Thriving in his new number 10 role, Bellingham’s attacking output can provide England with the thrust they need to go all the way at Euro 2024.

There were 12 days between Karim Benzema bidding farewell to Real Madrid and Jude Bellingham arriving. At that point, it wasn’t logical to think either had much to do with the other as far as ‘replacements’ go. Surely, following the arrival of the world’s most promising box-to-box midfielder, a striker would soon be following close behind to pick up the brunt of the team’s scoring load. Benzema had netted 105 goals across the previous three seasons, earning himself a Ballon d’Or in the process.

A direct replacement for the Frenchman never followed, but Carlo Ancelotti hadn’t spent too much time worrying when or where a new number 9 was going to come from, or how it would condition a team who had gotten used to the 4-3-3 in recent seasons.

The solution would primarily come through a midfield diamond which featured Bellingham at its head, as if something lifted directly out of the mid-2000s. Along with winger-striker hybrids in the form of Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo ahead of him, the Englishman quickly felt like he belonged to the front line more than he did those behind, yet crucially without ever losing his essence as a midfielder.

As Real Madrid’s season developed, their way of playing morphed, and the ‘diamond’ became less important as a system in itself. With tweaks along the way, the importance of it gave way to preserving the best of the original with certain concessions, as long as they could maintain the conditions for the Bellingham 2.0 they had unearthed.

“What we noted in the games he was playing for Dortmund is that he had the ability to arrive on time in the opposition box and be dangerous,” Ancelotti would later say, recalling how their plan came about. In typically uncomplicated fashion for the Italian, the work emanating from that simple observation would go on to become one of the defining factors in a trophy-laden season for Real Madrid.

Back in October, Channel 4’s pitch-side studio had facetiously signed off their post-game coverage after a win over Italy with “win La Liga, win the Champions League, and then win the Euros with England,” with a grinning man-of-the-match Bellingham in shot. “No pressure,” he replied, as the rest of the panel chuckled.

Seven months on, as he draws breath at the end of the club season and prepares to go again, only one of those aims now remains.

Following Carlo Ancelotti’s Lead…

It didn’t take long for Gareth Southgate to act on the scenes coming from Madrid. After Bellingham’s first four games for his new club yielded five goals, including back-to-back winners against Celta Vigo and Getafe in the two games immediately preceding the first international break, he would get a start in an advanced role in September’s victory against Scotland – a game in which he would score and set up a goal for Harry Kane.

“I think today was close to it,” Bellingham would remark after the game, when asked if playing higher up the pitch was now his best position. “Tonight was probably a bit better suited than the weekend (vs Ukraine as a number 8), but no hints to the gaffer! I really enjoyed playing in that position.”

After featuring in deeper roles for England up until that night at Hampden Park, Bellingham has started as an attacking midfielder in all four of his international outings since.

Jude Bellingham Open-Play Touches since Sept 2023

For club and country, the 20-year-old’s departure from an orthodox central midfield role has produced a significant hike in his direct goal involvement. Bellingham’s first 16 starts for England yielded one goal and one assist, and he’s been directly involved in four goals in four games since moving to his advanced role (two goals and two assists). For Real Madrid, he’s had a hand in 36 goals in 42 appearances this term, scoring a prolific 23 times.

Of course, playing closer to the penalty area resulting in more goals is hardly a revelation, nor is it a case of two plus two equalling four in a football sense. Ancelotti is one of the best around at simplifying an ever-complex sport, but his interpretation of Bellingham’s game was built around attributes that were already evident, just crafted for a different context.

He learns very quick. You don’t need to tell him things many times. We’ve shown him videos of when he played at Dortmund, of things that we liked. Now he makes a lot more movements without the ball to arrive in the penalty area; in Germany, he was more used to receiving [passes] between the lines

Carlo Ancelotti (El País)

Runs into the box were part of his game before he arrived at Real Madrid, but his role in Spain has made the danger zone more accessible. In the simplest terms, there’s less ground to make up, and releasing himself from play comes with less of a worry at what might happen in the case of a turnover, given he’s not vacating the centre of the pitch anymore.

From a higher starting position in general, Bellingham’s repetition of efforts has increased and allowed him to attack the box more often – and with more zip when he does.

Speaking after victory over Italy last October, Bellingham said: “The fact is I have to deliver. I have to be that one that kind of tries to decide games, whether it’s with a goal or an assist, or a match-winning performance. So, it is a lot easier when I start higher to get into the box to create those moments.”

Despite Bellingham’s growing reputation in the box – and with some rival fans of Real Madrid jesting that he’s just a striker these days – his goal production hasn’t seen him become detached from general play in any way. In fact, a big part of his potency in the box comes through being a difficult player to detect, given the way he interprets the ‘freedom’ of being a number 10.

Among the 61 players who scored 10+ goals from inside the box (excluding penalties) across Europe’s big five leagues last term, only Antoine Griezmann (6.7%) had a lower share of his touches come in the penalty area than Bellingham (7.2%). Unsurprisingly, it’s also the lowest percentage on record by a Real Madrid player to hit that goal tally in a league campaign (since 2010-11).

Goals vs Touches inside opp box

In the four games Bellingham has started as a number 10 for England, his attachment to general play has remained equally firm. Across a tough run of opponents in Scotland (a), Italy (h), Brazil (h) and Belgium (h) – the latter three all being in the top 10 of the FIFA World Rankings – the 20-year-old has been just as involved in the building of attacks as he was previously, while also benefitting from his more aggressive positioning when it comes to influencing the game in the final third.

Bellingham had the most touches of any player on the pitch (103) in his last outing for England – a 2-2 draw against Belgium at Wembley. It was one of only three occasions in which he’d had 100+ touches in an international game (previously vs San Marino and Iran), and served as a prime example of how his freer role as a number 10 allows him to maximise all the different stands of midfield play in his arsenal.

At the end of an all-terrain showing, his 103rd and final touch in that game was a last-gasp finish inside the box to level the game. Arriving on time, at just the right moment, is the art Bellingham has spent the season aiming to perfect.

Comparing the per-90 averages across his starts as a number 10 and as a defensive/central midfielder for England, Bellingham’s involvement at the sharp end of attacks has essentially doubled since moving into the advanced role – all while seeing his touches slightly increase.

Bellingham England Stats After Position Change

With two goals and two assists in his four starts as a number 10 for England, the data behind it suggests the foundation is there for more to follow, given his presumed continuity there.

For both Ancelotti and Southgate, the logic behind Bellingham’s role now seems pretty well established. If the idea is to preserve his midfield mentality while getting the best of his game-winning abilities, it’s easier for him to drop deeper to involve himself in the construction of moves than it is to play as a central midfielder and maintain a presence in the box.

Bellingham’s Runs Will Help Unlock Others

After a prolific scoring season for Real Madrid, Bellingham will be the point of hyper-focus for his opponents this summer. Coaches will circle him on their whiteboards, the message to be vigilant of him will be relayed constantly, and defenders will be nervously anticipating his movements around the box at all times.

As alluded to previously, Bellingham’s feared presence in the box comes in contrast to the fact he spends a lot of time elsewhere. What makes him dangerous is the way in which he arrives there, through the combination of speed, timing, and hunting the weak spots in the opposition’s shape when the time comes. Though it often looks simple in practice, keeping track of him is an unforgiving task for the opposition.

In the UEFA Champions League final, Bellingham was a whisker away from opening the scoring with a run timed perfectly out of Emre Can’s eyeline; one which made him a problem for the defence instead of midfield before anyone could react. It would have been almost identical to one he netted against Almería last August, which was just a few games into his number 10 conversion at Real Madrid.

Bellingham run into the box - UCL Final
Bellingham run into the box 2 - UCL Final
Bellingham run into the box 3 - UCL Final
Bellingham run into the box 4 - UCL Final

While the spotlight will be on Bellingham and his new-found decisiveness as a scorer at this summer’s European Championship, the flip side of that will be what his presence means for his England teammates. When the 20-year-old moves, the opposition will react. It’s up to the team to leverage that as much as possible in the tournament.

There are plenty of reasons why Bellingham scored 90th-minute winners home and away in El Clásico this season, but chief among them is a determination to repeat the movements that might — and often don’t — earn him a chance. For every perfectly-timed run that produces a goal is another that doesn’t come to pass, but the cumulative effect of all of them rarely produces nothing. In that way, England won’t need Bellingham’s movements to end in goals from him to make them worthwhile this summer.

As we know, tournament football rarely brings the fluidity of play that we see throughout the leagues around Europe during the regular season. Teams have less time to prepare, the players have fewer on-field relationships baked in, and many won’t have played with certain teammates at all. Finding ways to break down defences and opposition shapes in that context rarely comes easy, even if you have a bunch of world-class players trying to achieve it.

In tournaments where it’s easy to fall into a pattern of the ball going side-to-side without being able to shift the opposition shape, England should have one of the top antidotes to that in the tournament in Bellingham. Along with the freedom of his number 10 role to figure between the lines and promote play, his movements when running beyond can provide a crucial collapsing effect in the opposition shape.

While Bellingham’s main intention is of course to arrive in the box and hopefully connect with a cross or pass, that stressing of space between midfield and defence is a significant weapon when trying to cause breakdowns in the opposition. If the defence try to stay up, Bellingham has spent all season working on the timing of his runs to be the one that sneaks in behind. If they react more and start to sink back towards their own goal, it opens up space between the lines for the likes of Phil Foden and Harry Kane.

Foden and Bellingham Between Lines
England’s four midfielders against Belgium, with Bellingham and Foden between the lines

It’s natural to wonder what Bellingham the individual can do for England at the Euros, but what he does for others could be just as important when all is said and done. Indeed, playing him as the most recognised number 10 might not even mean he’s the ‘real number 10’ of the team, providing Foden’s role remains that of a winger on paper but playing centrally once England get into their attacking shape. If Bellingham’s force of movement and gravity serves to free up other difference-makers in the team, his advanced role will indirectly change the landscape for his side.

Of course, Southgate’s side are far from a one-man band. Bellingham, Foden and Kane produced an astonishing 131 goals in 140 combined appearances for their respective clubs this season. In fact, of the 24 individuals who were directly involved in 30+ goals for a club in Europe’s big five leagues last season, England were the most represented nation on that list with seven different players.

Even accounting for differences in systems and roles between club and country, having a host of players who’ve been that decisive all season long can only be a good thing. And for the moment, there are few concerns as to incompatibility between those likely to crack the starting XI in Germany.

Bellingham is a Forceful Defender From the Number 10 Role

It’s easy to see Bellingham’s first season at Real Madrid through the lens of what he’s done in possession. Domestically, they have a lot of the ball. In Europe, however, that’s quite literally only been half of the youngster’s job. Los Blancos averaged just 47% possession in the knockout stages of the Champions League, meaning much of their success in lifting the trophy came through surviving without the ball.

As for Bellingham’s role in that, Ancelotti has shifted him around throughout the season depending on the needs of the team. They began the season defending out of the 4-4-2 diamond, although after a defeat away to Atlético Madrid last September in which they were exposed in wide areas and conceded from multiple crosses, a more orthodox 4-4-2 came into place with Bellingham covering the left of midfield. Once they regained the ball, he was back to his free-roaming self away from the flank.

Since then, the youngster has shifted largely between covering the left side in the 4-4-2 and occupying one of the front spots at the head of the team. For England, it’s likely to be the latter that he’ll be tasked with this summer – and that’s the one from which he can be most impactful out of possession.

Real Madrid Most Common out of position shapes UCL

Bellingham recovered possession more times in the final third than any other Real Madrid player last season (39), with his total not far off that of Vinícius Júnior (23) and Rodrygo (21) combined. Indeed, in a team who generally don’t commit to pressing all that often – at least not in the dialled-in version we see from some other top European sides – Bellingham has made it a habit of picking his moments to try spark the team into life at the head of the pitch.

There are days when the Englishman makes it quite evident he’d like to be more aggressive in pursuit of the ball. The sight of him jumping out to press, realising nobody was following him, and asking where the support was, was a common occurrence in 2023-24, but that speaks merely to his instinct as a player.

Bellingham will be first in line to get after the opposition at Euro 2024 if his manager calls for it, yet his debut campaign in Spain has shown he’s just as good at hanging in there when the defensive work is more laborious.

In Real Madrid’s extra-time victory over Manchester City in April, Bellingham made 146 high-intensity pressures in a game where Los Blancos had to survive without the ball for prolonged stretches. Although extra-time helped his tally – which was the most by a player in a Champions League game last season – it was also the most high-intensity pressures applied per minute on the pitch of anyone in a single match (1.2) in 2023-24.

Jude Bellingham High-Intensity Pressures vs Manchester City

Should England end up suffering at the hands of a ball-dominant side this summer, Bellingham will have no problem rolling his sleeves up and getting to work. Though his 2023-24 at club level ended with domestic and European success, it wasn’t all glorious – there was a lot of adapting on the fly and suffering in games to achieve what they did.

On the cusp of his first European Championship as a starter, the experiences of his first season at Real Madrid should stand him in exceptionally good stead for what he’s about to face here.

Bellingham is a superstar of the sport, but he’ll be ready to compete on whatever terrain he finds in Germany.

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