Nineteen minutes at the Bernabeu was all FC Barcelona needed today. Barca defeated hosts Real Madrid 3-0 in the Clasico, opening a nearly unassailable 14-point lead atop the 2017-18 La Liga table over their archrivals.
Luis Suarez at the fifty-fourth, Lionel Messi with a penalty at the sixty-fourth, and Aleix Vidal at the 90+3, were the scorers. But the story of this Clasico, one in which neither superstar, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, were the decisive factors—but in which Keylor Navas and Andre ter Stegen nearly were—was the one-sided duel between the coaches, which Barcelona’s Ernesto Valverde won hands down over Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane.
The officiating minutiae
Let’s get the secondary issues of the match out of the way first. In a match he mostly controlled in the first half, referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez lost his grip in the second half and allowed a number of unsportsmanlike behaviors he had been quick to anticipate and preempt in the first half. Watch replays of Sergio Ramos’ 59th minute foul on Suarez and a direct red might have been appropriate in lieu of the yellow awarded. Similarly, Suarez’s 56th minute foul on Casemiro, at the sideline, which precipitated Ramos’ ire, should have been a clear yellow.
To get the rest of the minutiae out of the way, let’s note that Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto, and Ivan Rakitic, each committed well-disguised hand balls in the Barcelona box, each stopping dangerous crosses, and none were called. Similarly, Messi’s assist on Vidal’s goal should have never happened as the ball the diminutive Argentine attempted to control at the sideline, right in front of the linesman, to start the play, was out of bounds. Replays clearly showed that the action should have been stopped before the goal-producing play began.
But let’s work ourselves toward the crux of the match. This game was decided off the pitch, by the coaches.
The first half
Zidane, who had the most at stake, took a series of gambles. He began by playing a 4-4-2 instead of the team’s more natural 4-3-3 (particularly given Gareth Bale was healthy and rounding into form) and placed Mateo Kovacic in midfield as a Messi shadow. In his defense, the coach had used this tactic in both legs of the recent Spanish Super Cup to positive effect.
Valverde countered with his customary 4-4-2. If Madrid were to win it would not be because Barca’s coach took a stab at innovating away from what had worked throughout an undefeated season.
The first half unfolded as Zidane had anticipated and Madrid controlled possession and most of the chances. The Merengues were atypically mobile and anticipatory and used up a lot of energy. At the second minute Barca had already conceded a corner which Raphael Varane headed at goal. Three minutes later Dani Carvajal had a shot on goal. And on it went with Madrid playing in the Barcelona half for most of the opening half-hour until, at the 30th minute Paulinho had a shot on goal on a quick counter which Navas had to save over the crossbar.
But then the game returned to the overwhelming Madrid control which they nevertheless were unable to turn into any score. The most glaring opportunity coming in the form of a cross to Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese striker, though, had a howler of a miss when he simply whiffed at a ball which arrived for him to take an unchallenged shot from about two yards left of the penalty spot.
Albeit the current Ballon d’Or winner would create or attempt to finish several plays where an outstanding ter Stegen, or the linesman, or a sliding defender, or the woodwork, would deny him a score. But despite this not being one of his better games, most of those chances were on target and required opposition intervention to deny a score.
The turning point
Zidane’s inability to read a game in progress from the sidelines is diametrically opposed to his legendary ability to do so as a player on the pitch, in the midst of the action. But to this deficiency we must now add his coaching staff’s inability to help him analyze what just happened when there is actually time to ponder while the opposition can do no further harm.
There can be little more dreadful than a half-time locker room conversation led by Zidane. In every single match the coach and his staff have had to consider tweaking the team’s line-up or strategy they have simply not been able to react.
Let’s beat a dead and buried horse. Karim Benzema was involved in five plays with real goal-scoring potential in the first half alone, only to muff four of them before they could ripen. These were plays where he variously muffed a reception, a pass, his positioning, or his follow-through for a return ball.
At the forty-second minute, Benzema, who again started another Madrid match ahead of Marco Asensio, Isco or Gareth Bale, had his fifth chance. This was a good if challenged chance from close in. The striker, who had a step on his marker, managed to hit the outside of the right post with a running header, while Barca keeper, ter Stegen, stood rooted to the opposite side of the goal. The ball was never on target.
That made five misses on five chances, all created by others—a 100% failure rate. Can there be a more deflating communal team feeling than witnessing such a conclusion to their efforts? One would think the math was easy to figure out—if 50% of your offense fails 100% of the time it is hard to mount an attack. And, if you don’t score you can’t win.
Yet, Zidane brought the same starting eleven onto the pitch for the second half. Valverde did the same, smiling.
The crux of the match
At the 53rd minute, Asensio and Bale began to warm-up. One can only wonder what the coach saw eight minutes into the second half that he had not seen in the previous 52 minutes. But, a minute after his epiphany, Barca scored their first goal.
Ten minutes after the subs had begun to warm up, Carvajal was ejected for a purposeful hand-ball that stopped a sure goal, and a minute after that, at the 64th minute, Messi scored the ensuing penalty. The subs warming up, though, must have needed more than the eleven minutes that had elapsed since they got up from the bench, to get ready to enter the match, since they continued to warm up on the sidelines.
Madrid was now missing a defender, though, and Zidane decided to replace…wait for it… Benzema. So, Nacho came in at the 66th minute. But the guys warming up for what was by then a third of the second half had yet to come in. One thing is to see the obvious out of one eye—we’re down a defender against the highest scoring team in La Liga—but another is to ignore what that other eye had previously seen—we are not scoring. When you are two goals down and only have a half-hour to play getting your offensive weapons into the match is the priority.
But, seemingly unbeknownst only to Zidane and his coaching staff, Barcelona proceeded to play keep away with the ball to ensure the subs that mattered, the ones who could score the goals Madrid desperately needed, the ones who would end up warming up for nearly half of the second half, could not come in. The visitors passed the ball forward twenty yards into the Madrid half only to then kick it back fifty yards to their defensive line, and then repeat the feat.
The Madrid players chasing those balls were now doing so shorthanded which ensured they were adding that level of effort to their full-out one of the first half. This allowed the comparatively rested Barca side to take over the game. It also ensured that when Madrid’s subs came in they would have precious few teammates capable of keeping up with them should the team mount any long-lasting attack.
It never crossed Zidane’s mind to tell one of his players to do something to stop the action and allow the subs in?
At the 72nd minute—nineteen minutes after they left the bench—Asensio and Bale came in, to play what would turn out to be the last 21 minutes of the most important match of Real Madrid’s evaporating La Liga season.