In the joyous stands of Bernabéu, the iconic arena of Real Madrid, they passionately render the Beatles classic Hey Jude these days; several time zones and continents away, at the Flushing Meadows, the 20-year-old tennis sensation Carlos Alcaraz would hum the soulful nana na naaa tune of the song that buzzed in Paul McCartney’s mind when driving from London to Weybridge to meet the five-year-old daughter of band-mate John Lennon, Julia, who he was close to. The newspapers in Madrid are groping for superlatives and epithets; MARCA would write: “Love at first sight”. AS would blare: “The Master of Bernabéu.” A club that does not fall too easily in love with Englishmen, has been smitten by a 20-year-old from Birmingham after six games and as many goals in just a month.
From the moment Jude Bellingham, who looks younger than 20, streaks of innocence sprinkled on his serene face, signed for the European heavyweight, there was a sense of anticipation stewing. Reels and clips of his skills had spread far and wide; the genius of him was no mystery, or carefully hidden from plain-sight. His childhood club Birmingham had retired his jersey (No 22; because his coach thought he was a No 10, 8 and 4 all rolled together), he made heads turn at the World Cup, has been accumulating goals, assists and myths during his time at Borussia Dortmund, one of the coaches at the German nursery of wunderkinds would poetically say that “he is the oldest 19-year-old” he had ever seen.
But few would have expected him to so seamlessly or swiftly emerge as the most important player of his club, Real Madrid, the most glamorous club in the world. In just a month’s time, he has been shedding his light and magic in Spain. Not just that he has netted six goals in as many competitive appearances, but also how he scored it and when he scored it. He scored the only goal in Real Madrid’s win over Union Berlin in the Champions League opener; he netted the winners against Getafe and Celta Vigo, a brace against Almeria and one against Athletic in the La Liga opener. The goal against Getafe summed up his goal-scoring craft. The goalkeeper David Soria had repelled a shot from Lucas Vázquez. But the ball fell not too far from Soria. But before he could even gather where the ball was, Bellingham pounced from nowhere and slipped the goal past the goalkeeper’s defenseless arms. Both Vázquez and Soria were equally stunned. Another goal, against Almeria, was a header, that was more Cristiano Ronaldo-like in anticipation and execution. All of them have been striker’s goals.
To think he is not an assigned striker, or a second striker, or a winger or a forward, or an attacking midfielder (all these by definitions, which he makes a mockery of), but a central midfielder baffles the mind. How he does it is even more fascinating, because he seems to be everywhere and doing everything. He is often the disruptor, winning balls and finding space; he could be the deep-lying play-maker too, whipping up the perfect pass to launch attacks, he is the ball-carrier too, stealthily smuggling the ball upfront, and conductor too. He could be what his childhood coach said, could be a No 10, 8 or 4. Add No 9 and 6 too. Scoring goals was perhaps the first craft he learned, as his father, a police sergeant, was a prolific goalscorer in the non-league circuit, which he played till 2017.
His manager at Dortmund, Lucien Favre, dwelled on his biggest virtue: “Playing intelligence.” The ability to not only foresee a move, but plan and execute it. With someone like Bellingham, I don’t look at the date of birth. He has the technical skills and a feel for space. I like the way he handles the ball, how he defends it,” he would elaborate.
He gives managers tactical flexibility. At Birmingham City, he was everything; at Dortmund he was a left-sided midfielder in a double-pivot set-up. But he has played a solo pivot, attacking midfielder, and right midfielder. At Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti has made him the nucleus of his team, reshaping the formation to a semi-traditional 4-4-2 and a midfield diamond, where Bellingham occupies the attacking tip of the diamond, like a No 10 behind the forward pair of Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo. The formation, as well as the personnel—Real Madrid has a dazzling array of midfielders, from Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Eduardo Camavinga, Federico Valverde, Aurelien Tchouameni—to pervade a more advanced line and press harder. Energy and rapid transitions make them a force hard to stop when in full flow.
The players are still getting used to the formation and roles—Ancelotti has used 4-3-3 in both his previous stints. There are notes that still jar and a discordance at times. But Bellingham’s work-rate, intelligence and ruthlessness in front of the goal have made the transition look smoother. Ancelotti has praised him enough. “He learns very quickly; you don’t have to tell him things lots of times,” the Italian coach would say.
None of the spontaneous success or love affects him. “It’s just the start, I have lots to improve,” he once said. Even in his teenage years, he was careful to not be distracted by hype. He had a clear vision and plan about his future, so much so that he snubbed the moneyed clubs of England and joined Dortmund so that he could evolve as a player. “The way they integrate young players into the first-team squad is next level. There is not a club in Europe that does it quite like them,” he told The Guardian when he joined the German club. He was just 18 when he posted on Twitter, wondering whether the football authorities care about racist attacks on black players.
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Nothing daunts him—not the grandest stage, not the hefty price-tag of 103 million, not the praise of managers and teammates. Ancelotti talks up another gift of Bellingham—his personality. Some of his older teammates have turned fans. His international colleague Phil Foden says: “He’s going to be the best midfielder in the world.” David Alaba, his Madrid pal, says: “It’s crazy, I’ve run out of words.”
The only time he gets overawed is when he hears the crowd chant Hey Jude. “I can’t believe it. My legs were shaking,” Bellingham said. “When they were singing Hey Jude I got goosebumps. I just wanted to turn and stand still and listen to it. I could feel the support. I don’t know what I have done to deserve it, I’m just so grateful.”
It could be a song that would keep soaking the joyous stands of Bernabéu for years.