1. The first league match of the season between Real Madrid and Barcelona took on a heightened symbolic meaning long before the two teams kicked off. The original match, scheduled for October 26th, was delayed due to protests following jail sentences to nine leaders pushing for Catalan independence. It was the second time in three years that an independence movement affected on-field play, with Barcelona playing to an empty stadium in 2017. 
  2. La Liga finally settled on December 18th as the new date after a prolonged discussion. The debate, on the surface, was about safety in rescheduling the biggest league match of the year. But taken in context with the league’s desire to play a match outside of Spain, it continued to unveil layers about what La Liga wanted to be over this next decade. 
  3. Protest sentiments continued to grow with a firm date in place, with the two month delay only giving groups more time to plan. Thus, there was a precise schedule for both Real Madrid and Barcelona players, with each side sleeping in the same hotel the night before amid security concerns. 
  4. Zinedine Zidane simply called the new itinerary “different.” Ernesto Valverde complained about the schedule change, saying “I think we could have played the game on the original day and there is no reason why we can’t play the game tomorrow.”
  5. Back to on-field matters: Barcelona and Real Madrid are tied on top of the table with 35 points each, with Barcelona ahead on goal difference. 
  6. Arturo Vidal reportedly stormed out of training after being told he would not start the match the day before. Sergio Busquets is also surprisingly dropped from Barcelona’s midfield, with Valverde going for a physical triangle of Frenkie de Jong, Ivan Rakitic, and Sergi Roberto. Zidane also dropped midfield playmaker Luka Modric, opting for the robustness of Fede Valverde, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos in midfield. 
  7. Barcelona open the match with possession, as expected. They create an early chance from Messi dropping deep and hitting a diagonal ball to a streaking Jordi Alba on the left, who crosses to Luis Suarez. That looks to be their attacking pattern as they bypass their own midfield. 
  8. Madrid, meanwhile, are pressing Barcelona high in a 4-3-1-2 diamond midfield shape. That structure naturally puts their two strikers in Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale on Barcelona’s two centerbacks, with Isco man-making Rakitic at the base of midfield.
  9. Antoine Griezmann touches the ball for the first time in the match some 7 minutes in. Likewise, fellow El Clasico newcomer de Jong has yet to get a grip on the match.
  10. Benzema gets the first shot on target in the match off a quick turnover. Zidane’s side are condensing Barcelona in their own half, with Barcelona’s midfield unable to play out through the middle. 
  11. Real Madrid attack with long, direct balls over the top to Benzema and Bale as soon as they regain possession. 
  12. Gerard Pique clears Casemiro’s header off the line. There was an extended period of dominance for Real Madrid in which they had the ball in Barcelona’s half. Granted, Barcelona’s defense never broke under pressure. The camera appropriately pans to a shot of Busquets distantly looking on from the bench.
  13. Valverde playing Roberto at center midfield instead of Busquets or Vidal will make for an easy scapegoat if Barcelona lose this match. 
  14. It’s Ramos’ time to clear a Messi shot off the line, from a sequence created by a direct run from Roberto.
  15. Fede Valverde gets a shot in just wide. His box-to-box energy and technique is driving Real Madrid. There’s a symbolic difference in the physicality of Roberto and Fede Valverde tilting play.
  16. Though Roberto is finding room from that right half space in midfield. Maybe it’ll be Griezmann who gets the media blame. 
  17. Alba has a clear run on goal from another Messi chip over the top. That combination on the left has created Barcelona’s most dangerous chances.
  18. The match is tied 0-0 at halftime. Real Madrid have had the better of the half through Benzema and Valverde. Barcelona, who need to figure out their structure without the ball, must surely find some use of Busquets in the second half. 
  19. Then again, it’s not Barca’s midfield. There’s been 1 completed pass between Griezmann and Messi, and 0 pass completions between Griezmann and Suarez. It feels as if Barca are only able to attack one side of the field with that lack of synergy in their front 3. Suarez completed with 4 out of 11 passes in the first half.
  20. Vidal comes on for Nelson Semedo early in the second half, with Roberto moving to right back. Barca need Vidal’s energy to help contain Fede Valverde.
  21. Beach balls and balloons with political messages written on them are getting thrown onto the field, delaying the match. That’s the first time that off-field tensions translated into play.
  22. Vidal’s presence opened up play for both sides. Messi scuffs a chance, followed by Isco getting on the end of his own sequence immediately after. Messi has been uncharacteristically throughout the match running at Madrid’s backline. 
  23. Casemiro gets a yellow card for tackle against Suarez. Suarez still has done very little, especially in his link-up play with Messi. 
  24. Vidal’s presence is freeing up de Jong to play further up the field. The Dutch midfielder makes a trademark run from deep to get a shot on target. Those direct runs are Barcelona’s current, and only threat in possession. There is very little penetration behind Madrid’s defense otherwise. 
  25. Gareth Bale scores a goal, though it gets called back for offsides with Benjamin Mendy a fraction early in receiving a cross from Casemiro. Though the sequence is notable as it replicates Barcelona’s attack from earlier, with Casemiro hitting a diagonal ball to Mendy, who then crosses it back in front of net. 
  26. Rodrygo and Modric come on for Isco and Fede Valverde. This match is open for Rodrygo to win. 
  27. Griezmann, Suarez, and Messi again miss on a promising combination play in front of Real Madrid’s box due to a lack of communication. They are not syncing at all. 
  28. Valverde responds to Zidane’s sub by swapping Fati for Griezmann. Fati immediately gets a corner on his first touch, taking on Carvajal on the left one-on-one.
  29. Messi’s frustration with a lack of combination is evident with Suarez continuing to lose the ball. 
  30. The match was always going to end 0-0 considering both a cautious nature and lack of penalty box quality from both sides. There were no real clearcut chances or intricate buildup play. Without any midfield combinations, both sides settled on diagonal balls to create chances. Though Real Madrid must be happy with the result as they nullified Barcelona’s possession away from home. Zidane showed his tactical flexibility in a big setting, matching his front 3 with Barcelona’s backline. This is also one of those matches that makes you think how Casemiro is one of the best midfielders in the world.
  31. Even though Barcelona are still top of the table, there is a story of disconnection within the side. And while the numbers show how Griezmann, Suarez, and Messi aren’t linking in attack, you can also feel the tension and unease. Their best sequences came from individuals, especially with de Jong taking charge in the second half. This is not the Barcelona we’ve come to know over the decade.