European football’s signing of the summer shines with 13 goals and three assists in 14 games; a number that destroys multiple league records and equalizes with Cristiano Ronaldo. His name has been plastered all over sports journals, Instagram accounts, and talk shows, and it has been chanted from the 80 thousand-capacity Santiago Bernabéu stadium. Children and professional athletes everywhere are reenacting the midfielder’s celebration. With an impact like this, it is safe to say that Jude Bellingham has had a relatively good start to the 2023/24 season.
In fact, 16 goal contributions in 14 games is not a midfielder statistic – it is a striker statistic, and a very good one at that. Bellingham’s numbers are fantastic, but they are very unusual for his position. This is not surprising, however. The truth is that he entered the team during a very strange situation, with Real Madrid’s only quality striker having just left for the Saudi League. With a vacuum in the box and a new world-class player at his disposal, manager Carlo Ancelotti had to change his strategy, and that is exactly what he did.
Instead of trying to replace Benzema with another player, Ancelotti changed his revered 4-3-3 formation into a 4-4-2 diamond. In this new formation, four defenders play behind four midfielders who are in the shape of a diamond rather than a typical row of four. Tchouameni plays ahead of the defense as the base of the diamond and is thus the only defensive midfielder. Toni Kroos or Camavinga play on the left and Valverde typically plays on the right next to them. This leaves the tip of the diamond, known as the center attacking midfielder (CAM) or the number 10, to be played by Jude.
In the absence of a striker, this formation has allowed Bellingham to run into the space between the two wingers, Vinicius Jr. on the left and Rodrygo Goes on the right. With this role, a traditional number 10 would focus on moving the ball up the pitch to create opportunities for the forwards to score. While the player is still expected to shoot, the primary goal of a CAM is to connect the midfield and offense. As you can imagine, this explanation does not quite define La Liga’s leading goalscorer.
Above, we can see how Bellingham compares to midfielders and wingers across the seven largest men’s competitions. He shines as a goal contributor compared to traditional midfielders and has great interceptions and blocks (both defensive actions) compared to other attacking midfielders. In addition, he completes many more progressive passes than an average attacking midfielder, as he is in the 99th percentile, and receives more progressive passes than a holding midfielder. This indicates that Bellingham is moving the ball up the pitch, by both creating and receiving passes between the lines.
He is great at creating opportunities for his teammates while still scoring more goals than most other players (at 0.54, Bellingham has the highest non-penalty goals scored of any male attacking midfielder in the world so far this season). The player is difficult to categorize or even compare to others, almost as if he had created a whole new position. He is a good traditional midfielder and a great attacking midfielder who also scores like a world-class striker. His abilities do not make much sense when trying to define him within a position, he simply seems to have created his own – and it is working.
However, the benefits of the 4-4-2 diamond come at a cost. The creation of the diamond and loss of an offensive player creates a much more vertical team, where the left and right back have to push up to help out the offense. While the defenders have been doing this well, the formation means there are fewer players between the forwards and midfielders who can assist. As such, Rodrygo’s and Vinicius’s goals and goal contributions have fallen sharply since last season. They are now forced to play more centrally and do not get opportunities to get the ball on the wing and run.
While this makes perfect sense, one cannot miss the biggest reason for their fall in contributions; Real Madrid does not have a striker. Karim Benzema was an excellent player, who had the ability to attract defenders to him and free up space for the Brazilian wingers to score. Without a striker, the team has one less player who can always be focused on assisting and scoring. Bellingham has taken this role on very well, but he is expected to be everywhere at the same time. At some point, this can no longer be sustainable, and Rodrygo and Vinicius need a formation that helps them score.
This reality became painfully obvious with Real Madrid’s 0-0 tie against Rayo Vallecano, a team that is currently 9th in La Liga. During the game, Bellingham played with a painful injury, and Real did not manage to score without the midfielder in perfect shape. Unfortunately, the team is getting used to Bellingham scoring most of their goals, which is incredibly unsustainable. The injury he incurred was minor, but considering how much the midfielder is playing, a larger one is bound to happen. Jude needs to rest, and his team needs to figure out how to stay afloat when he is doing so.
Yet until the team finds a striker, this is easier said than done. Bellingham has been playing amazingly, but the team needs to start thinking about the long run. Ancelotti has to find ways to make better use of Vinicius and Rodrygo and adapt the team during games without the Englishman. The 20-year-old will have a bright future with Los Blancos if he rests every once in a while, and Los Blancos will have a bright future if they can afford to let him do so.
Featured image: El País