Jude Bellingham is a 4, an 8 and a 10 who wore 22 at Birmingham and Borussia Dortmund and could wear 11, 7 or 9 at Real Madrid. He cost €103m (£88.5m), plus about €30m in add-ons, has signed a contract until 2029 and is the sixth Englishman to arrive at the Santiago Bernabéu, 16 years after the last departed. Playing in his third country, 176 games into his career, he is an international with 24 caps who scored 24 goals and provided 25 assists in three years in Germany and won 482 duels last season, more than anyone else. He is also 19 years old and that may be the most significant number of all.
Nineteen. A teenager has just become the second most expensive player in the history of the world’s most successful club, a signing of huge symbolism and strategic significance. At the same time the news broke Lionel Messi was going to Miami because Barcelona do not have the money to bring him home, it was confirmed: for almost €140m total, their rivals had closed a deal with Dortmund.
Liverpool had pulled out in April, Madrid’s enduring power revealed. At a time when the discourse speaks of the dominance of state-owned clubs and England, a de facto super league, England’s best prospect will not be in the Premier League and that matters.
This matters more. Bellingham’s role and signing were planned and executed over a long time, not a response to results but a deeper analysis. Set to be presented at the Bernabéu, where the €800m renovation is nearing completion at last, and given the full galáctico treatment, he has become the central piece in the construction of a new Madrid. Already under way, even if the timings cannot always be predicted with precision and finding a place for everyone is far from simple, that will be accelerated.
“I like the classics, rock’n’roll,” Carlo Ancelotti said this time last year. His task now is to move towards something more modern, another age.
Back then, Ancelotti referred to Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos as “the Bermuda triangle”. When the ball goes in there, he said, it disappears. He talked admiringly about how they surprised him by doing things he didn’t expect, how he didn’t even need to tell them anything. In fact, he joked, Madrid fans could rest assured: he wasn’t going to get in the way.
The Madrid midfield, they were eternal, except that no one is. Within a month, Casemiro had gone to Manchester United and although Madrid were European champions, there was no escaping the ages of Modric and Kroos, then 36 and 32 respectively.
The beginnings of a shift had already been seen, if later than had been imagined, which is why Martin Ødegaard ended up departing. When Madrid turned it around against Manchester City in 2022, all three of the midfield had been taken off – which didn’t stop Ancelotti turning to them on the touchline and consulting them on the substitutions.
In the summer, he told them he would have to share the minutes around more and as 2022-23 progressed he referred to it as a transitional season, a gradual shift towards a new generation. The stats showed that. All their midfielders played more than 30 league games but Kroos started 25 of the 38, Modric 19.
Ancelotti said he had to ask for “patience from the young players and understanding from the veterans”. When it came to the biggest games, Modric and Kroos played – “because they deserve to,” the coach insisted. And because, rotated, they were better able to.
Aurélien Tchouaméni had come to replace Casemiro for €80m, but his level slipped after the World Cup, often leaving Kroos as the deep midfielder. A place was found for Eduardo Camavinga at left-back. And the previous season Fede Valverde had been given a hybrid role on the right, although with Rodrygo’s performances he returned to a midfield three.
It was a solution of sorts, although it didn’t look that way last month in Manchester in the Champions League semi-final and it couldn’t be sustained for ever.
The question now is how to fit it all together as Madrid move to a new phase. Dani Ceballos is likely to leave, but Kroos has renewed for a season and Modric is expected to do the same. Camavinga isn’t a full-back, too good not to be in the middle of the pitch eventually. Tchouaméni is the long-term defensive midfielder.
Ancelotti has reassured Valverde the arrival of Bellingham is not a threat; rather, this is the beginning of a new team charged with emulating the longevity of the men they are alongside.
When the season starts Valverde will be 25, Tchouaméni 23, Camavinga 20 and Bellingham 20. There has been interest in Celta Vigo’s Gabri Veiga, who is 21. Ahead of them, Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo are 22. There is time for them, although that does not always mean patience, and that allows for lessons to be learned, adaptation periods to be completed. Performance will guide decisions in the short term and competition will remain, Modric and Kroos not about to simply let go. But the balance must be tipped towards the new generation. The club has told the coach that.
Which also brings a more dynamic, more energetic approach, these players bursting through together – but not, they hope, any loss of quality. Kroos and Modric are not so easily emulated but Bellingham and Camavinga in particular should guarantee that. Put in the most simple terms: the Englishman is good at football. The Bundesliga’s player of the season, there was a reason everyone wanted him. Lots of reasons: the touch, vision, passing, goals, tackles, the whole thing. Madrid got him, a place waiting for him, his for a decade or more.
On the face of it, the make-up of the midfield is clear, although the departure of Karim Benzema a year ahead of schedule opens the possibility of some shift in the forward line that would affect the rest of the team. The most likely option appears to be 4-3-3 with Tchouaméni deep, Camavinga and Bellingham either side and Valverde as the extra man, probably wide; 4-2-3-1 is another. Bellingham has the qualities, and teammates, to fit any system Ancelotti comes up with, to be at the heart of everything. To be everything, just like they promised.
When Bellingham was 13 or 14, Birmingham’s then head of development, Mike Dodds, told him not to limit himself to being a creative midfielder: instead, he said, you could be a 4, an 8 and a 10 wrapped in one. Add those numbers together and it makes 22, the number he wore there – the shirt they have proudly retired, so good was he – and then at Dortmund.
If he is to continue that at Madrid, he would have to take it from Antonio Rüdiger. Wearing Zidane’s 5 would mean taking it from Jesús Vallejo. There may be no need: 7, 9, and 11 are serious numbers and are available. Whichever he chooses there is a conviction that it won’t weigh on him as it has on so many others, that he won’t be overawed by this, the traditional concern about Brits abroad not worrying anyone: the Bundesliga shows that should be no problem. So does everything else, the way he has defied his date of birth.
Madrid have watched him for a long time, dealt with him over a lengthy period too, and they have seen: the way a teenager appears to own the pitch, even the crowd, bringing a game and the stands to life.
That is what they have invested in; the personality as well as the play, the ability to do it all and better than anyone else. Above all, they have invested in youth, in the future, and it’s bright. Jude Bellingham is 19, he’s from Stourbridge and he has just signed for Real Madrid.