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El Clásico Tactics: Ernesto Valverde Outsmarts Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid

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Mateo Kovačić man-marking against Lionel Messi didn’t work

Real Madrid v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Ernesto Valverde got the better of Zinedine Zidane in revenge for Real Madrid’s Supercup triumph, as Barcelona eased past los blancos with a 3-0 victory. It’s hard to write this down as a one-off when Barcelona are 14 points ahead after half the season gone. Clearly, Barça have progressed a lot as Valverde’s ideas have taken shape.

Valverde picked the lineup we all expected with Thomas Vermaelen in defense and Paulinho as an extra midfielder. The only arguable surprise was Sergi Roberto over Nélson Semedo at right-back, but even then, it wasn’t much of a surprise.

Zidane, for his part, changed it up. He did not pick Isco or Gareth Bale, but instead Mateo Kovačić. Kova’s specific role was to man-mark Messi, which is the most intriguing part of the game tactically.

There is a logic here, which is Kovačić is a player that can defend well and Messi is quite obviously Barcelona’s best player. Barça have relied time and again on Messi making plays, to a fault. If you can successfully neutralize him, you can nine times out of ten, neutralize Barcelona.

Zidane sent his men to use their energy up early and it could have paid off if they scored, which they came close to doing. Barcelona were perhaps second-best, but the narrative saying they were far behind is slightly exaggerated. In truth Barcelona had chances as well, and their two best ones came from Messi (despite Kova’s marking) and ended with Keylor Navas twice denying Paulinho.

Valverde has created a Barça team that is comfortable absorbing pressure, and maybe part of the reason it felt like Madrid were going to win is because we’re not used to Barça defending deep well. Gerard Pique was imperious at the back, and his fellow defenders, plus Marc-André Ter Stegen between the sticks, did well, too.

In the second half, Madrid seemed to tire out. The trip to the Club World Cup may have played a role, but they did have a whole week to rest. Possibly Zidane was hoping to use up energy in the first half, then recharge at the start of the second, and then go in for the win with the likes of Bale and Marco Asensio around the hour mark.

However, Barcelona saw weakness and pounced. Already we had seen signs that the man-marking on Messi had sprung leaks, and the first goal was almost comical in how it showed the weakness of the strategy.

With Ivan Rakitić driving on the ball, Kovačić opted to run away from the ball carrier and towards Messi, leaving Rakitić the ability to pick out Sergi Roberto, who assisted Luis Suárez’s opener. Madrid’s midfield was caught trying to press but Sergio Busquets broke the lines excellently, and was helped by Rakitić ghosting past his marker onto open field, as well as Sergi Roberto’s brave positioning.

Messi created another chance for Luis Suárez, who missed the frame of goal this time, before creating yet another chance for the Uruguayan, which was parried by Keylor Navas but ultimately resulted in a sending off for Dani Carvajal as he attempted to save Paulinho’s rebound with his hand.

After the red card, Madrid had to burn a substitute bringing on Nacho to shore up the defense, although Zidane's blitz with Asensio and Bale for Kovačić and Casemiro on 72 minutes did still take place. Barcelona seemed to ease off a bit, which ultimately resulted in Madrid building a few attacks. However, the defense and the keeper were once again on hand to deny Madrid any dreams of a comeback. This would be an area of concern for Valverde as his men didn’t kill the game off entirely when they had a chance.

However, in the other end, Messi was setting up chances for fun, and it was only a matter of time until Aleix Vidal put the definitive 3-0.

I saw some Madrid fans saying they were happy with Kovačić’s man-marking “working” in the first half, but I have to disagree. Messi still created chances in the first half, and if you look at the total number of big chances Messi created vs. the number Madrid created, it was actually not too far off.

And then saying “it worked until it didn’t” isn’t much of an endorsement, Messi played a role in both the first goal and then the second goal (and then the sending off.) Which means the strategy not working is what, clearly, led to the result. Working until it doesn’t is ultimately just not working.

I know a lot of people have been hammering on about this change, and while it’s true that some of this only comes with the benefit of hindsight, I’d like to point out I tweeted this before Barcelona ever scored:

Clearly Valverde figured out what worked and what didn’t from that Supercup meeting and changed a lot, including the entire formation, since. To compete, Zidane will have to do the same. Perhaps what worked in the Supercup just won’t work anymore as Barcelona have progressed past that version.