ‘maturity’ but not in ‘intensity’. The part about ‘intensity’ is almost objectively false, given that one player alone, Fede Valverde, probably single-handedly out-intensed the entire Barcelona squad; and Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and others had two-way engines that suffocated Barcelona in midfield. Eder Militao beat Robert Lewandowski to nearly every loose ball, and if Gavi was out-intensed anymore than he already was he would’ve turned into dust.
But Xavi’s point about being beaten in ‘maturity’ is a point to stand on. Real Madrid’s performance was efficient and professional. They allowed Barcelona’s back-line to carry the ball up the field and opted to close the space of Pedri and Frenkie de Jong instead. They isolated Barcelona’s front three, kept their touches well outside the box, and picked off the final ball with relative comfort. Barcelona’s biggest chance outside their goal — Lewandowski’s point blank miss in the first half — inflated their xG, given that it wouldn’t have counted as it was offside. During Barcelona’s spells on the ball, Ancelotti’s men kept their composure and head, and some of that, undoubtedly, stems from previous Champions League knockout encounters that far exceed the magnitude of this game. This group has gone through so much, it’s hard to rattle them.
What returned on Sunday night, and has been missing for large parts throughout this season, was efficiency on a low volume of chances. Out-performing xG was a staple of Real’s attack and was something that carried them all the way to their 14th Champions League title. Key moments, knockout punches. That’s all that Real Madrid needed, and often gets lost about them: They don’t need to jab you 100 times, instead they will uppercut the knockout blow once or twice and secure the bag.