There was a moment, during Real Madrid’s pre-season when the wise old heads at the most glamorous of clubs turned to one another with a knowing glance. There was an approving nod from Toni Kroos, a clap of the gloves from Thibaut Courtois. They were admiring the new signing, Jude Bellingham.
“Almost as soon as he first started practice with us, we, the veterans, looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow, this guy knows what he’s doing'," recalled Dani Carvajal, the toughest of Madrid’s senior professionals.
As Bellingham continues to make his awe-inspiring introduction to Spanish football, which he became part of early in the summer in exchange for the €100 million-plus transfer fee paid by Madrid to Borussia Dortmund, Carvajal finds himself adding new items to the catalogue of the player's virtues, no longer surprised that within the precocious 20 year-old’s vast portfolio are gifts he had not expected.
“What you don’t see at first is how quick he is,” explained Carvajal, the Madrid captain for most of an extraordinary first month of the season for the English midfield phenomenon. “Or that technically he’s insanely good.” What Bellingham’s live Spanish audiences have already seen is an exemplary adaptation to a new league, to a grand institution that has in the past intimidated far more worldly stars than Bellingham when they first arrived at the Bernabeu.
Bellingham has played four matches for Madrid so far. He has been on the scoresheet in every one of them – twice at Almeria, where he also set up the other goal in a 3-1 win – and added another man-of-the-match display on Tuesday, for England against Scotland in Glasgow.
That was not a competitive fixture, but a celebration of the 150th anniversary of supposedly international football’s oldest contest, a British derby in which the youngest participant – Bellingham only ceased being a teenager in June – was the most conspicuous leader.
Bellingham set the tone, creatively. Carvajal, Madrid’s right-back, would have purred at and recognised the sort of measured pass, executed on the move, that Bellingham delivered to England’s right-back Kyle Walker to first stretch the Scots on the way to a 3-1 English victory.
Madrid’s veterans already know and appreciate the poise and patience, the confidence in possession Bellingham displayed to pause and then pick his eye-of-a-needle pass to Marcus Rashford in the lead-in to Phil Foden’s goal to put England 1-0 up.
Bellingham himself made it 2-0 by half-time, finishing off a move he had started with some dainty work as an auxiliary left winger. His combinations with Rashford were a feature of the evening; his pass for Harry Kane’s second-half goal was masterly in its timing and weight.
Bellingham wore the number 10 for England, and although that reflects in part the position he is commanding most impressively, at the attacking apex of midfield for Madrid, a little advanced on his role last season for Dortmund, it hardly encompasses the full range of his contributions.
“It’s simply that he is so complete,” Carvajal told the broadcaster Movistar, “he’s a finisher when you give the ball, and he’s so intelligent. By the third week [with us], he’d worked out an understanding with all of us just by watching.”
Importantly, Bellingham heard loud and clear, in pre-season, what would be Madrid’s particular need from him. He had all but agreed to join them by the spring, prepared to take up a variety of possible midfield roles. In early summer, Karim Benzema, the long-serving captain, centre-forward and fulcrum of Madrid’s attack, then announced his departure for Al Ittihad in Saudi Arabia.
It left a huge goalscoring and creative hole. Bellingham stepped in, wearing number five on his jersey but playing as a number 10, while mixing the sort of combative aggression Carvajal cannot help but admire with confident technical flourishes.
His highlight reel so far in La Liga features both thumping tackles to regain possession and a number of nimble back-heels to conjure up space in and around the opposition penalty area.
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, praised Bellingham’s “athleticism in the press, as an attacking [number 8], or where he played against Scotland [further forward], he looks to get into the box.” Noting that Bellingham had not shone in England’s flatter performance against Ukraine, a 1-1 draw in Euro 2024 qualifying four days earlier, Southgate added: “We knew he has a fantastic personality to come back from that.”
Carvajal can only guess at how far upwards Bellingham soars. A Ballon d’Or candidate by this time next year? Bracketed with Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe as a generation-defining superstar? “We don’t want to deify him too much,” cautioned Carvajal, “the bar is set very high.”