Zinedine Zidane coaxed yet another big game performance from his team, but this victory had just as much to do with personnel as the fabled 'Zidane effect'

Takeaways from the game:

Injuries Enable Zidane to Strike Balance

With 5 starters injured, and no recognizable striker available in the squad, Zidane sent his players out in an unrecognizable 4-5-1. Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic manned the center of the pitch, Isco roamed attacking midfield, while Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez were stationed on the flanks. Cristiano Ronaldo was the lone striker up front. 

Zidane's newfound lineup proved effective. The league leaders could maintain defensive balance with a 4 or 5 man midfield, yet still provide an attacking threat.  Lucas Vazquez proved an apt replacement for Karim Benzema, and stifled the influential Filipe Luis. Isco dominated in the role he has always craved. Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, players unaccustomed to playing deep midfield roles, coasted through the game. 

The side's equilibrium shouldn't come as a surprise. Previous managers have struggled to build midfields to make up for the lack of work rate from the front 3. Real Madrid's starting lineup over the last 2 seasons has rarely been balanced. In 2013-14, the presence of the indefatigable Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso allowed Carlo Ancelotti to field a balanced 4-3-3, and while he did convert James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos to replicate those roles in the 14-15 season, their style of play ultimately proved unsustainable and resulted in a squad decimated by injuries. Rafa Benitez recognized the need for improvement, yet his poor man-management and presidential pressure ensured that he couldn't field a balanced side as well. 

Zinedine Zidane managed to send out a balanced team for the first time during the Camp Nou Clasico this year. Casemiro played with Modric and Kroos in midfield, while Ronaldo and Bale- unprecedentedly- tracked their full backs. This time, Casemiro's injury meant that playing the 'BBC' would amount to suicide against Atletico Madrid, but Benzema's lack of fitness gave Zidane the space to play a combative midfield.

Of course, Lucas Vazquez's industry was expected, but Gareth Bale's willingness to play as a left midfielder was a sign of Zidane's influence. Pre-match speculation revolved around a potential 4-4-2 with Ronaldo and Bale up front, and Vazquez and the mobile Asensio out wide, but the Frenchman convinced Bale to work hard on the left of midfield, enabling him to play Isco in a roaming central role instead. Bale was more combative than usual, and he did find time for a late assist. 

Ultimately Real Madrid's 4-5-1 was reminiscent of their 4-4-2 during the 14-15 season. When Gareth Bale was injured, Ancelotti struck gold when he started Isco and James alongside Modric and Kroos in midfield. That team also played the bulk of their historic 22 match winning run, and started in dominant wins over Liverpool and Barcelona. Indeed, this game, and evidence from that season, suggests that Zidane could continue leaving Benzema on the bench in certain games.

Atletico Attack Fires a Blank as Nacho, Varane Impress

Zidane's selection and instructions- areas he could control-were fairly spot on. On the other hand, he had no choice but to start Nacho and Varane in central defense. The duo struggled the last time they started together at the Calderon, which was during the infamous 4-0 loss that cost Ancelotti his job. This time they were much improved. Buoyed by the industrious midfield in front of them, Varane and Nacho were impeccable in escaping Atletico's press with intelligent distribution, and also kept Torres and the desperate Griezmann at bay.

Simeone clearly identified Real Madrid's back 4, and Nacho in particular, as a weak link. They directed long balls towards him at the start of both halves. Fernando Torres started over Kevin Gameiro, presumably for his superior build, to exploit this as well, but his efforts were in vain. Nacho has often performed well during injury crises- 4-0 apart- and has even been called to advance his career by leaving the Bernabeu. With partner Varane keeping a cool head, his performance here was keeping with his consistency, and was crucial in Madrid's victory.

Atletico Struggle, but Should Improve

Fresh off an international break, to Diego Simeone this was hardly the ideal time for a Madrid derby. Zinedine Zidane is known for giving a handful of important tactical instructions, but is a far cry from Simeone, who engages in more specific preparation. Indeed, both sides were full of internationals, yet it was Atletico who looked unprepared and lacked sharpness during this game. 

Now,on the back of 3 defeats in 4 games, Atletico Madrid are amidst a mini crisis. The defense has been leaking goals, and the attack has struggled to break down defenses. Simeone's attempt to mould Atletico into an attacking outfit has failed. After this game, they are 9 points off the top of La Liga. 

Like all crises, this one has been rather exaggerated. Atletico Madrid may be 9 points off the top, but they have visited Celta Vigo, Sevilla, Barcelona and Real Sociedad, and have now hosted Real Madrid. Coupled with a UCL group stage involving Bayern Munich, and they have had truly grueling start to the season. Atleti's fixture list will only grow kinder, especially as they only require two draws to secure top spot in their Champions League group. 

Furthermore, it is well worth noting that Barcelona have also visited Celta and Sevilla, and find themselves 4 points off the top. Their next two fixtures? Real Sociedad away and Real Madrid at home. And if Barcelona's collapse last season is anything to go by, Real Madrid are far from winning the League.

Of course, grueling start to the season aside, this is the sort of game that Atletico has specialized in dominating in recent years. Their dominance over their crosstown rivals in the league, and their sensational eliminations of Barcelona and Bayern Munich are cases in point. But those wins were built on the stingiest defense in world football, one that conceded a mere 18 goals (a record) in La Liga last season. 

Atletico have struggled to maintain their defensive sharpness this season. Perhaps influenced by their dropped points in La Liga this season, or their slow transition to attack after going down in the Champions League final, Simeone has released the shackles on his team in attack. Initially it worked wonders- Atletico even outscored Real Madrid and Barcelona over multiple weekends- but the loss to Sevilla changed things. The absence of Augusto Fernandez and Tiago has likely affected Simeone's reasoning as well, however it is likely that he will revert to type following this defeat. Expect to see a more defensive Atletico from this point onwards, but also one that manages to grind out wins until the New Year. 

Published by Siddharth Ramsundar