Real Madrid v Barcelona: The tables have turned for Zidane & Valverde ahead of El Clasico
Zinedine Zidane wore a huge smile as Real Madrid won 2-0 thanks to Marco Asensio and Karim Benzema in the second leg of the Spanish Supercopa, clinching the 5-1 aggregate humiliation of Barcelona and seemingly confirming their status as the undisputed kings of Spanish football.
That was August. Few would have predicted the respective circumstances of Zidane and his counterpart Ernesto Valverde ahead of their next Clasico meeting four months on.
Barca had just lost twice in four days to their bitter rivals, watched helplessly as one of the jewels in their crown Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain, became mired in off-field legal battles, struggled to sign their key transfer targets and saw speculation about Lionel Messi's future arise.
By contrast, the Supercopa victory was Zidane and Madrid's fourth title victory in three months, having previously won LaLiga, the Champions League and UEFA Super Cup. Seemingly they could do no wrong – success was around every corner.
1 - Ernesto Valverde is the first Barcelona manager to lose two Clasicos in a row since Frank Rijkaard in 2008 (all competitions). Sunken. pic.twitter.com/HWjLZ39DS6— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 17, 2017
But as Madrid prepare to host their old enemy at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, Barca are sitting pretty atop LaLiga, with Zidane's men – who have played one match fewer – trailing by 11 points.
FROM DEEP SQUAD, TO DEEP TROUBLE
No team has ever recovered from being 10 points off the top of the table and gone on to win LaLiga, and it is difficult to look beyond the state of Zidane's squad when trying to identify the reason for their disappointing season.
Last term, their back-up options included the likes of Pepe, Danilo, James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata, with the latter scoring 15 league goals from just 14 starts. They were all allowed to leave.
Madrid's transfer incomings were limited to Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos, while Jesus Vallejo, Marcos Llorente and Borja Mayoral all returned from loan spells to fill voids in the squad.
Giving youth a chance is a bold and commendable policy that could have immense implications for Zidane in years to come, but the aforementioned youngsters have amassed just 11 LaLiga starts between them this term. Injecting so much youth at once is a risky manoeuvre.
VALVERDE THE VIGILANT
There have been no such monumental gambles from Valverde, however. If anything, the former Athletic Bilbao coach has played things as safe as possible since arriving at a club that by the end of August seemed to be close to crisis.
He has quickly won people over, with his generally calm demeanour at media conferences a far cry from the often prickly Luis Enrique, whose policy of fining players for arriving late to training or matches reportedly followed him out the Camp Nou exit.
Granted, Barca are not playing football to rival the glory days under Pep Guardiola, but Valverde has made them more solid throughout the team, conceding just 0.43 goals per game, compared to 0.97 last season.
But arguably his greatest – and simplest – move has been to shift Lionel Messi into the heart of everything Barca do, helping the club collect eight more points than they had at the same point in 2016-17.
HARNESSING MESSI'S MAGIC
Valverde's tinkering with Barca's tactics has resulted in the team's previously rigid 4-3-3 formation becoming rather more fluid, with Messi regularly occupying more of a central role as a result.
15 - Lionel Messi has provided more assists than any other La Liga player in 2017 in all competitions. Generous. pic.twitter.com/TYOqfOLSUa— OptaJose (@OptaJose) December 17, 2017
And while his supporting cast might not be quite as talented as it was last season when Neymar was dancing around defenders in a Barca shirt, Messi has still managed to elevate himself to be the league's standout player.
He has 14 goals and five assists to his name so far, while his average of 2.75 shots on target per match is an improvement from last term (2.26).
So, although Valverde lost a huge talent when Neymar left, he adapted his team in a way that has made them more solid defensively without hampering Messi.
The same cannot be said for Zidane and Madrid, though, with the reigning champions looking significantly less effective than they were last season.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema have been the main culprits, managing just six goals between them in LaLiga so far, with their respective conversion rates of 7.02 per cent and 10 per cent significantly worse than last year (19.53 per cent and 20.37 per cent).
And that, unsurprisingly, has had an impact on Madrid's overall productivity in the final third, with their collective conversion rate down to 13.57 per cent this season from 20.35 per cent.
Ronaldo has been effective in other competitions, as his haul of nine in six in the Champions League shows, but a meaningful scoring run in LaLiga continues to elude him.
While Messi has continued to amaze despite less attacking support, Madrid's forwards have been unable to reach their usual high standards and, at this rate, it will cost them the league title at the very least.