How Real Madrid could start learning how to win without always relying on Jude Bellingham

Real Madrid without Bellingham GFX

In American sports, it’s called ‘load management’. Once every few days, an NBA team will rest its star player. For the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antekokounmpo sometimes watches from the bench. For the Golden State Warriors, Steph Curry will take in a contest despite being entirely healthy. Kawai Leonard, Kevin Durant, Lebron James and, in his final days as an NBA player, Kobe Bryant all elected for similar treatment. And although it may draw the ire of fans and media alike, it’s not going to change any time soon.

It’s something that football is yet to truly embrace, but that’s not to say that players aren’t rested. Big names readily miss cup games, especially against lower-division sides. It is, in fact, common practice for Europe’s best to effectively have a reserve XI for when their star players aren’t needed.

But what about those league games against lesser opposition, when the inclusion of a superstar could tread the line between a win and a loss? How do, for example, Arsenal judge when to start or sit Buakyo Saka? When can Barcelona ask a fully fit Pedri to accept a night off?

And so we arrive at the case of Jude Bellingham. The Real Madrid star has played almost every minute for Los Blancos this season, and battled through over an hour despite suffering a partial dislocation of his shoulder against Rayo Vallecano on Sunday.

The English midfielder has developed a reputation for being able to play through pain — it’s something that has earned him the love of club and national-team fans alike. But at what point does his personal drive become a medical detriment to him, and the long-term success of the team?

For Madrid, it’s a situation worth carefully considering. Their 0-0 draw with Rayo showed that, if nothing else, they need a fully fit Bellingham. But in the meantime, they will have to figure out how to get the goals without him — or risk their star player running out of legs before the fixtures become even more crucial.

  • Jude Bellingham_Real Madrid_20231028(C)Getty Images

    How badly do Madrid need Bellingham?

    There are very few clubs in world football who rely on their star player more than Madrid currently do with Bellingham. The statistics alone paint a picture equal parts encouraging and grim. He has scored 13 of Los Blancos’ 28 goals, and has assisted four others. He has bagged match-winners against Union Berlin, Celta Vigo, Getafe, Athletic Club, Barcelona and Braga. How much, exactly, a goal ‘matters’ is an entirely relative concept, but this is not a player who merely grabs a third or fourth in blowout victories.

    Elsewhere, their goalscoring production has been limited. Vinicius Jr, expected in some corners to carry the attacking load that Madrid lost with the departure of Karim Benzema, has scored three and assisted two — halving his production at the same stage of last season Rodrygo has been even less effective, tallying just three goal involvements, a sharp decline from the 10 he had achieved by the first week of November in 2022.

    But it’s not just the two Brazilians who are underwhelming. Joselu bagged two crucial goals in his first six games, and looked a steady contributor otherwise, but he has only scored once since the start of October. Federico Valverde is equally culpable, with just one goal to his name after 12 appearances in the league, despite bagging seven in La Liga last season.

    Madrid under Carlo Ancelotti have never been a particularly high-scoring side, averaging around two goals per game in each of his first two seasons in charge. And this year, they are hitting roughly the same mark. But instead of it coming from all over, Bellingham, a converted — albeit upgraded — midfielder is leading the charge. It is not a model that screams sustainability.

     

    • Brahim Diaz Real Madrid 2023-24

      Ancelotti’s options up front

      Changing that could prove to be something of a challenge. The draw with Rayo was, theoretically, the perfect game to subvert the narrative. With Bellingham failing to get involved — and playing through an injury — the opportunity was there for one of the other forwards to step up. But Joselu missed a trio of solid chances; Valverde fluffed a one-on-one inside five minutes; and Rodrygo, once again, was wasteful in key areas. Vinicius, for his part, did a lot of exciting things on the ball, but was never afforded a clear chance — such was the quality of Rayo’s box defending.

      The loss of Benzema is certainly being felt. Although limited by age and injury last season, the French forward still managed 30 goals in all competitions, and won numerous games — including the semi-final of the Copa del Rey — single-handedly for Los Blancos. No matter how effective Bellingham has been, there is no replacing the impact that Benzema had on the club.

      Ancelotti does have other options, though. Brahim Diaz, brought back from AC Milan after spending two years on loan, has been afforded very few opportunities. And although he’s not a natural goalscorer, he showed in Italy that he can certainly chip in with a few. The return to fitness of ‘Turkish Messi’ Arda Guler, meanwhile, is also certain to offer a boost. The 18-year-old, who averages 0.9 goal contributions per 90 minutes in his young career, is worthy of a chance.

      There will certainly be challenges here, and Ancelotti’s main objective is surely to get his main men firing. But there are willing back-ups should they continue to flounder in the final third.

    • Bukayo Saka Arsenal injury 2023-24Getty

      Warning signs from elsewhere

      The temptation will be to hope that Bellingham carries Madrid through this. After all, the Englishman is in the form of his life, and, at the moment, the most effective attacking player in Europe. Very few teams would have the guile or courage to bench the early favourite for next year’s Ballon d’Or. But failing to do so could prove to be a dangerous path.

      A litany of players — world- class or otherwise — have seen their seasons impacted or careers shortened by their team’s unwillingness to let them rest. Saka and Arsenal is perhaps the most flagrant, and most obvious, current example. The winger was electric for the Gunners in the first half of the 2022-23 campaign, spearheading an unlikely title charge. But he faltered towards the end of the season, scoring only three times in Arsenal’s last 10 games — his poor form coinciding with the Gunner’s late stumble in the title race.

      Things haven’t looked much better since then. Saka, although effective in moments, doesn’t look fit. He stays down after heavy tackles and regularly limps off the pitch at the end of every game. Those body feints and sharp turns — the hallmarks of his one-on-one effectiveness — aren’t taken with the same vigour or quality. He still has 10 goal involvements in all competitions in 2023-24, but Saka needs a rest, and Mikel Arteta won’t give him one.

      The same goes for Pedri. The Spanish teenager arrived on the scene when his country was desperate for an Andres Iniesta replacement, the next great midfield maestro to lead both Barcelona and La Roja to glory. The ensuing response was to run a 17-year-old into the ground. Pedri famously played 73 games in the 2020-21 season, earning himself the Golden Boy award, but also doing what already appears to be long-term damage to his young legs He has injured the same hamstring twice in the last 12 months, and missed 27 games due to injury since that breakout season.

      There is, of course, sports science to this. All top clubs employ teams of experts that determine exactly how many minutes Bellingham, Saka, Pedri, or the litany of other promising teenagers should be able to play. Ancelotti will know when — and why — his star man probably needs to rest. But actually doing it requires further calculation than numbers on an iPad.

    • Jude Bellingham Luka Modric Barcelona Real Madrid La Liga 28102023Getty

      When should Bellingham be rested?

      Ancelotti has some experience here. For 18 months now, the manager has dealt with an aging Luka Modric. By the end of last season, he was reportedly asking Modric if he was ready to play on a game-by-game basis. The Croatian, now 38, understood his limits, and made only 19 starts in La Liga last season.

      Crucially, though, he was always in the line-up for the biggest games. Modric turned in star showings against Liverpool and Chelsea in the Champions League, and dominated the midfield in the Copa del Rey semi-final against Barca. Even if he was unable to play more than an hour, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner found a way to be on the pitch when the games mattered most.

      A similar principle can — and probably should — be exercised for Bellingham. He can, quite clearly, manage more than Modric’s minutes last season. But in a similar way, it is worth careful consideration as to when Bellingham should play. Copa del Rey fixtures will likely be cause for rest. The same should probably go for the last two matches of the Champions League group stage, when Madrid will likely have secured qualification for the last 16.

      But outside of that, it becomes murkier. Rayo, for example, have enjoyed an excellent start to the campaign, and were a top-half team at the start of play on Sunday. They are, therefore, deserving of respect and tactical consideration from Ancelotti.

      The real challenges come against opponents further down the table. Upcoming clashes with 16th-placed Cadiz and 19th-placed Granada are perhaps ideal opportunities — especially given the relentlessness of the fixture list around them. These are games that shouldn’t require last-minute brilliance from a 20-year-old. Still, Madrid have shown little to suggest that they can be comfortable with Bellingham on the bench.

    • Jude Bellingham Borussia Dortmund 2022-23Getty

      Bellingham has been here before

      Bellingham himself, perhaps, knows how badly this can impact one of his teams. The Englishman worried Borussia Dortmund fans for much of last season when he was pictured playing the bulk of the second half of the campaign with heavy bracing around his left knee. And by the end of the campaign, it became too much.

      Bellingham missed Dortmund’s last two games of the season, including their title-decider on the final day, when his side drew with Mainz at home, a result that allowed Bayern Munich to secure an 11th-straight Bundesliga crown. A fit Bellingham might have changed that result.

      There were, in fact, real fears that the damage could be long-term. Bellingham had to withdraw from the England squad in June, and there were scattered reports that he would need an operation in the summer. The potential for a serious knee injury for a then-19-year-old who had seldom been given a day off from the age of 16 doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for his longevity as a footballer.

      Perhaps missing a fixture or two will amount to a temporary avoidance of injury against lesser sides, rather than the solving of long-term issues. But it also might lead to a point or two being dropped. The Rayo result showed that, if nothing else, that this is a fallible Madrid side, one that might have to grapple with the reality of the odd poor result. Balancing that with the general welfare of the legs of their best player is no easy feat.

      But in such a packed season, bounded by the ever-present pressures of intense football, every minute Bellingham can spend off the pitch counts. The ability to survive without him — not with him — could be the difference between a successful season and a disappointing one.

     

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