It’s finally that time of the year: the first Clásico of the season. With a combined 49 points out of a potential 60, Barcelona and Real Madrid have put together formidable starts to their respective campaigns.
The Catalans are making things work despite an injury-riddled squad (what else is new?), while Madrid are transformed by the arrival of their newest superstar.
According to those in the Spanish capital, it’s Jude Bellingham’s world and we’re all just living in it.
Since moving to Madrid this past summer, the 20-year-old wonderkid has taken the world by storm, averaging over one goal contribution per 90 minutes and handling the pressure of playing for one of Europe’s elite clubs with ease.
Debates may persist about his position – ”he’s only scoring because he’s playing as a striker now” – but that doesn’t matter. Quality is quality.
For Barcelona, a successful Clásico means keeping Bellingham quiet, and nullifying his reign at the Lluís Companys. Can the Catalans do so? Let’s find out.
Let’s start our analysis by taking a closer look at how Madrid are expected to lineup and operate. Despite Carlo Ancelotti’s laissez-faire approach to shapes and patterns of play, one can still predict Los Blancos’ dynamics this Saturday.
In 2023-24, Madrid have mainly operated with a 4-4-2 diamond. Against Barcelona, their backline will almost assuredly be Kepa Arrizabalaga in goal, David Alaba and Antonio Rüdiger at centre-back, Dani Carvajal at right-back, and Ferland Mendy (or the attack-minded Fran Garcia) at left-back.
It is also worth mentioning that Eduardo Camavinga could start at left-back.
The rest of the positions are not as clear; Aurelien Tchouameni or Camavinga should play in midfield, with either Toni Kroos for build-up and ball-progression, or Federico Valverde for dynamism down the right-hand side.
Bellingham will start atop the diamond as the hybrid number 10/poacher, with Vinicius Jr. at left-forward and one of Rodrygo or Joselu on the right.
If Joselu starts, the veteran striker should operate centrally with Valverde making runs on the right-wing; if Rodrygo, then Kroos’ inclusion is the more natural choice.
Now, how Madrid lineup will impact Bellingham’s effectiveness, regardless of his ceiling-raising qualities.
If Joselu starts up top, expect him to occupy Barcelona’s centre-backs and give Bellingham more space to maneuver, as well as pounce off ricochets, quick lay-offs, and third-man runs from crosses.
This also means Bellingham can play (slightly) deeper into zones 14 and 11, as well as drift into the right-hand side – alongside Federico Valverde, if he starts.
It goes without saying that Vinicius Jr. will take over duties on the left, moving in-and-out of wide and central positions, with more emphasis on taking touches centrally.
Alternatively, if the more dynamic Rodrygo starts alongside Vinicius, the right side should be taken care of, granting Bellingham the responsibility to stay in central positions. It’s up to Ancelotti to pick his poison: play with a target man with aerial presence in the form of Joselu, or opt for fluidity with Rodrygo.
With Madrid’s lineup in mind, let’s analyse how Barça should lineup to best nullify Bellingham, and thus, their opponents as a whole.
The first question Xavi must answer is what backline to play. Joao Cancelo is always a welcomed addition to the starting lineup, but starting Ronald Araujo at right-back to feature against Vinicius Jr. is the safest and most sensible option this weekend.
That means Andreas Christensen and the in-form Iñigo Martinez should start at centre-back, with Alejandro Balde as a marauding left-back.
With this backline, Barcelona are well equipped to combat a Madrid attack that have an overwhelming tendency to play down the left-hand side (54% of their attacks this season have come from the left).
As every culé knows, Araujo matches up well against Vinicius Jr., and his presence as a quasi-third centre-back allows Christensen and Iñigo to deal with Bellingham in and around the box.
Even if Joselu starts up top and pins his markers, Araujo will alleviate the pressure of his two centre-backs. In all, containing Vinicius Jr. means limiting link-up play and passes to Bellingham, and if the attack-minded Fran Garcia starts at left-back, Araujo should help annul his crosses too.
Midfield & the case for Romeu
Nevertheless, managing Vinicius Jr. and Fran Garcia isn’t even half the battle when it comes to keeping Bellingham quiet.
Barcelona’s midfielders will also have their hands full tracking his third-man runs into the box, ball carries, and overall elite positioning that allows him to get free from his markers.
And because Bellingham does most of his ouput damage in the box, playing almost like a poacher at times, Barcelona must be quick to respond to any shot-rebounds, lapses of concentration in the box, and sloppy passes.
Moving up the pitch, with the wrong midfield combination, Xavi can put too much responsibility on his backline, which may spell unfortunate results.
As such, if Oriol Romeu starts alongside Gavi and Gundogan, he can provide the necessary physicality and man-marking needed to keep an eye on Bellingham, tracking the English international from deeper midfield zones into the box.
That may be a deterrent going forward and in build-up, but Bellingham is far too dangerous to be ignored.
To further justify Romeu’s inclusion, Xavi can opt for a box-midfield with Fermin Lopez to provide numerical superiority in central positions – albeit Madrid may be more vulnerable out-wide given their narrow lineup on paper.
Hence, Barcelona should operate with a backline of Araujo, Christensen, Iñigo, and Balde, and a midfield that includes Romeu.
Xavi could shock the world and play with a five-man backline, incorporating Joao Cancelo as right wing-back, but that’s far-fetched at this point and perhaps too “negative”, especially considering Fermin Lopez’s recent form.
To wrap things up, we are in for yet another mouth-watering and heated Clásico. The key to a Barcelona victory may very well be keeping Bellingham quiet, and the blueprint to do so is out there. It’s now up to Blaugrana to fulfill it.