Football Features

“A star is born” – Five things learned as Real Madrid rout Barcelona in El Clásico to go top of La Liga

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:35, 1 March 2020

In a game of two halves, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-0 in El Clásico at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The win puts Los Blancos top of La Liga and gives them the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two sides, meaning that if both sides end the season level on points, Madrid would be crowned champions. What did we learn?

1. A star is born

Vinicius has long been a frustrating figure for Real Madrid fans. On the one hand he is a sensational dribbling talent, on the other hand he has the end product of a young Theo Walcott. So often the young Brazilian will torture an opposing defence with his pace and movement only to blaze the ball wide or fall over with the goal at his mercy. He does all the hard work and then luck deserts him at the key time.

Tonight, however, luck was on his side. After an excellent dribble down the left his wayward shot was deflected into the Barcelona net by Gerard Piqué. A superb moment for Vinicius, as evidenced by the emotional celebrations with his team-mates (especially fellow Brazilian Marcelo). What was most impressive was how he seized his moment: rather than being happy with his goal, he went hunting for another. He began dispossessing Barcelona defenders inside their own box, and forced an excellent stop from Ter Stegen late on.

With a Clásico winner before his 20th birthday what more can you say but Vinicius Junior… a star is born.

2. Setién’s poor Pep impression

Manchester City came to the Santiago Bernabeu and won 1-2 midweek, and Quique Setién was at the game. The Spaniard said he spoke to Guardiola afterwards and that, in terms of learning something from the game, “there are things [Manchester City] did which could help us and others we can’t develop or which do not interest us.”

Now tonight, Barcelona took the field in a 4-4-2 shape that was similar to the one that City used. So he had obviously taken that from the City game, but it was executed incorrectly. City played that way with three fast players (Kevin de Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus) on the field. This meant their transitions packed a punch. Barcelona lined up with no fast players on the pitch, and so couldn’t play at all like City did. One figured, given Setién’s comments about things they couldn’t develop, that he understood this.

But it seems he didn’t. And Barcelona were flat for the entire game, lacking the ability to really penetrate in attack the way City were able to (even before they scored Riyad Mahrez was constantly killing Madrid with his runs; Barcelona had no one like that). It was so strange given that Setién has won twice at the Bernabeu with Real Betis by playing an expansive game. And now he has a chance to play here with Barcelona he suddenly becomes a pragmatist?

A huge illustration of his error was that when they finally did get some pace in on the form of Martin Braithwaite; he almost scored with his first touch. Had the Dane started the game, or at least come on at half-time, then it’s likely Barcelona would have been able to pick up the win because of the added vertical threat.

After all, the game was on a knife-edge at the start of the second-half, and whilst in the Champions League Pep made the right substitutions at the right time, taking the game away from Madrid with ease – tonight Setién dithered, and when he made the right change it was too late as Madrid had played themselves into serious momentum, as evidenced by them scoring a minute after Braithwaite’s miss. After this the Blaugrana couldn’t mount an effective response as Madrid had their tails up and the match ended with Barcelona failing to score at the Santiago Bernabeu for the first time since 2006.

Quique Setién should stick to being himself, because he is no Pep Guardiola.

3. Madrid’s lucky break

Real Madrid’s lack of bite in attack has been evident pretty much all season. Los Blancos have conceded a league-best 17 goals this season, but their total of 46 goals scored is, whilst second, just three ahead of Real Sociedad’s total and a massive 16 fewer than Barcelona.

Karim Benzema is Madrid’s top scorer in La Liga with an impressive 13 goals, but after him it’s Sergio Ramos with just 5. Behind him? Toni Kroos on 3. Now Toni Kroos is a sublime midfielder who was amazing tonight, giving the ball away just once, but if he’s your third-highest goalscorer in La Liga then you’ve got problems.

Tonight, Los Blancos looked so flat as a team when they attacked. Even during their most dominant period midway through the second-half, their pressure didn’t feel as though it would result in a goal.

But Madrid kept on coming and what’s more, Barcelona failed to exert control over the tempo of the game to stem the Madrid attacks as they had done in the first-half. Isco forced a magnificent save out of Marc-André Ter Stegen, then had a header cleared off the line. Still Barcelona didn’t respond, and Madrid kept on coming. They just wouldn’t let up, and eventually the ball broke to Vinicius peeling in off the left-flank and the Brazilian shot at goal.

Now, Vinicius is not a great finisher. His big problem is a lack of final product when that product is a shot. He missed two golden chances against Manchester City in midweek and fluffed his lines a few times against Barcelona tonight. But this time Vinicius’ shot deflected off Gerard Piqué, and a shot that wasn’t going in suddenly skewed past Marc-André Ter Stegen.

After that, it was all Madrid. Again though, they failed to score until right at the death when Barcelona had everyone committed forward. Los Blancos dominated the second-half but such is their problem with scoring goals that they needed a lucky break to put the ball in the back of the net and pick up their first Liga Clásico win since Zinedine Zidane’s first spell in charge.

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4. Braithwaite proves essential

Martin Braithwaite has barely been a Barcelona player for two weeks but he’s already an essential part of the team. Not because he’s a world-class talent, but because he’s fast and direct and runs off the ball. It was a borderline criminal bit of squad planning that left Barcelona without a forward like that in the summer, and for the whole season they suffered from a lack of pace.

Having Antoine Griezmann paired with Leo Messi makes no sense if the third forward isn’t making runs in behind for them to find. Arturo Vidal wasn’t capable of that, Ansu Fati definitely is but also is 17 so you don’t want to overexpose him, and Ousmane Dembélé and Luis Suárez won’t play again this season. The solution is already crystal clear: Martin Braithwaite must start in attack in La Liga and when he’s unavailable in Europe, Ansu Fati must get the nod.

Barcelona without pace in attack has no chance of playing percentages. Everything has to be perfect. Tonight we saw this play out: yes Antoine Griezmann missed a sitter in the first-half but the pressure on him to make that shot was enormous because how many chances were Barcelona even creating? With pace in attack, they have so many more chances to, well, create chances. Braithwaite showed this by conjuring something from nothing seconds after coming on and the most dominant player on the pitch was also the fastest: Vinicius Junior.

5. La Liga is wide open

Barcelona could have struck a decisive blow in the title race tonight, instead they wasted their chance and Los Blancos seized the initiative. They now sit top and with the head-to-head tiebreaker in their favour, they know Barcelona will need a points gap to be crowned champions.

The thing is, the title could still go either way. As anaemic as Barcelona were tonight they have looked so much brighter since Quique Setién has taken charge and you’d expect that he will learn some important lessons tonight. Meanwhile Madrid may have a rock-solid defence but they are still going to have trouble regularly scoring goals and you’d expect they, and Barcelona, will drop more points before the season is out.

La Liga has one hell of a title race on its hands, albeit because both teams are rather flawed than both peerless.