There weren’t many better young midfielders in the world than Jude Bellingham, even before he joined Real Madrid earlier this summer from Borussia Dortmund for a reported £115 million.
And then, the Englishman just went on to become even better, adding a new skill to his already burgeoning quiver - goal-scoring.
Before his miraculous streak at the start of this season – where he scored five goals in four La Liga games and once for England against Scotland – the 20-year-old wasn’t a frequent visitor to the goalscoring column.
For Real Madrid, he has already scored almost half of what he scored for Borussia Dortmund (12 goals) in the Bundesliga in 92 appearances.
Bellingham’s Midas touch in front of goal is an output of a tactical switch by Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, necessitated by a lack of resources at the club, as well as by an appreciation of the unexplored talents of the Englishman.
With Karim Benzema, who led the Los Blancos lines for a decade or so, leaving for treasure-laden pastures of the Saudi Pro League, Ancelotti was left without a No. 9 in his side.
The Italian manager although did have Brazilian tricksters Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo, who have been regular scorers. But both of the young stars are better suited as wingers or as second strikers.
With Madrid failing to draw in long-time target Kylian Mbappe once again, Ancelotti was forced to innovate.
Madrid began to shape itself in a 4-4-2 structure, enabling his side to field more midfielders.
It would be an understatement to say that Los Blancos has the most stacked midfield in world football at the moment. From the experience of veterans Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to the vitality of the young Aurélien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga, and of course Bellingham, the Madrid midfield covers most bases.
To stand out among this bunch, it would take something special and Bellingham falls into that category.
For this season, Ancelotti has tweaked his midfield into a diamond structure, with Bellingham as the crowning jewel, up top. With lesser defensive work – which is shouldered by Camavinga and Tchouameni – and greater offensive freedom, he has flourished like never before.
With Dortmund, Bellingham was often burdened with running the game in the midfield. He was forced to lift his side, linking defence to attack, forcing him to ply his trade away from the goal.
But that is not the case now with Real Madrid, where his touch map has moved progressively towards the opposition box. His touches/90 minutes inside the attacking penalty box has sprung from 3.6 in his last season with Dortmund to 5.64 with Madrid, while his touches/90 minutes in the attacking third has moved up from 19.8 to 28.2.
Bellingham’s positioning has also had a direct influence on the quality of chances he gets in scoring. His expected goal tally (per 90) has nearly doubled from last season, despite him shooting nearly at the same rate as before. The English star is now shooting from closer to the goal (17.5m to 12.9m), which has helped him to hit the target with more than double the accuracy.
A debut goal against Athletic Bilbao, from what looked like a scuffed shot, began his goal hunt. He would go on to score four more goals, including two last-ditch winners, all of them scored with predatory finishes.
“He can score 15 goals without a problem,” said Ancelotti after Bellingham scored the winner against Getafe.
“He stands out because he moves very well without the ball. This is his main quality. He breaks lines, has a great movement, constant, that’s why he scores so many goals.”
To Ancelotti and Madrid’s credit, they managed to recognise the goal-scoring potential of Bellingham, aided by his wiry frame of 6’1. His heading ability has come to the fore, as exhibited by the goal against Almeria, where he outjumped the rival keeper to head a cross in.
“We have shown him videos of what we liked about him when he played for Dortmund. What he has changed is that he moves a lot. He does more, movements without the ball to the rival area,” said Ancelotti.
Bellingham’s surging confidence in front of the goal was reflected in the way he pounced on a loose ball in the box against Scotland, to score his second international goal, and put England on the way to a comfortable win in the friendly fixture.
Against Scotland, England manager Gareth Southgate slotted Bellingham in behind forward Harry Kane, allowing him to link up extensively with wingers Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden. This was a departure from the side’s strategy in the Qatar World Cup, where the Madrid midfielder often operated on the same line as defensive midfielder Declan Rice, limiting his forward forays.
When the 20-year-old moved to Real Madrid, he was bestowed with the No. 5 jersey, previously worn by club legend and former manager Zinedine Zidane, who Bellingham has openly expressed admiration for.
The French legend, although not a prolific goal accumulator, was a scorer of great goals. Bellingham is laying the template to be both.
If one is to believe in the law of averages, Bellingham’s purple patch can take a hit. But Bellingham has taken to the pressure of the Real Madrid cauldron – which has burned down the wings of several stars before him – with swagger and style, as displayed by his tremendously self-aware goal celebration, where he holds his arms aloft, soaking in the adoration from the Madrid faithful in awe of a new hero.
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