The first half of the El Clasico played at the Bernabeu was one of the most one-sided games in recent times. The game was akin to a training session for the Real Madrid players; the defenders had moments when they exhibited the full range of their skillset; the midfielders completely bossed the centre of the park, giving the Catalans the run around; and the attackers were enjoying themselves with casual nutmegs, sombreros and back-heels to chants of olès from Madridistas. They had waited a long time for a game like this.
It was not looking like a Clasico by any stretch of the imagination; it looked like one of La Liga’s lesser lights being taken to the cleaners. The fact this all happened without Ronaldo and Isco, both of whom have been really influential in the team’s success of late shows how well the team played.
The surprising part of the game is the fact that whenever El Clasico games have tended to be been one-sided it was always Barcelona dishing out the trashing because for so long the Barcelona midfield has been the bedrock on which their recent success has been built with their Madrid counterparts chopping and changing managers, playing styles and players.
The unravelling of Guardiola’s ethos
Pep Guardiola, the man who was responsible for building the modern day Barcelona machine, was someone who knows the importance a strong midfield has in the quest to dominate games, win matches and ultimately trophies. His playing days and tutoring under Johan Cruyff made this a guarantee. Another thing he learnt from the Dutchman was that, when a fully functional midfield is in control of a game, the opponent often has no chance.
There is little wonder that this was one of the first things he put in place as soon as he became the coach of the Catalans. He shifted the focus from the attack, which consisted of a world-class star in Ronaldinho, to ensure that he had a fully functional midfield. He infused the midfield with La Masia products, who grew up steeped in the Barça philosophy, and he was rewarded with performances that left viewers the world over stunned and opponents dazed at what they’d just been put through.
The peak of his work was finally witnessed when, after the 2011 Champions League final, Sir Alex Ferguson commented: “I expected us to do better but at the end of the day we were beaten by the better team. They are the best team we have ever played, they are at the peak in this cycle of their team. Sometimes you come up against a far better team and tonight was one of those nights.”
The team was on a different level back then. They possessed the best midfielders in the world in Xavi and Iniesta, who finished second and third in the Ballon D’Or rankings; they were just that good.
One thing that majority of Barça fans agree on is that the reason why the Catalans have had underwhelming campaigns in the Champions League of late, they’ve been eliminated in back-to-back quarter finals, is as a result of their midfield squabbles.
Madrid have finally found success in Zidane
While Barcelona were dominating Spain and Europe, Real Madrid were changing coaches in search of the perennial success. During the Catalans era of dominance, various coaches tried and failed to achieve any form of sustained success close to what they had; Bernd Schuster, Juande Ramos, Manuel Pellegrini, José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafael Benitez all tried. The closest any of them got was to win isolated trophies that didn’t really have much influence, and they were all let go by Perez. Then came Zidane.
Appointing Zidane was seen as Perez’s brainchild to imitate Pep’s Barcelona; he had no experience of managing at the top level as well and had only managed the academy side. He was also a world class midfielder during his time pulling on the white shirt. One thing that the two managers had in common was their belief that whoever won the midfield battle more often than not who won the match.
He initially found success with his focus on attack, fielding the trio of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo anytime he could, the attack was too much for most teams as they fired the team to a Champions League win in his debut campaign but the games were not aesthetically pleasing to watch, winning alone was not enough to satisfy this set of fans who longed for a style that was pleasing to the eye and was synonymous with success.
Tactical fluidity is key
An injury to Bale forced Zidane’s hand, he had to change the team’s formation using Isco at the tip of a midfield diamond behind an attacking duo of Benzema and Ronaldo, this change has brought the most dominant and aesthetically pleasing football Los Blancos have played in a long while. The midfield was totally outclassing top quality opponents in Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus en-route to winning the Champions League last season.
This season has started in similar fashion, with the schooling of Man United and Barcelona midfielders in the UEFA and Spanish Super Cups respectively. The Catalan side, especially, were a shadow of their former selves as the tables have turned in favour of their biggest rivals. It is not a coincidence that they currently possess the top two midfielders in world football right now in Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
The squad is currently brimming with excellent midfielders ranging from established superstars to emerging talents, Zidane has overseen the return of the good times at the Bernabeu and it’s because he followed his ‘midfield’ heart.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles” but as Pep showed and Zidane has now proven, the real key to world domination and winning titles lies in the strength of the midfield.
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