With weeks still left in the transfer window, much of the Madrid-based media have decided already who is “Buy of the Year.” In a summer in which expectations have risen, fallen and still remain in suspense around the possible arrival of Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid, there is absolute conviction that, come what may, the greatest marketplace coup must be the club’s purchase of Jude Bellingham.
“The Signing of the Summer,” the newspaper Marca, Spain’s top-selling daily, labels the Englishman, echoing its rival AS and clarifying: “That’s not only in Spain, but worldwide.” This in the window where Lionel Messi moved and soared immediately at Inter Miami, and where Bellingham’s compatriot, Harry Kane, joined Bayern Munich and scored on his first start for the German champions.
The impact of Bellingham eclipses theirs partly because, at just-turned 20 years old, he is a decade Kane’s junior and fully 17 years younger than Messi, who has moved, by joining an MLS club, to a less competitive league environment than the European elite divisions he commanded for so long.
It cost Madrid over €100 million to prise Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund but, from day one of his pre-season, it was clear they anticipated a sharp upward trajectory and felt ready to design a game plan around his wide portfolio of skills.
Two Liga matches into his career, Bellingham has three goals and an assist, impressive numbers for a newcomer, even more so for a midfield player, usually – and accurately – described as a “box-to-box” footballer.
At Madrid, he is asked by manager Carlo Ancelotti to steer much of his energy towards the opposition penalty box. In his last year at Dortmund, when the German club were adjusting to life after Erling Haaland, Bellingham was the club’s top scorer with 14 across competitions, his goals contributing to a sustained Bundesliga title chase, one that failed, on goal difference, only on the last day of the German season.
Goals are part of his repertoire. But so is regaining possession. On his Liga debut, at Athletic Bilbao, he introduced himself to audiences with a bold sliding tackle on Nico Williams in an all-action first half featuring his first Madrid goal, a slightly scruffy volley.
His next Madrid strike, to initiate a comeback from 1-0 down to a 3-1 victory at Almeria last weekend, was poached, in the manner of an alert centre-forward. His second goal against Almeria, a header from a deep cross, styled him as an accomplished target man.
After that double, and an assist for Vinicius Junior, Bellingham declared that, already, he feels “10 times better as a player” since he joined Madrid. His serene adjustment, says Ancelotti, is down to his “character and maturity. That and the fact he’s already played in Germany for three years have helped him adapt so well to La Liga and to our style”.
Fact is, Ancelotti is also adapting Madrid’s style to Bellingham’s strengths. This is a season of seismic transition for the 2022 European and Spanish champions, the first for 14 years they have begun without Karim Benzema, the former captain and centre-forward on the staff.
They have also been obliged to begin the 2023/24 campaign without Thibaut Courtois at the other end of the pitch, the Belgian goalkeeper having torn a cruciate ligament on the eve of the season.
At the same time Ancelotti chose to embark on this campaign without two more pillars of Madrid’s many successes over the last decade. In Bilbao, Bellingham lined up in a midfield excluding Toni Kroos, 33, and Luka Modric, 37 – they were on the substitutes' bench – and as part of a front six where Fede Valverde was the senior man, at 25 years old.
The formation used was distinct from the Ancelotti standard, more of a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield than a 4-3-3, with Bellingham pushing forward at the apex of the midfield whenever Madrid took up possession.
If Benzema has left a gap, not only as the expert finisher but as the advanced playmaker, his layoffs providing a catalyst for the quick runs in wide positions of Vinicius and Rodrygo, the precocious Brazilians, Bellingham is filling some of it.
On Friday, Madrid go to Celta Vigo, where the man plotting how to put tactical shackles on La Liga’s brilliant new Briton will be Rafa Benitez, Celta’s new coach, Real Madrid’s former boss and the strategist who, in his brief time at Madrid in 2015, left one important legacy at the Bernabeu. He established Kroos, Modric and Casemiro as a close-to-ideal trio of complementary midfielders.
The Kroos-Modric-Casemiro reign would bring four Champions League trophies to the club, and it ended only last summer with Casemiro’s sale to Manchester United. While Kroos and Modric will still have roles to play, a new Madrid midfield, designed to last, is being constructed around Valverde, Edu Camavinga, 20, and Aurelien Tchouameni, 23. And, above all, around the multi-tasking Bellingham.