Lionel Messi picked up a record eighth Ballon d’Or on Monday, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he is currently the best player in the world. While the Argentine has defined an entire era of football at the elite level, his latest Ballon d’Or was something of a symbolic reward for the winning the 2022 World Cup.
One wonders what Jude Bellingham thought seeing Messi lift the most prestigious individual award in football. At this moment in time, the English midfielder is undeniably the best player on the planet having made a sensational start to life at Real Madrid. His record of 12 goals in 13 games doesn’t even fully illustrate the impact he’s made.
Bellingham’s two goals against Barcelona on Saturday single-handled won Real Madrid the first Clasico of the season. The 20-year-old has also scored winning goals against Braga, Union Berlin, Almeria, Celta Vigo and Getafe as Carlo Ancelotti has given him the freedom to get forward and join in attacks.
Ancelotti has also quickly installed Bellingham in a leadership role. He might only be 20, but Bellingham has a natural gravity. Matches revolve around him and it’s easy to see the respect he has already earned from his new teammates and the sometimes hard-to-please Santiago Bernabeu support.
Real Madrid have needed a figurehead like Bellingham since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2018. Karim Benzema filled the goals void left behind by Ronaldo, but the Portuguese forward was a driving force in a way no Real Madrid player had been before Bellingham’s arrival from Borussia Dortmund this summer.
“He seems like a veteran, his attitude is very good,” said Ancelotti after the 2-1 win over Barcelona. “We’re surprised. Everyone is surprised by his level, and his level of efficiency up front. He gets into the box, but today the shot [for the first goal] surprised us, he scored a stupendous goal… Right now he’s the player who’s making the difference.”
Nobody is surprised that Bellingham is capable of playing at the elite level. He was the best player in the Bundesliga for Dortmund last season and was an integral part of Gareth Southgate’s England team at the 2022 World Cup. What is surprising, however, is that the move to Real Madrid has unlocked other areas of Bellingham’s game that were previously underutilised.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Modric said of his new midfield partner. “He’s arrived and it feels like he’s been here for a long time. He’s fallen on his feet. We’re all happy with his performance, his personality, what he’s like. It isn’t a coincidence [what he’s doing]. He’s a top lad, an extraordinary talent. Even he can’t believe the goals he’s scoring.”
All this underlines how Southgate must build around Bellingham for Euro 2024. The England manager has previously used the 20-year-old in a midfield double pivot alongside Declan Rice, but Bellingham’s form for Real Madrid shows the value of pushing him closer to goal where he can have a greater influence on the final third.
This might mean Kalvin Phillips starts for England in Germany next summer, which would leave Southgate open to criticism if the out-of-favour Manchester City midfielder fails to reach the required standard, but the gamble would be worth it if the Three Lions are able to get more out of the current best player in the world.
England has produced great players before, but Bellingham could be one of the country’s best-ever. He’s already the best in the world right now and there’s more to come from Real Madrid’s new superstar. The way he’s going, Bellingham won’t have long to wait until he’s the one lifting the Ballon d’Or.