It was obvious well before the 81st minute that something wasn’t working as planned for Barcelona, but that’s how long Ronald Koeman waited to make a single substitution in Saturday’s Clasico defeat to Real Madrid. Tired and weary from a week also saw the Catalans play in the Champions League, they were robbed of their chance of a comeback by their manager.
Koeman’s bizarre reluctance to change a team that wasn’t functioning as intended will undoubtedly be the subject of much debate and discussion in the Catalan media this coming week, but eyebrows were raised as soon as Barcelona’s team sheet was delivered before the match..
Ansu Fati, Sergino Dest and Pedri were all named to the starting lineup and while one (Ansu) scored Barca’s equaliser and another (Dest) played well, Barcelona might have benefited from the experience of Antoine Griezmann despite the Frenchman’s substandard performances of late. He at least knows what it takes to win these games.
Ansu Fati of Barcelona celebrates after he scores his team's first goal during the La Liga Santander match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou on October 24, 2020 in Barcelona, Spain.
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Sergio Busquets’ experience didn’t help much, in fairness, with the 32-year-old badly exposed for Fede Valverde’s opener. Increasingly, he lacks the physicality to play at the base of Barcelona’s midfield. While Busquets was once deceptive in the ground he covered across the pitch, now he finds himself chasing quicker and more energetic opponents.
It was therefore unsurprising that Busquets was hooked for a more attacking threat with Barca chasing the game, but Koeman’s decision to throw on three forwards (Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Francisco Trincao) all at the same time also warrants examination. There appeared to be no more thought to the Dutchman’s game plan than introducing as many attackers as possible and hoping something might happen.
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Despite all this, Barcelona still had chances to score more than once. Lionel Messi should have put his team ahead at 1-1, failing to beat Thibaut Courtois at the near post when he might have gone across goal instead. Messi, along with a number of others, played within himself, as he has in almost every match over the early part of the season. He has now gone six Clasicos without scoring or registering an assist (since Cristiano Ronaldo left Spain in summer 2018).
Barcelona find themselves stuck in no man’s land between the last generation and the next. The Camp Nou club boasts a contingent of undeniably promising youngsters, but having gone five years or so without integrating a single La Masia graduate of note Koeman is now having to bridge a generational gap between teenagers and veterans.
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Zinedine Zidane has been tasked with something similar, starting 20-year-old Vinicius Junior alongside 32-year-old Karim Benzema in attack. Not so long ago, Barcelona and Real Madrid were in contrast to each other in almost every way, from transfer market approach to politics and overarching sporting ideology. That is no longer the case.
Indeed, there is plenty to link the two rivals in their respective situations, but Saturday’s Clasico proved Zidane is handling that situation better. When it matters most, like it did at the Camp Nou, Real Madrid’s most experienced figures come up big. It was Los Blancos’ ageing core that got them over the line in last season’s title race and they did the same against Barcelona on Saturday.
Real Madrid's Spanish defender Sergio Ramos celebrates with Real Madrid's Spanish forward Lucas Vazquez (R) after scoring a penalty during the Spanish League football match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou
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Nobody can be relied on more for a big game performance than Sergio Ramos. The 34-year-old was a serious doubt for the match having sustained a knee injury in last week’s home loss to Cadiz, but returned to the lineup to produce a Man of the Match display, scoring what was effectively the match winner from the penalty spot.
If Real Madrid are to retain their La Liga crown, it will likely be on the back of Ramos’ drive as their spiritual leader. He is the most influential figure at the Santiago Bernabeu, often masking his manager’s tactical missteps through sheer single-mindedness. Koeman is missing someone to do this for him.
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