The unthinkable has finally happened for Real Madrid fans: Jude Bellingham is injured.
The 20-year-old midfielder is expected to be out until early March after suffering a sprained ankle in the 4-0 win against Girona on Saturday. It will not be the first time he has missed games through injury in his debut season in Spain — he dislocated a shoulder in early November, which kept him out for two Madrid matches and the international break with England — but it will be his longest spell without playing for the club since he joined them from Germany’s Borussia Dortmund last summer.
Bellingham scored his 19th and 20th goals of the season against Girona — which was his 29th game of the campaign. He has only been rested for two matches apart from when he was out with that shoulder issue and also missed a win against Las Palmas last month through a yellow card suspension. Now he will be out for key fixtures against RB Leipzig in the Champions League round of 16 (the second leg is on March 6) as well as against Rayo Vallecano, Sevilla and Valencia in La Liga, where Madrid are five points clear at the top of the table.
Bellingham will not be easy to replace — he is La Liga’s top goalscorer with 16 and is a key part of head coach Carlo Ancelotti’s hybrid 4-4-2 formation — so who could step up in his absence?
Brahim Diaz (27 games, 11 starts, seven goals and three assists)
The player known as Brahim would be the most logical replacement for Bellingham, given Ancelotti’s track record this season.
The 24-year-old has filled in for Bellingham in each of the five matches in which he has not featured: a Champions League win against Braga, La Liga victories against Las Palmas and Valencia, and the Copa del Rey match against fourth-tier Arandina (although it could be argued summer signing Arda Guler was Bellingham’s stand-in there).
Brahim scored three times in those five matches — twice opening the scoring — and impressed in the 5-1 win against Valencia. He had a quieter game against Las Palmas last month but also contributed vital goals with Bellingham on the pitch against Atletico Madrid in January’s Supercopa de Espana semi-final and in the two clubs’ most recent league meeting just over a week ago.
Bellingham’s role has changed throughout his first season at the Bernabeu. He started out playing at the tip of a midfield diamond in a 4-4-2 system introduced by Ancelotti in the summer, but when Madrid were beaten 3-1 by Atletico in September, the Italian moved him and another attack-minded midfielder to the wings when out of possession to offer protection down the flanks — creating a ‘box’ with four players in the middle of the pitch, two sitting alongside each other deeper than the other two.
The Englishman covers a lot of ground and is constantly taking up fresh positions for Madrid, as shown by the graphic below.
Brahim is similarly energetic and can play as a winger or an attacking midfielder. He occupied some of the same spaces as Bellingham when he replaced him against Girona on 57 minutes, as shown by his touch map from the game. His versatility could prove useful for Ancelotti.
“I may have been unfair to him these months,” Ancelotti said of Brahim’s playing situation in November. “My excuse is Bellingham is playing in (Brahim’s) optimum position.”
Joselu (33 games, 12 starts, 12 goals and four assists)
Given Bellingham is Madrid’s top scorer and how often he operates in central positions while flanked by Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, Joselu is certainly a candidate to step in as he is the squad’s only traditional centre-forward.
Since joining on loan from Espanyol last summer, the Spaniard has scored his 12 goals in 1,479 minutes — a goals-per-90 minutes ratio of 0.79. That is the best in the squad, ahead of Bellingham himself (0.71), Vinicius Jr (0.65), Brahim (0.57) and Rodrygo (0.48).
But those numbers are unlikely to be the most important factor in Ancelotti’s selection. He wants his team to be fluid in attack, with players regularly switching positions and linking in different areas of the pitch to cause unexpected problems for opposition defences.
Bellingham covers a huge amount of ground on and off the ball. The 6ft 3in (191cm) Joselu, who turns 34 next month, is less likely to play one-twos with Vinicius Jr near the halfway line or track back deep into his own half to recover possession.
Ancelotti’s selection calls this season tell the story. Joselu’s nine starts have generally come against weaker opponents from the bottom half of La Liga; days when Madrid dominate possession and want a focal point in the penalty area. Against better sides, the plan is often to sit deeper, draw the opposition out and attack the spaces behind their defence.
That does not mean Joselu will be absent against Leipzig in Germany tonight (Tuesday). Ancelotti has regularly turned to him later in games when a change of approach is required — such as when he scored off the bench to help turn around that Supercopa semi-final against Atletico last month.
So we could well see more of Joselu over the coming games, just not as a starter who steps directly into Bellingham’s role in the team.
Luka Modric (27 games, 15 starts, one goal and six assists)
If Ancelotti sticks to his hybrid 4-4-2 formation, Modric could play as either a left-sided midfielder or as a No 10 in the Bellingham mould.
The Croatian usually plays in a deeper midfield position, but he has also started three games this season as an attacking midfielder, with mixed results: the defeat to Atletico in the league along with draws against Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis. He has not started alongside his longtime midfield partner Toni Kroos since that painful derby defeat earlier in the season.
That points to a new role for Modric, who has had to settle for the sixth-most minutes of any of Ancelotti’s midfielders (1,374). If the coach opts for him to cover for Bellingham, he is likely to play Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde alongside the 38-year-old to ensure he is not caught out by opposition transitions.
Modric has already stepped up when other team-mates have been injured. He benefitted from Madrid suffering a host of absences during the Christmas period, in which he started five games in a row as a deep-lying midfielder. Ancelotti’s team won four and drew one of those matches, suggesting he still has an important role to play.
Sources close to Modric, who asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships, believe he can still perform at the highest level. Bellingham’s injury could give him the chance to prove just that, with his contract set to run out in the summer as things stand.
Arda Guler (Four games, one start)
After Brahim, Guler would appear to be the most likely Bellingham replacement, given attacking midfield is his natural position. He made 10 appearances for Fenerbahce in that role last season and it was where he made his only Madrid start so far — in that 3-1 cup win against Arandina.
As we’ve said, it was against fourth-division opposition, but Guler impressed that day, playing close to 60 minutes and hitting the bar with a free kick – a sign of the 18-year-old’s talent after successive injuries prevented him from making his debut until last month following a summer transfer.
But while he made a good impression with Madrid’s coaching staff in pre-season, they believe he still needs time to grow — something that would count against him in terms of replacing Bellingham. The Englishman performs a key role in defence as well as attack, something Guler would struggle to replicate.
(Top photos: Getty Images)
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