We live in a world where it’s all about recycling — what can you do, healthily, happily and usefully with what’s left over. A message which the two Clasico coaches interpreted absolutely differently after Real Madrid‘s 3-1 win over Barcelona at the Camp Nou, leaving Ronald Koeman looking out of date and the previously under-pressure Zinedine Zidane with the sheen of the modern, forward-thinking 21st-century man.
This was already a unique match in so many aspects.
Never before in the 245-match history of this classic contest had the sides been coached by two guys who scored iconic winning goals in Champions League finals, Zidane in 2002, Koeman ten years earlier.
Never before had the Catalunya v Castilla clash been played in an empty stadium with 340 skeleton staff there instead of 99,000 screaming, fanatical supporters.
Never before had the referee been able to look to his side and see his brother running the line.
Unique facts built into the DNA of Madrid’s 3-1 win, which means that they’ve blocked Barcelona out of the last three Clasicos (two wins and a draw) and prevented Lionel Messi from scoring for the sixth straight time — his joint-worst run in this showpiece. But it was something ultra-traditional which won the match.
The “how to use what’s left over” factor.
Zidane’s squad hasn’t been replenished this season, finances being what they are in a pandemic and ahead of what looks like a capture of Kylian Mbappe (likely for more than €150 million) next summer. But even after some good sales and loans the French coach has a massive muscular squad.
Koeman has made it crystal clear that he acutely feels the absence of an outright centre-forward — something he’ll try to remedy by buying Lyon‘s Memphis Depay in January. However, the Dutchman has a vast array of superbly talented footballers many of whom would be the envy of blue riband clubs around the world.
For that reason, despite the starting XIs carrying massive interest and significance, there was always the probability that each team would need to use their resources in reserve to win this match in the latter stages.
The fact is that this should have been advantage Koeman. The fact was that it was, distinctly, advantage Zidane. It was the Frenchman who knew how to best recycle his resources and do the right things with the product left over from his original XI.
All the while, Koeman sat and stared at the residue of his squad on the bench, but for the longest time rejected the idea of going green, fell into the trap of thinking that one must cast away everything except the shiny objects. Instead of adapting and re-using.
The consequences were stark.
Let’s start with the losers. In a first half when they possibly left the pitch imagining that they could have had a goal advantage, there were positives. No question about it.
Not many 19-year-olds will make a Clasico debut as assured, important and impactful as Sergino Dest. He played as if he was 25, as if facing Madrid was a commonplace thing and, importantly, as if Koeman had been spot-on when insisting that Barcelona abandon the deal they’d struck to take Norwich’s Max Aarons at right-back and sign the Ajax defender instead.
Ale Moreno praises the performance of Sergino Dest in his first-ever El Clasico despite Barcelona’s 3-1 defeat.
His double block in the penalty box in the first half was then eclipsed by the cleverness of positioning which allowed him, time after time, to patrol behind Clement Lenglet and Gerard Pique and, single-handedly, stop Madrid from going 1v1 against Neto.
More positives? Yes. Ansu Fati shone. Not just for his goal but for his football arrogance, his demanding of the ball off senior teammates, his knowledge of how to play with Messi (again), and the clear evidence that this is a phenomenon. Apparently, one who, even petit and only 17, can start his journey from left-wing to centre-forward.
Jordi Alba, Neto, Lenglet, and Pique all hit their marks, too. But this is the beginning of the tale as to how Koeman failed where Zidane won the day.
Throughout the first half, Pedri, an absolute diamond of a footballer, failed to have his day. He looked significantly daunted by the task at hand, failed to impact, and increasingly drifted out of the game.
Coutinho was worse. What is it with this guy that when he is with Liverpool he functions, when he’s at Bayern he can cut the mustard, playing a bit-part role in winning the treble… but when he’s around Messi he shrinks.
The Brazilian is a decent sort, he’s evidently talented and he’s the only current champions league holder in the Barcelona squad — but he was paper-thin against Madrid. Error-prone, failing to press or track, unable to make a significant difference, and author of a pretty unimpressive miss when presented with a headed chance to score a second Barca goal.
By half-time in a balanced game with the scoreline at 1-1 these two players had, respectively, a pass accuracy of under 50% (Pedri) and under 60% (Coutinho) — that’s astonishingly poor for footballers of their calibre.
Busquets, too, was off the pace, not for the first time. But it wasn’t simply that he lost races for the ball or was unable to get away from his man — he gave the ball away regularly, sometimes in desperately dangerous positions and often without being under what might be explanatory pressure from rivals.
If Koeman, by half-time, had introduced Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, and Miralem Pjanic for these three, nobody who had been watching could have said it was out of tune with the needs of the game.
Instead, Barcelona’s Dutch coach waited until his team was 2-1 down with NINE minutes left to make any changes at all. Utterly bizarre. Especially after the twinkle-toed, energetic, smooth passing display his side featuring Francisco Trincao and Dembele, had given in midweek while thrashing Ferencvaros.
Now the champions.
Zidane has made a big habit of changing matches from his amble bench this season. In this instance it was crucial. Match-winning even.
Ignore those who try to tell you that Madrid were lucky, or favoured by the penalty which Sergio Ramos tucked away. And why wouldn’t he. He’s the player with more Clasicos than anyone in history and his fifth goal in this fixture turned things — that’s something like 24 straight penalties without a miss. He’s a metronome.
What Madrid did was grow into the game, as their maturity and lust for victory outdid Barcelona. Zidane’s team has looked listless, short on energy and, frankly, failing to complete basic tasks like pressing and running with your direct rival — hence their problems of the last week in defeat to Cadiz (for the first time in history at home) and to Shakhtar Donetsk (which could have been by a four-goal margin if Thibaut Courtois hadn’t been brilliant)
Here they kept plugging away, increasingly confident, increasingly sure that they would win, and once Ramos put Los Blancos ahead, they simply didn’t stop for a second to consider shutting up shop.
On the theme of recycling resources, Madrid lost their right-back to injury for the third time this season (following Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola) when Nacho limped off just before half-time but Zidane’s replacement shone. Lucas Vazquez came on and looked like he was a born right-back — and with a top reading of the game, too.
Advantage number one to Zidane.
This season he’s had a golden habit of tapping a player on the shoulder, sending him into the action and good things happening. It started at Betis (a 3-2 win from 2-1 down) when Borja Mayoral, a sub, won the penalty from which Ramos made it 3-2.
Against Valladolid, he sends Vinicius Junior on in the 58th minute, and seven minutes later the 20-year-old Brazilian scores the winner. Away to Levante, Rodrygo (remember the name!) comes on with 20 minutes left and, in added time, provides the wonderful breakaway assist pass for Benzema to score and kill the game definitively.
As disastrous as Madrid’s performance against Shakhtar in midweek was, he sent Vinicius on and he scored a goal in under a minute to begin what promised, and ultimately failed, to be a fightback for a draw.
And the Clasico? At 2-1, Barcelona are clearly in it and Zidane must be waiting, thinking, when will Koeman unleash the pace, the experience, and the goal threat of Trincao, Griezmann, and Dembele? When, as importantly, will he swap Busquets for Pjanic who’ll be a better pivot partner for Frenkie de Jong as the season progresses.
But instead of stroking his chin and waiting to “match” Koeman’s subs Zidane rolled the dice and recycled his resources.
With Modric on the pitch for Federico Valverde, and 2-1 up at the Camp Nou with only about fifteen minutes left, Zidane instructed his players to continue on the front foot. NOT to close the game down and defend.
There were stages in that last throw of the game when Madrid’s ball carrier had five men in white shirts ahead of him — it was “go for the kill football”.
Eventually it worked. Modric made a gorgeous through ball to Vinicius, who still had the legs for a sprint, Neto’s save rebounded outwards. There were the two subs, first Rodrygo collecting possession and doing that beautiful thing — stopping and thinking in split seconds — before squaring to Modric.
The Ballon d’Or winner did what Ballon d’Or winners do — danced one way, sent Neto to the ground, and then bent the ball in off the outside of his right foot. It was sumptuous
It was sub-driven and it was something which was available to Koeman, who sent on a cavalry charge of substitutes in the 81st minute thus brutally limiting their impact. There are a million stories in a Clasico and debate will rage. But Zidane beat Koeman — despite starting at a disadvantage regarding the “extra” resources he had at his disposal to recycle.
Time for Koeman to go green. First with envy at the three points with which Madrid return to Spain‘s capital. Secondly, to learn to recycle his resources off the bench. It’s all the rage now Ronald. And for good reasons.