Neymar might sign, but didn’t, but still might…Antoine Griezmann did sign…so did Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic…but Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez didn’t leave…while Ansu Fati has broken through from nowhere…but Ousmane Dembele is injured again…so is Lionel Messi…and Luis Suarez may or may not be over the hill.
On the evidence of the vast majority of media stories and public chatter about Barcelona and Real Madrid over the last few weeks, you might think that only forwards exist in football. Or, at least, that only forwards matter.
Goalscoring is, of course, the fun and sexy part of the game. When we are young, we want to shoot and score. And if we can’t do that, we want to be the guy who allows someone else to score, creating moments of defence-destroying magic with a devastating dribble, pass or cross.
Perhaps, though, we should all learn to pay a bit more attention to the other aspect of the game: defending. Because whether we like it or not, what happens when you don’t have the ball is just as important to winning a game than whatever magic you might be capable of creating in possession.
That lesson was evident from Spain’s big two this weekend. Firstly, on Saturday afternoon, Barcelona finally gained their first away win of the season by overcoming Getafe 2-0.
Did they do it with a glorious exhibition of incisive and creative attacking play? Well, no. In truth, they created very few clear chances and the two goals they did score were decidedly pedestrian: a long ball over the top from the goalkeeper converted by the onrushing centre forward, followed by a half-saved shot bundled home from close range.
There was nothing special about the goals scored by Luis Suarez and Junior Firpo at Getafe (although Suarez’s deft lob did show excellent technique), but they did the job. They got the goals they needed, and then…then Barca defended.
They defended in numbers, getting ten men behind the ball whenever Getafe gained possession; they defended with discipline, keeping their collective shape and denying the opposition space on the ball; they defended with focus, avoiding sloppy errors around their penalty area which could have given the home team a route back into the game.
The outcome: a 2-0 win, job done, points in the bag, thanks to a first clean sheet of the season.
Later in the evening, Real Madrid followed a similar template to claim a worthy point at local rivals Atletico with an equally solid and organised performance.
For the third successive game, in fact, Los Blancos were so good defensively they did not allow their goalkeeper to make a single save – the most decisive action taken by Thibaut Courtois came in the first half, when he dived to parry a dangerous cross from Kieran Trippier and prevented it from reaching Diego Costa in the middle.
3 - Real Madrid have kept three consecutive clean sheets in LaLiga for the first time under Zinédine Zidane. Calmness. pic.twitter.com/NOMZd3iudy— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 28, 2019
It’s quite sobering to think that Real’s success in the last week, which has seen them claim seven points from three games against Sevilla, Osasuna and Atletico, has been rooted in defensive excellence.
Sure, there were nice goals from exciting young wingers Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes in the win over Osasuna, but the most important statistic for Zinedine Zidane’s men has been this one: goals conceded, zero.
The same applies to Barca. Getting their first road victory over the season did not require a touch of magic from Messi after all – it simply required a strong defensive performance, borne of a determined collective effort and good organisation.
And that’s the way it has to be. “Collective effort” and “good organisation” might not be the most exciting phrases in football, but they are – always have been and always will be – the basis of a successful team. Without those qualities, you are ripe for picking by any top-class side, as Real discovered ten days ago at Paris Saint-Germain and Barca famously found out at Anfield.
So don’t entirely forget about Messi, Benzema, Suarez and Hazard. Of course they have a big role to play. But defending matters a lot, too – and perhaps it matters even more.
Diego Simeone shared his thoughts after Atletico and Real drew 0-0 in the Madrid derby in La Liga on Saturday.
The Wanda Metropolitano staged a tight game of few clear-cut chances, although Atletico keeper Jan Oblak made two fine saves and Gareth Bale missed a great opening for Real.
The result keeps Zidane’s men one point ahead of their city rivals – and promoted Granada – at the top of the table but Barcelona are now within striking distance after their 2-0 win at Getafe, their first away victory in any competition since April.
See what the Atleti boss had to say in the video above:
A game which promised explosives in the end offered very little as Atletico and Real Madrid played out a goalless draw in Saturday night’s Madrid derby.
In truth, it rarely looked like any other outcome was likely, although Jan Oblak made good saves from Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema to preserve parity, while Atletico didn’t register a single shot on target at the other end – the third consecutive game in which Real have prevented their keeper from making a save.
Both teams looked pretty pleased to take a point from the game…and that kicks off our talking points to emerge from the action.
Settling for a stalemate?
This was the fair result on the night, with neither team deserving to lose the game or doing enough to win it.
Indeed, there was a sense that both camps would be happy to settle for a draw even an hour before kick-off, when the teamsheets were handed in to reveal that Diego Simeone had opted for a strong midfield with Thomas Partey partnership Saul and Koke while Thomas Lemar was left on the bench, while Zinedine Zidane dropped James Rodriguez in favour of the more defensive and combative Fede Valverde.
The consequence was a game that took place mainly in the middle third of the pitch, looking like an encounter that both teams were keener not to lose rather than take any risks in pursuit of victory. The outcome allows Atletico to stay hot on the heels of their cross-city rivals and edge a point ahead of Barcelona, while Real are still unbeaten in the league and have now kept three consecutive clean sheets.
The latter stages were played out with a sense of inevitability that no goals would arrive, with no final frantic charge or desperate defending, and a late winner would have been unmerited at either end.
Thomas brings the Partey
Atletico’s midfield has been rather unsettled in the past couple of years, with the departure of former skipper Gabi and Manchester City’s capture of Rodri leaving undisputed starters Saul and Koke without consistent partners.
Many players and formations have been tried, with Thomas Lemar, Vitolo and Angel Correa all getting regular chances in the middle four last season, before Marcos Llorente and Hector Herrera were added in the summer to add further competition.
Another player who has been in and out of the team, however, currently looks more than capable of nailing down a place in the side and becoming one of the first names on Diego Simeone’s teamsheet: Thomas Partey was immense in this fixture, continuing his strong start to the campaign with a performance combining controlled physicality, game awareness and astute passing to catch the eye in the centre of the field.
The Ghana international started less than half of Atletico’s games over the last couple of seasons, but on this evidence he is ready to take a big step forward this season and potentially become one of La Liga’s most commanding central midfielders.
Thomas Partey’s game by numbers vs. Real Madrid:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) September 28, 2019
90% pass accuracy
49 forward passes
9 ball recoveries
Phenomenal performance. 🇬🇭 pic.twitter.com/ZU7qOkQbNK
Hazard still struggling
This was another lacklustre game for Eden Hazard, who had plenty of possession down the left wing but looked off the pace and was regularly caught in possession, struggling to make any inroads against Atletico’s disciplined defence.
In fact, he was outshone down his flank by another former Premier League player, with Kieran Trippier’s regular surges down the wing taking a central part of the action and forcing Real into several uncomfortable clearances. Hazard’s display, meanwhile, was summed up by an embarrassing moment early in the second half when poor control saw him commit a silly handball, and before long he was replaced by James Rodriguez having done little to live up to his superstar billing.
Suffering an injury on the eve of the new campaign to miss a month of action certainly didn’t help his settling-in process, but it’s now time for Hazard to step up, find his rhythm and show why Real were so determined to pursue him for more than a year. If he doesn’t, he won’t be staying in the starting eleven for much longer.
Take-ons completed in the first half of the Madrid derby:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 28, 2019
Kieran Trippier: 2
Eden Hazard: 1
Things have changed. 😅 pic.twitter.com/9OjF0bJdEk