Reasons for the 4-0 humiliation on home soil against bitter rivals Barcelona in El Clasico were numerous for Rafael Benitez and Real Madrid.
Fingers were pointed at talisman Cristiano Ronaldo going missing, a calamitous defence and pressure from president Florentino Perez on Benitez to play his ‘gala’ eleven in the biggest club match in world football. The latter weighed as heavy as any of the reasons given post-match.
To suggest that Casemiro would have been a big miss in the big matches just a few months ago would have been met with humour and derision. A player who hadn’t really had a crack at the first team and had been sent out on-loan to Porto to ply his trade while the big-name players got on with things at the Bernabeu. Now, his absence from the Clasico had as big an impact on the result as almost anything else.
Barcelona were good and clinical but they were not superb. They didn’t need to be. Madrid saved their worst performance for their biggest match and although reported internal problems between players and coach looked seemingly obvious to anyone watching, it was no surprise that the performance came with the Brazilian on the bench. The gaps between the lines were numerous and they were spacious.
Barcelona are a team that likes to play in tight spaces but on Saturday night at the Santiago Bernabeu they didn’t have to. The absence of a defensive midfielder to protect the back four and close the gaps aided Barcelona from the first whistle until the last. The finger will be pointed at Benitez but it will also be pointed at his president. Madrid’s line-up was its strongest on paper but not its most pragmatic – especially for a game such as this.
Casemiro would have helped Madrid avoid Clasico humiliation
Despite having Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez in the middle of the park, Madrid were simply overrun in midfield and that impacted on the defence and the attack. Los Blancos’ starting eleven to face Luis Enrique’s side looked like an eleven picked by Perez, and not the man he chose to succeed Carlo Ancelotti as coach.
Casemiro is not only a player in-form and the perfect player to try and nullify the Barca pressure around the Madrid box but he is also a Benitez-type player. Instead, Toni Kroos was left chasing shadows and having little influence on Madrid’s attacking play.
“The team I name is based on trying to manage the players I have at my disposal,” Benitez said in the post-match press conference in response to a question about club politics.
“The players have enough quality to play better. At the end of the day we’re all responsible and we have to work together to find a solution and make the fans happy.”
Madrid needed a player to protect the back four and break up Barca’s attacking play. They needed a player to do the dirty work and the answer was on the bench. Casemiro is not a player known for changing a game and his inclusion in the starting eleven this weekend may not have changed the eventual outcome given the deficiencies across the board, but it would have given Madrid a better chance. It would have almost certainly avoided such a humiliation.
Without him, the Catalans were able to attack at will and the scoreline could and probably should have been worse. That the 0-4 scoreline perhaps flattered Madrid on their home turf said it all.
Real Madrid have fared well whenever Casemiro has played
The problem stems back to Claude Makelele and his relationship with Perez. The Frenchman was eventually moved on from the Spanish capital after failing to win over the man who pays his wages. Makelele wasn’t a ‘Galactico‘ but, just like Casemiro, he was a crucial cog in a star-studded team. His importance was overlooked and so was that of the Brazilian this weekend.
In Madrid’s other big matches, this season the 23-year-old has featured. Casemiro started the games against Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain (home and away) and although Los Blancos only won one of the three, they didn’t lose and looked solid defensively. Benitez has built his team on a solid defence and that basic foundation was missing against one of the most dangerous attacking teams on the planet, even with Lionel Messi on the bench.
“We wanted to apply pressure, attack, win possession high up and we paid for not doing so.”
“Things didn’t turn out as we hoped. Our idea was to push high up and have possession,” Benitez said regarding the absence of Casemiro.
While it’s true that Kroos had succeeded in doing that in previous matches, this was a match where Benitez’s defensive instincts, for as much criticism as they get, needed to kick-in. It remains to be seen whether Benitez will stick with the same starting in the coming weeks if all of his squad are fit and available but Madrid are more likely to get away with such a line-up against Eibar next weekend, with due respect.
The true test will be when the big matches come thick and fast after Christmas across all competitions – if the coach is still in the job.