Jude Bellingham scored his 11th goal of the season during the match against Braga on Tuesday, but a closer look reveals a tactical adjustment. While he continues to find the net, there might be a noticeable decline in his goal-scoring output in the upcoming weeks. The 20-year-old has transitioned from his role as an attacking midfielder at the tip of a four-man diamond to a left midfield position in a flatter midfield four. Ancelotti’s motive behind this shift is to enhance the team’s defensive stability, even if it means reducing Bellingham’s attacking freedom.
After the loss to Atletico Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti identified a significant vulnerability in his team – the lack of defensive coverage on the left flank. Subsequently, in the next match against Girona, there was a clear alteration in Bellingham’s starting position and his defensive positioning. He focused on containing Yan Couto down Madrid’s left channel and doubled-down on Girona winger, Viktor Tsygankov. Since his positional change, Bellingham’s defensive statistics have dramatically improved, including a threefold increase in tackles and blocks per game and a sixfold increase in interceptions.
However, adopting a deeper position and having greater defensive responsibilities comes at the cost of offensive contributions. Starting from a deeper position requires more effort to get into the box, resulting in fewer late runs into the opposition’s box. Consequently, Bellingham’s expected goals (xG) has decreased by approximately 20% since the change in position. Many of his attacking metrics, such as shot-creating actions and attempted take-ons per match, have also declined.
Although Jude personally may have less attacking freedom and more defensive obligations, Ancelotti has been emphatic that he will do what’s best for the team, not any single player. “My idea is that the team’s demands come first and then the individual’s... there is only one word to explain this: altruism.” Altruism was at the fore-front of Ancelotti’s pre-match press conference following the return from the October international break. He was speaking in regards to Rodrygo, Camavinga, and Tchouameni but the point holds true for Jude Bellingham.
Ancelotti’s new strategy leans heavily towards the left side, emphasizing the partnership between Bellingham and Vinicius Junior. Earlier in the season, it seemed that Ancelotti’s changes favored Bellingham at the expense of Vinicius Junior. However, it now appears that the system has been reconfigured to provide the Brazilian with additional support and fewer defensive responsibilities. It also gives Ancelotti the ability to incorporate a less mobile Toni Kroos into the line-up, given the improved coverage down the left.
Bellingham’s technical skillset and physical capacity means he is one of the most well-rounded players in all of world football. The shift in position has been seamless. In essence, Ancelotti is pulling the different levers to Bellingham’s game — forcing the defensive lever higher, and nudging the offensive lower. The goal for the Italian manager is to give his team balance and provide the best system to win trophies. It will be interesting to see if this tactic continues or if Ancelotti reverts back to a more vertical and narrow diamond shape in midfield.