You ever have that one friend when you were a kid, and when you’d have them beaten at a board game they’d just smash the board, send all the pieces flying, and call it a win? That’s what it’s been like playing against Real Madrid for a while. They don’t have a definitive style really. They don’t swarm you with a cohesive plan. They just sport two or three players that will do something you can do nothing about and then they win. It was Ronaldo or Benzema or Kroos or Modrić or Vinicius Jr in the recent past. It was Raul, Figo, Zidane, and OG Ronaldo before that.
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And now it’s Jude Bellingham all by himself.
Real Madrid weren’t great in the season’s first El Clásico. Barcelona had a clear plan which was mostly well executed. Push Alex Balde from left-back up into the frontline in possession, forming a front four that moved Joao Felix more inside and Ilkay Gūndoğan and Fermin Lopez could jump in, and out of the gaps. Gavi would basically man-mark Bellingham, and the defensive line out of possession would remain high even with the forward line dropping deep to squeeze off the space Bellingham would normally operate in between the lines. Barcelona would dare Madrid to hit balls over the top for Vinicius and Rodrygo to run onto, which should work given the pace both have, and yet they never did. It was a little out of the Jose Mourinho-against-Pep Guardiola book, and it mostly worked. Worked for a 1-0 lead at least when Antonio Rudiger went to the zoo while Gündoğan ran past him:
Real Madrid’s plan? “Eh, we’ll figure it out..” which is pretty much the only expression Carlo Ancelotti ever has on the touchline. Older Italian men always look like they know something you don’t, and Ancelotti always looks like he knows something they don’t.
No matter how many times you watch Madrid, it’s easy to wonder how anything that looked like the first half could be part of the plan. Vinicius spent most of his time diving onto the turf, which even drew the ire of Barca manager Xavi, hardly known as a hothead. Bellingham was marked out of the game, they didn’t have a shot on target, and it all just looked clunky.
But what does that matter when Bellingham will do this out of nowhere in the 2nd half?
Probably need another angle or two of this fist in the face of God:
If you want to be cruel about it, Bellingham was only given the chance to equalize because Barca didn’t really have a lethal finisher on the field to capitalize on all their possession and good work. Ferran Torres is more graft than craft, Joao Cancelo is a defender pushed up to forward due to the injury list, and Joao Felix is not a massive goal-getter. And yet you feel like Barca could have rolled out four prime-age Robert Lewandowski’s and it wouldn’t matter.
Modric’s and Edward Camavinga’s introduction in the second half definitely flipped the match as far as momentum, giving Madrid far more thrust than they had. But the ultimate trump card these days is Bellingham. If he were a hockey player, they would say the puck finds him. What that really means it that his anticipation and instincts just always put him in the right place:
Sure, he’s not tracked by the midfield. The defender between him and Modric can’t see him, nor count on Modric merely deflecting the cross in. But we seem to always say that about players who score a lot, score big goals a lot. If they didn’t know how to evade defenders and wind up in tons of space…they’d be pre-Balogun USMNT strikers. That’s what makes them special.
It’s hard to make nearly $150 million, Bellingham’s potential transfer fee, look like a steal. Plus whatever his astronomical salary is, which he could already argue is an underpayment. 13 goals and 3 assists in 13 games in La Liga and the Champions League for a guy who doesn’t play at forward. Why bother with a masterful tactical plan when you can just toss Bellingham out there? At the moment, he is all the answers.
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