Barcelona – Real Madrid: Barcelona Bow To Bellingham’s Brilliance (1-2)

If you come at the king, you better not miss. Barcelona banked on controlled aggression to put their foot on their enemies’ throats. Momentum flowed in their favor during the first hour, but running out of steam against Real Madrid (with any life in the tank) is impending punishment.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

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Girona sit at the top of LaLiga for now, but this rivalry retains its standing in the global game. The latest edition of El Clásico united two top candidates for the crown, just one point apart in the table.

Barcelona have benefitted from a pair of Portuguese loanees at the start of this season. The ceiling of the Catalans has risen thanks to João Felix and João Cancelo. However, it has not simply been smooth sailing since September. An indomitable defense is no longer so safe, already shipping half of the goal tally of last year. The squad has also suffered from injuries to senior figures, forcing Xavi to bring in more youth. Results have stayed steady, but their derby day competitors would be the best test to date.

Real Madrid remain in search of their new selves. Without Karim Benzema but with a collection of central midfielders that anyone would envy, a diamond allowed them to pack the middle of the park. Front and center has been Jude Bellingham, breaking double digits on the goal chart in a white shirt. Carlo Ancelotti was not at peace with this first idea, switching towards other systems. Nonetheless, only one loss, away at Atlético Madrid, registers on their record, despite of all the change at the club.

Ancelotti rotated four players he picked to start in a 2-1 win over Braga. Two were midfielders. Luka Modrić and Eduardo Camavinga dropped out, making way for Toni Kroos and Aurélien Tchouaméni. So, Bellingham, who left the field early as a precaution due to load in his adductor, was fit to feature. David Alaba came in for Nacho, and Ferland Mendy displaced Fran García on the left of the defense.

Xavi, too, oversaw a 2-1 victory in the Champions League. He had rested Andreas Christensen and Álex Balde, calling on the services of both for the rearguard. Ronald Araújo stationed himself on the right with João Cancelo. Oriol Romeu sacrificed his spot in the midfield to Gavi, Fermín López earned his third LaLiga start in a row, and Ferran Torres filled in again as the central forward.

Catalan configuration constrains Carlo

Not for the first time, the visitors were victims of a sluggish start. Ilkay Gündogan punched a pass into the feet of Torres, whose layoff hit Tchouaméni’s leg. However, the vertical transition thrust Madrid’s defense into disarray. Dani Carvajal had oriented himself to Félix, and Antonio Rüdiger had tracked Torres. Neither defender could retreat to catch up with Gündogan, and Alaba lost out in a late lunge on the floor. He slotted to the right of Kepa to grab his first goal for the champions in the 6th minute.

The struggles for the guests extended beyond that breakthrough. They have more often used a 4-4-2 shape in their defensive organization in the last month. Bellingham has moved wider to the left from his central attacking midfield position, and Vinícius Júnior can be more free of duties without the ball. If Barcelona built from the back with four defenders, that system would invite Bellingham to press a wide fullback. However, Xavi had thrown an extra wrinkle into the offensive structure of his outfit.

The manager has sent out Araújo as a fullback with the main task of shutting down Vinícius in the past. He was still in a more reserved position with the power to fulfill this job, but he was part of a centralized base of three. Gavi and Gündogan worked in a double pivot ahead of him, while Félix and López acted as two attacking midfielders floating at the top of a box midfield. The interaction messed up the assignments Ancelotti had prepared. The home team duly proceeded to control the contest.

4th minute: offensive sequence from Barcelona. Madrid try to constrain Barcelona’s buildup with Vinícius inside and Bellingham pressing Araújo. This man-oriented engagement forces Kroos to step far forward and close down Gavi. Alaba cannot move out of the defensive chain too early because of equal numbers on the last line. López continues to drop towards the midfield, and receives from Gavi.

Safe and sound?

If Bellingham jumped to Araújo, the scheme required Kroos to go with the press and pick up Gavi. But athleticism and agility are not expert facets in his repertoire. The spaces between the lines became a playground for blue and red shirts in the center. Félix and Torres could interchange from the left, dropping more explosively for direct passes into feet, while López loitered in the halfspace, able to drift outside in case of any danger. The ease at which Barcelona advanced forced Ancelotti’s hand.

After the first quarter of an hour, he ordered Bellingham to be closer to Gavi. Although Kroos could cover deeper, all was not well. The visitors still failed to organize effectual pressure from the front.

32nd minute: offensive sequence from Barcelona. Valverde had advanced to press Martínez, but Balde was free on the outside. Félix’s double movement creates extra separation from Rüdiger, he initiates a one-two combination with Balde, lures Carvajal back out and then goes deep to receive.

Iñigo Martínez ended up more free to drive forward on the left. Tchouaméni could only move out so far wide to engage without opening up room on his inside. The defensive chain, into which Federico Valverde dropped to mark Balde in his advanced role, was reluctant to swing around and press.

Once Madrid tried to initiate more forceful pressing with the help of Valverde, Barcelona worked their way forward on the wings. Félix and Balde combined on the left while López levered Kroos out of his way from near the right sideline on several occasions. Even if Kepa Arrizabalaga might not have faced too many shots, Xavi’s men were calm, composed, and on track for a second strike.

Their opponents had not impressed with the ball either. The hosts could situationally adopt a back five in their half of the field if Cancelo dropped to the outside of Araújo. The collective effort smothered the toils of Vinícius. A labored tempo further conspired to hurt Madrid’s invention, while Gavi, keen to conquer the midfield battle against Bellingham, was a shining light in the pivot. Indeed, a brusque duel with Kroos teed up López to hit the post. Would the away team wake up before it was too late?

Bellingham’s blockbuster act blasts the script

Double trouble was only inches away when Martínez met a delivery and steered the ball onto the post. Cancelo then came close twice with his marauding carries off the right to test Camavinga as the substitute for Mendy on the left of the back four. Salvation started just after the hour mark. Joselu replaced Rodrygo; most of all, Modrić had entered the equation to claim more control of the ball.

More creativity on the ball and aggression out of possession meant a more even match. In the end, however, a bolt of the blue ultimately leveled the scoreline. Madrid managed to catch asleep their rivals with a short corner routine, pinning the defense on the edge of their box from the ensuing phases of play. Gavi headed away a cross from Vinícius, but the ball fell at the feet of Bellingham. He squared up to shoot from over twenty five yards, and arrowed an effort past Marc-André ter Stegen.

Suddenly, the weary legs of the Catalans were more blatant against an outfit in the ascendancy. Gavi was growing tired, and Torres had come for Robert Lewandowski, a less dynamic threat in transition. Xavi sought to switch the flow again with the introductions of Yamine Lamal and Raphinha. His men pushed for the winner, but the final act would belong to Bellingham. Carvajal crossed in injury time, and the talismanic figure had broken free from the cover of Romeu to bag his brace at the death.


Barcelona have suffered this type of heartbreak before. They were on top for the first hour but lacked the ruthlessness to kill the clash. Furthermore, the lapse that led to the equalizer spiraled as a loss of patience and organization cost all three points. What differs from the past is how well they suffocated their rivals, but defeat is a reminder of how minor mistakes may matter so much at the highest level.

Victory returns Real Madrid to the summit on goal difference. This display was the latest case of how physical and mental resolve from the squad, as well as influence from the dugout, do not force success to stem from total tactical authority. Vinícius and Rodrygo have still not locked into the levels they can reach at their best, but for as long as Bellingham can bear the load, Madrid can aim to improve.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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