Real Madrid Must Learn, Adapt for Clasico: Simply Being Themselves Won't Cut It

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2016

The scene was familiar and so was the man at the centre of it, but something wasn't right. In appearance this was him, yet in message it wasn't; the words had come from his mouth, but they hadn't felt like his words. 

"Real Madrid have a style of playing which is to go to win scoring more goals and we do that independent of who we face," said Rafa Benitez. "We're not focused on the rival and we try to do things the way we need to do them."

For Benitez, a fanatical tactician and planner for specific opponents, this must have felt like sacrilege. Ahead of Real Madrid's clash with Barcelona in November's Clasico at the Bernabeu, such a line, a mentality, was the antithesis of everything he believed in and stood for.

And yet he said it anyway. 

Because he had to. 

This was Real Madrid, and they demanded it. They? The fans. Media. Players. President. After some ponderous displays, they wanted to see unshackling and freedom. They wanted buoyant talk and promises of aggression. They wanted that XI and Madrid "to be Madrid."

Benitez didn't want any of it, but it didn't matter. Through suggestions, through pressure, they got what they wanted. Or what they thought they wanted. 

Few will need reminding of what happened next.  

Since the demolition of that November evening, 130 days and clashes with each of the league's other 18 sides have passed for Real Madrid, and yet still one wonders how much they've actually learned from it. 

Systematically, there have been alterations—some subtle, others not—but the essence of their identity hasn't changed: brilliant but flawed, talented but disorganised, imposing but vulnerable, a bubbling mess of contradictions.  

From exhibitions of power to scratch-your-head displays, Madrid have continued to oscillate between the extremes, continued simply being themselves, the whole operation seemingly dependent on talent, mood and whether it "clicks" on a given day. 

Recent clashes have formed a nice illustration: Against Levante? Awful. 

Celta Vigo? Brilliant. 

Las Palmas? Awful. 

Sevilla? Brilliant. 

In the aftermath of the latter, Real manager Zinedine Zidane asserted that "if we keep playing like this we are capable of great things," and, to an extent, the optimism was understandable: Against the Andalusians, Madrid had looked potent up front—Karim Benzema's return was influential, their energy was infectious and there was the sense of a connection between the midfield and the attack that hasn't always been evident. 

And yet, despite that, Madrid still rode their luck: Sevilla missed a penalty, saw a goal wrongly disallowed for offside and attacked with a thrust that forced goalkeeper Keylor Navas to be the hosts' outstanding player.


Thus, half a season has passed since the Clasico mauling, and still Madrid triumph and fail on the same terms: with high risk, gambles, little thought for consequence and little in the way of structure or an encompassing idea for blunting the opposition. 

Continue in such fashion and more Clasico pain is coming. 

On Saturday, then, Madrid need to show something new, something more. Though this is a game that means little in a league-title-race kind of a way, it could prove pivotal if Madrid are to build belief in the hunt for an 11th European crown.

To do so, Madrid need to show they can learn, adapt and compromise. Their task now is to put aside their ego and the "we're Real Madrid, we'll simply be ourselves" mentality that Benitez reluctantly expressed and devise specific solutions for specific challenges. 

In the case of Barcelona, there are examples worth taking note of: Fire-sale Malaga made the Catalans scrap through intense, universal pressing; tiny Las Palmas caused them headaches with something similar; a revamped Deportivo La Coruna used an intelligent and narrow 4-3-1-2 to control the central corridor against them. 

For Madrid, it's not about copying a particular method but taking elements from those that have worked and adapting them, combining them with existing strengths to quell Barcelona. To funnel Lionel Messi into clusters of defenders. To block the holes for Andres Iniesta. To harry Sergio Busquets. To pressure the high defensive line. 

To formulate a plan of clarity, purpose and structure. 

"Barcelona, with a plan, ran riot over a Madrid side without one," said AS in the aftermath of the last meeting. 

Saturday will reveal whether Madrid have learned anything from it.


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