Sports

Born to play for Madrid, Bellingham can conquer the Clasico

Jude Bellingham has made playing for Real Madrid look easy. You’ve heard the headline number by now: eight goals in his first nine LaLiga games. Those goals — which have come from just 22 shots, 15 of them on target — have propelled Madrid to the top of the Spanish league ahead of Saturday’s El Clasico showdown with champions Barcelona (10 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).

No Karim Benzema? No Kylian Mbappé? No problem. Take a 20-year-old midfielder, newly arrived at the biggest club in the world for a €103 million transfer fee, and build the attack around him. Ditch the 4-3-3 you’re used to playing, and introduce a midfield diamond to get Bellingham as close to the box as possible.

So far, coach Carlo Ancelotti’s gamble has been rewarded. Those goals — one at Athletic Club, a brace against Almeria, one each against Celta Vigo, Getafe and Girona, another brace against Osasuna, plus three in three UEFA Champions League games against Union Berlin, Napoli and Braga — are proof of concept.

Yet the goals don’t tell the whole story, as Bellingham has brought so much more.

His all-round game has grown, week by week. He’s the player with the most blocks in LaLiga (20, two ahead of Barca’s Gavi). His importance, and his opponents’ awareness of it, has made him the most fouled player in the league (30). His position has evolved as the team has learned to plug the gaps in Ancelotti’s new 4-4-2, with Bellingham drifting to the left to form a devastating partnership with the team’s other outstanding player, Vinícius Júnior.

Bellingham is already a leader, as vocal on the pitch as he is comfortable off it. He’s been saying all the right things, quickly winning over a fanbase and Madrid media who’ve previously been sceptical about British players and becoming fast friends with Madrid’s next generation: Vinícius, Rodrygo, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga.

Now comes the greatest stage of all: Barcelona away in the first Clasico of the LaLiga season — albeit at Montjuic’s Olympic Stadium, not Camp Nou.

It’s the latest test for a player who has made a habit of racing ahead of schedule, cramming an entire career’s worth of achievements — playing for the team you supported as a kid, moving to a big club abroad, joining Real Madrid — into just four years.


People who’ve worked with Bellingham during his ascent from Birmingham City to Borussia Dortmund and now Madrid — in particular, his coaches — are united by their lack of surprise at his success at the Bernabeu. The speed at which it’s arrived, perhaps, but nothing else.

“I haven’t been shocked at all by his development on the field,” Paco Herrera, who was assistant manager at Birmingham for the 2019-20 season, told ESPN. “[Bellingham] does everything with such simplicity. Maybe I expected him to take more time to adapt to LaLiga and to a club like Real Madrid, but no. Once again, he’s made it look easy.”

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Herrera worked with Pep Clotet, the manager who gave Bellingham his senior debut at the age of 16.

“I asked Pep if I could watch the reserve team. That was the first time [that I saw Bellingham],” Herrera said. “I remember, after the second game I saw him play, all I could think was, ‘When this is over, I can’t wait a single minute to talk to Clotet and tell him about this player I’ve been watching.'”

Bellingham had already been fast-tracked from Birmingham’s under-18s to their under-23s. Before long, he was training with the first team, making his debut in the League Cup on Aug. 6, 2019.

“As a person, he’s what you see on the pitch,” Herrera said. “Honest. Consistent. He has personality. He’s a good teammate … All of the characteristics that you look for in a top player, you can see in Jude.”

Clotet agrees that there was a feeling of inevitability about Bellingham’s path from St. Andrew’s to the Santiago Bernabeu.

“I remember being in training, when he was 16,” he told Cadena SER radio last week. “There was a Champions League game, and we were talking about Barcelona and Madrid. I knew him of course, but we’d never talked about this. I thought he’d be more of a Barca fan, but he had it in his head that he liked Madrid … I see the same spirit [now] that I saw playing with us. Playing for your club. He looks comfortable.

“Some players are No. 10s, attacking midfielders, central midfielders, holding midfielders. Jude is a midfielder. Like in the old days. He’s a midfielder who does well in every position. You can put him wherever you want. With England he’s played as a No. 6. At Dortmund he played as a No. 8. At Birmingham he played a game for us at No. 10 as he’s doing now, or he started wide and cut inside.

“I’m convinced he can be a generational talent with Madrid and [England]. He should be. He’s a leader. He’s just arrived, but he’s a leader … In the difficult moments, that’s when you see the best Jude. In the games with the most pressure. He can define an era. I don’t want to put pressure on him, because above all, I respect him a lot. But he has everything [you need] to do it.”

Bellingham and his family have planned his career carefully, choosing the move to Dortmund — in July 2020, for a €23m fee, aged 17 — ahead of Premier League giants Manchester United because of the Bundesliga club’s track record of empowering young talent.

He had three managers in three seasons at Dortmund: Lucien Favre, Edin Terzic (twice) and Marco Rose. All three raved about the teenager’s maturity.

“With someone like him, I don’t look at the date of birth,” Favre told news agency Keystone-SDA in September 2020 after coaching Bellingham for just a few weeks. “It’s easy for me to work with such a talent.”

A year later, Rose was describing Bellingham as “a great guy in every single way,” praising his “mentality, the willingness to work for the team, the intensity with which he plays football, the will to win and the solutions he finds on the football pitch.”

Terzic said it best, speaking to the Telegraph in February this year: “Jude Bellingham is the oldest 19-year-old I have ever met.”


Still, though. This is Real Madrid. The pressure at the Bernabeu is elevated by the need to consistently deliver at a club where only the very best — over and over again — is good enough. You’re walking into a midfield run by Luka Modric and Toni Kroos for a decade, and both of them are still there, looking you up and down, wondering if the hype is justified, if you’ll take away their game time.

ESPN has reported that if there was any initial reservations about Bellingham — among teammates, coaches or senior management — it evaporated instantly. It was clear from his first training session, his first preseason friendly and his first competitive game: a signing made for the long term, to lead the team for the next 10 years, was ready to deliver right now.

That €103m transfer fee “will end up looking cheap” a club source told ESPN. “It looked like he’d been playing for us for two years,” a source close to the squad said after a game on this summer’s U.S. tour.

The players haven’t hesitated to praise him publicly. Both club captain Nacho and star forward Vinicius have said Bellingham “was born to play for Real Madrid.” Valverde said he’s a potential future captain.

For Ancelotti, there’s a straightforward explanation for Bellingham’s adaptation.

“Good players with personality suffer less,” the Blancos boss said last month. “Personality, more than quality, means a shirt like Real Madrid’s doesn’t weigh so much.”

Ancelotti is 64. He’s spent 30 years coaching at Europe’s biggest clubs. “I’ve never seen a player of that age make such an impact,” he said this week.

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Why Jude Bellingham is willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to win

Ale Moreno heaps praise on Jude Bellingham following Real Madrid’s Champions League win over Napoli.

Another line from the manager, speaking after Madrid’s 1-0 Champions League win over Union Berlin on Sept. 20 in which Bellingham scored in the 94th minute, sums it up: “He’s smarter than the rest.”

Ancelotti was talking about Bellingham’s uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, pouncing on a loose ball inside the six-yard box, but as a broader assessment it’s equally valid.

Bellingham has known how to push the Bernabeu’s buttons, leaving no doubt that he’s aware of the club’s history and grandeur. He hasn’t spoken much — an ongoing dispute between Real Madrid and LaLiga means post-match interviews have been limited to the club’s in-house TV channel — but his words have hit the target just as often as his shots.

He described the fans’ reaction to his 95th-minute winner against Getafe on Sept. 2 as “the loudest moment I’ve heard in a stadium,” saying he “got goosebumps” when he heard the crowd singing The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”.

“My legs were shaking,” Bellingham said. “I was brought in for these kinds of moments.”

“I believe in myself, but I didn’t know it would be this good,” he said after scoring in the 3-2 Champions League win at Napoli, a solo goal that brought unexpected comparisons with Diego Maradona. Bellingham’s response? “That’s a bit too much! From what I’ve seen on YouTube and documentaries, his quality was a bit more than mine … I’m just trying to contribute in a Jude way.”

His next opportunity comes in El Clasico, a new canvas for a player who says he wants to be “an artist” around the pitch and “a killer” in the box. “That’s what is going to win us games.”

Bellingham struggled in Real’s biggest test to date, a 3-1 derby defeat to Atletico Madrid. Ancelotti pushed him even higher up the pitch, out of the midfield and into the front two. It was a step too far, limiting his impact.

This time, there will surely be no innovations. It’s time for the next challenge: dominating the highest-profile club
fixture in world football.

Additional reporting from ESPN’s Rodrigo Faez

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