Football Features

“Sergio Ramos Does. Not. Miss.” – Five things learned as Zidane humiliates Koeman in wide open Clásico win

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:25, 24 October 2020 | Updated: 9:42, 30 March 2021

In a game of two halves, Real Madrid held their nerve to beat Barcelona 1-3 at the Camp Nou.

The result moves Madrid top of the table, leaving Barcelona six points back (albeit with a game in-hand) in 10th. What did we learn?

1. Sergio Ramos Does Not Miss

When Sergio Ramos steps up to shoot from the penalty spot, there is an unerring sense of inevitability. You just know he’s going to put the ball into the back of the net. Never has a player exhibited such wondrous mental strength as Ramos, and so he is obviously lights out from the spot where mental strength is just as important as technique.

Ramos was absent as Los Blancos lost midweek to Shakhtar, but Real Madrid’s cult leader returned just in time for the Clásico and put in a solid display at the back where his leadership returned Raphael Varane to his imperious form. But where he was most influential, as usual, was in attack. When Madrid needed a hero, Ramos won a penalty with a superb bit of theatricality, diving the opposite direction to where he was being pulled. VAR gave the spot-kick, and Ramos stepped up to make it 24 penalties taken, 24 penalties scored.

Sergio Ramos Does. Not. Miss.

2. Dest makes his mark

Your first Clásico is often a difficult experience, especially if you’re playing in defence. Sergino Dest, the first ever American to play in the Clásico, made it look incredibly easy. Ronald Koeman pushed hard for the right-back this summer, and on this display you can absolutely see why Koeman made Dest such a priority.

The youngster was just flawless down the right-side of the pitch, attacking with intelligence. But Sergi Roberto can do that. Where Dest really excelled was in defence, keeping a lid on every Real Madrid attack that came down his flank. It was remarkable to see a 19-year-old look so composed in what has long been a problem position for the Blaugrana.

Madrid won the game, but Dest came out with enormous credit. Barcelona’s new starting right-back.

3. The sun has set on Sergio Busquets

All good things must come to an end, and this Clásico saw the end of Sergio Busquets. Not literally, of course, but the Spaniard who just two years ago was arguably the best midfielder in the world has declined so massively at such a remarkable speed that his dismal display in this Clásico was simultaneously a massive shock and not even a little bit surprising.

Busquets was second to every ball, and positionally suspect defensively. The chasms in behind him for Madrid to flood into were huge, and of course that’s where Real Madrid’s goal came from as the Spaniard didn’t track Fede Valverde’s run.

Frenkie de Jong is clearly the future of this midfield, and the comfort he clearly displays playing next to Miralem Pjanic in the Champions League points the way to a solution for Ronald Koeman. All he has to do is make the call as decisively as he did with Luis Suárez. It’s hard to see Barcelona winning a big game against a good opponent until he does.

4. Toni Kroos struts his stuff

You have to feel for Toni Kroos, because as good as he’s been over the years for Real Madrid, he’s never been able to dominate a Clásico. That’s not because of any lack of quality, but because he’s always played with superior footballers. Be that Luka Modric on his team, or Sergio Busquets for Barcelona. Those two have had many titanic duels whereas Kroos has been a set-piece merchant who usually gets dribbled past.

Not today, however. With Busquets’s faded force hobbling Frenkie de Jong’s ability to influence the game, and Modric’s role as a super-sub, Kroos got to strut his stuff on the Camp Nou pitch. The German had the most touches (90), passess (66) and passes completed (62) of any Madrid player. He also created a game-high 5 chances and made a team-high 4 tackles! Toni Kroos finally got to dominate a Clásico.

5. Different levels of manager

Zinedine Zidane vs. Ronald Koeman is one of the few managerial battles that you’d like to see as an actual battle. But whereas you’d back Koeman to do well in a fistfight, in terms of matching managerial wits this was like one of those Mike Tyson fights from the 80’s that’s over almost before it’s begun.

Koeman picked a good side to start, he took some risks. It was nice. Zinedine Zidane played a solid 4-3-3 and tried to break in behind Barcelona. Tactically the two were even for the majority of the match. In fact you could say tactically neither manager is anything special, as this game never really evolved beyond 4-2-3-1 vs. 4-3-3 (well, until the very end).

But mentally and strategically, this was a fascinating battle. For all of Koeman’s early risk with a line-up containing three teenagers, two of which are 17, he played the match itself very conservatively. After an impressive first-half where only a miraculous save from Thibaut Courtois kept Los Blancos level, the second was an absolute horrorshow.

It was clear from just the first-half that Sergio Busquets and Coutinho were nowhere near good enough to play in this game and Barcelona had the options on the bench (and the extension of five available substitutions) to replace them both at half-time. Yet Koeman declined, and then didn’t make a single change until the 81st minute of the game, nearly a full 20 minutes after Barcelona had gone behind.

And when he did make subs, all he did was throw forwards on for midfielders, the way that Steve McClaren used to do. It was the basest and most rudimentary idea in football and betrayed Koeman as a man of zero ideas.

Zinedine Zidane, by contrast, never overextended his team. When he had to make changes, like removing Nacho through injury, his replacement was Lucas Vazquez rather than Eder Militao; that is to say: he was proactive.

Madrid came out in the second-half and continued to play at the same level of the first. They weren’t brilliant, but they were relentless where Barcelona were flagging. Soon after taking the lead, Zidane brought on Luka Modric to add more control to midfield. This is not a tactical idea, but a strategic one. Later he made a simple change to replace Marco Asensio for Rodrygo, which was just keeping fresh legs in attack.

Zidane was doing the bare minimum, but it was more than enough to confound Ronald Koeman who looked totally out of his depth. Zidane’s changes were later justified when Rodrygo passed it to Modric to score the game-killing third goal. The Frenchman has now won three and drawn three of the Clásicos he has managed at the Camp Nou, never losing in the home of Madrid’s arch enemy.

And until Barcelona gets a coach who can out-think him and use their squad more strategically, he never will.

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