Jude Bellingham | Zidane in tight spaces, Gerrard in open field

Just 20, Jude Bellingham is already drawing comparisons with some of the finest midfielders in football history. After his eye-catching start to life at Real Madrid, the Bernabeu faithful adore him. Experts think he will soon establish himself as one of the generation’s global icons

September 29, 2023 11:45 pm | Updated September 30, 2023 11:37 am IST

Already iconic: It is not surprising that Real Madrid fans have instantly taken to Jude Bellingham. He scores important goals and celebrates them with his arms open wide, as if to share his joy with them. The pose has quickly entered pop culture. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Already iconic: It is not surprising that Real Madrid fans have instantly taken to Jude Bellingham. He scores important goals and celebrates them with his arms open wide, as if to share his joy with them. The pose has quickly entered pop culture. | Photo credit: Getty Images

The Santiago Bernabeu isn’t a place for shrinking violets. The iconic stadium, which Real Madrid calls home, has intimidated many a rival player. But the crowd is perhaps even more critical of its own. Accustomed to watching some of the finest players in history, the fans can swiftly turn on a footballer who they believe doesn’t have what it takes to wear the Madrid colours.

It was on his debut in front of this exacting audience that Jude Bellingham produced a moment of pure swagger. In the LaLiga game against Getafe, the 20-year-old sent his marker the wrong way with a sharp feint. He then brandished an imaginary cape, mimicking a matador who had eluded a charging bull. It was a nod to Spanish culture, but also a sign of how comfortable he felt in Madrid’s high-pressure environment, where winning everything is the minimum expectation. 

Miracle worker

Bellingham ended the night by nearly blowing the stadium’s new roof off with a last-gasp 95th-minute strike to earn Madrid a narrow win. He repeated the miracle in his first Champions League game for Los Blancos, conjuring up another injury-time winner, against Union Berlin.

Bellingham has enjoyed a superb start to life in the Spanish capital after his 103 million euro move from Borussia Dortmund. Wearing the No. 5 on his back in tribute to Zinedine Zidane, the England midfielder has quickly become a fan favourite.

It is not surprising that Madridistas have instantly taken to him — he scores important goals and celebrates them with his arms open wide, as if to share his joy with them. He has been serenaded with the chorus of a famous Beatles song. “When they sang ‘Hey Jude’ at the end, I got goosebumps,” he told Real Madrid TV after the win over Getafe. “I just wanted to turn and stand still and listen to it while my legs were shaking.”

Bellingham’s purchase was, in part, a response to the stinging defeat the record 14-time European champion suffered at the hands of Manchester City in last season’s Champions League semifinal. He is viewed as one of the main ingredients of a regeneration. Madrid has started reducing minutes for its veteran midfielders Luka Modric and Toni Kroos while allowing Bellingham, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Fede Valverde more opportunities. 

Total package: Bellingham has every physical and mental attribute required to dominate the midfield. Just 20, he is scarily complete. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Total package: Bellingham has every physical and mental attribute required to dominate the midfield. Just 20, he is scarily complete. | Photo credit: Getty Images

The 6’1” Bellingham adds to the tougher core Madrid sports this season, shorn of Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, who now plays in Saudi Arabia. And his goals so far have replaced Benzema’s — Bellingham has played more like the French forward than Les Bleus icon Zidane.

Diamond in a diamond

Thus far, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has deployed Bellingham as a No. 10, often at the tip of a midfield diamond, providing a strong physical presence in the area behind two wide forwards.

“We think that Bellingham’s arrival makes up for Karim’s absence,” Ancelotti told Italy’s Radio Serie A. “What he has been able to do so far doesn’t surprise those who know him. His quality isn’t surprising anybody, but the number of goals he’s got is surprising.”

When asked how Bellingham had clicked so quickly, Ancelotti said, “He’s adapted very well because he’s a very intelligent player who moves very well without the ball. Good players with personality suffer a bit less than the others [at Madrid]. A player with personality, above all, more than quality, means that an important shirt like Real Madrid’s doesn’t weigh so much.”

That personality was on display when he helped drive England to the World Cup quarterfinals last year in Qatar at only 19. It was also on display at Dortmund, especially last season, when he led his team out at Cologne in October, becoming the youngest match captain since the Bundesliga started recording the data in 1995. 

Elite habit: The best players make it count when their teams most need them. In his short time in the Spanish capital, Bellingham has already conjured up late winners for Madrid. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Elite habit: The best players make it count when their teams most need them. In his short time in the Spanish capital, Bellingham has already conjured up late winners for Madrid. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Over the Bundesliga season, he covered more distance (322 km) than any of his teammates, won 482 ‘duels’, a league high, and played 2,693 league minutes, the most of any player at the club. He appeared in 31 of his team’s 34 games, scoring eight goals and providing four assists.

A footballing sponge

Bellingham played a central role in Dortmund coming within a whisker of ending Bayern Munich’s monopoly of the German top-flight, but believes he is already a much better player. “I’m 10 times better than I was last season,” he said. “The level here is so high and I’m like a sponge, taking in everything my teammates tell me. That’s why I’ve started the season so well.”

Bellingham is the complete midfielder. His ball-carrying and passing stats are top drawer. He can manipulate the ball in tight areas, dribble out of trouble and link play. His athleticism and intelligence make him a threat in transitions. His timing and feel for space allow him to arrive in the box to get on the end of crosses and cut-backs. And he is no slouch defensively.

In addition to his current role at Madrid, Bellingham can play as either member of a double pivot, as an 8 in a midfield three, and as a free-roaming No. 10. Rene Maric, who was an assistant coach at Dortmund during the 2021-22 season, paid Bellingham the ultimate compliment. “If you want me to exaggerate, the best possible version of Jude could be like a Zidane in small spaces and like a [Steven] Gerrard in open spaces,” Maric said.

At a time when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have left Europe, Bellingham is among a group of players — Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Vinicius Jr., some of the others — establishing themselves as the new generation of global icons. 

But with the world seemingly at his feet, there is a point of serious concern. Only 20, he already has very high-mileage at the top end of the game — the relentless demands of modern-day football, both physical and mental, are unlikely to diminish anytime soon and Bellingham will require careful management if he is to maintain his extraordinary trajectory.

Burnout threat

World players union FIFPRO warned of the dangers faced by young players such as Bellingham in June. A report found that Bellingham had accumulated almost 15,000 minutes in competitive senior matches before turning 20 — considerably more than his predecessors such as Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Gerrard at the same stage of their illustrious careers.

Chronic stress and physical wear and tear are inevitable consequences of a heavy workload; they threaten career longevity. Ancelotti and England head coach Gareth Southgate are all too aware of the dangers of burnout and the need to protect such a valuable asset. 

But they believe his incredible maturity and the support networks around him will go a long way towards helping Bellingham realise his full potential on the pitch. Madrid and English fans, as well as football lovers everywhere, will hope that they are right and that the chorus of ‘Hey Jude’ continues to ring out across stadiums for the best part of the next 15 years.

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