Comparing LaLiga star Jude Bellingham to Real Madrid greats

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Jude Bellingham's debut season in LaLiga couldn't have gone much better. He's been the standout player in Spain's best team, a Real Madrid side who now find themselves six points clear at the top of the LaLiga table and among the favourites to lift the Champions League trophy, hosting RB Leipzig in Wednesday's round-of-16 second leg.

Bellingham's brace in Madrid's 4-0 thrashing of title rivals Girona on Feb. 10 -- a game that also saw the midfielder pick up an ankle sprain that's kept him out of action for three weeks, in one of the few setbacks he's faced this season -- made it 16 league goals this campaign, and 20 goals in all competitions.

That's quite the goal haul for a player who's nominally a midfielder, and it's only late-February. To put that figure in context: another English midfielder, David Beckham, also scored 20 goals for Real Madrid. But it took Beckham four years to get there, between 2003 and 2007. Bellingham has done it in just 29 games.

Unsurprisingly, those goals have made Bellingham the darling of the Santiago Bernabeu crowd. The Madridistas are a demanding bunch with high standards, but they were also ready for a new superstar to steal their hearts, taking the place of the recently departed Karim Benzema and, before him, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Bellingham's exploits have led to some excitable name-dropping. He's been likened to Zinedine Zidane, the elegant France midfielder who graced the Bernabeu for five years in the early 2000s, and Alfredo di Stefano, arguably Madrid's greatest ever player, who scored in five consecutive European Cup finals between 1956 and 1960.

Bellingham doesn't really do comparisons: "I wouldn't say there's one player -- I've stolen a lot of things, but essentially I'm just myself. I'm Jude. I don't try to be anyone other than that," he told Real Madrid TV last month. So we'll have to make the comparisons for him. ESPN has taken a look at the early statistics from Bellingham's time in Madrid so far, to assess how they stand up to some of the club's greats.

Scoring goals

You've already seen those headline numbers: 16 goals in LaLiga, plus four in the Champions League. With roughly a third of the season left to play, those 20 goals would already have been enough to see Bellingham end the campaign as Real Madrid's top scorer back in 2005-06 -- when an injury-hit Ronaldo Nazario managed just 15 goals -- or 1997-98, when Fernando Morientes top scored with 16.

Bellingham has another target to aim for. He's on course to become the first non-forward to top the scoring for Real Madrid since Fernando Hierro grabbed 26 goals -- 21 of them in LaLiga -- as a defender-turned-midfielder in 1991-92. Hierro had the advantage of being a penalty taker and freekick specialist. Bellingham has taken and scored just one penalty, against Almeria on Jan. 21.

Here are Bellingham's shots so far this season -- the larger the circle, the higher the expected goals, or xG, from the shot -- with goals in orange:

The goalscoring of Madrid's other midfielders over the last 15 years just can't compare to what Bellingham has done. Luka Modric's most productive seasons from a goals perspective were 2020-21 and 2022-23, when he scored six each. Toni Kroos managed five goals in 2017-18. Even Isco, who posed more of a goal threat as an attacking midfielder, could only score 11 goals -- 10 of them in LaLiga -- in 2016-17.

Instead, to find Bellingham's goalscoring peers, we must look further up field at some of the most dangerous forwards in the club's history. That means Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 26 league goals in his first season, 2009-10.

From there, though, Ronaldo's productivity grew to cartoonish levels, at the peak of his rivalry with Lionel Messi: 40 league goals the next season, 46 the season after that, ending up as Madrid's all-time leading scorer with 450 goals. Bellingham surely won't get near those freakish numbers.

It's also unrealistic to expect him to trouble those who are next on the all-time list, despite his stellar debut season. Benzema started with a modest eight league goals in 2009-10 before blossoming into a Ballon d'Or winner. Raul Gonzalez began with nine goals as a 17-year-old in 1994-95. Di Stefano, the heartbeat of the great Madrid side of the 1950s, scored an impressive 27 goals in his first season, 1953-54.

Compared to other British exports, Bellingham has already exceeded Gareth Bale's 15 league goals in his debut Bernabeu season, 2013-14, if not the 22 goals the Welshman scored in all competitions that season. And if Bellingham is now a Ballon d'Or contender, what about the last Englishman to win the award? Michael Owen, the last star signing of the Galactico era, scored 13 league goals in his sole season at Real Madrid, 2004-05. Bellingham's stay in Spain won't be as short.

Digging deeper, beyond the goals scored column, what stands out is Bellingham's efficiency. He has a shot conversion rate in LaLiga this season of 31.4%, scoring 16 goals from just 51 shots taken. In the last 14 seasons for which data is available, via ESPN's TruMedia and Stats Perform, only one Real Madrid player -- among those who took at least 25 shots -- has been more clinical than that: Argentina forward Gonzalo Higuain, who scored 22 goals from 60 shots in 2011-12, for a conversion rate of 36.7%.

Creating chances

Jude Bellingham is a 'hero' to the Real Madrid fans

Alex Kirkland believes that Jude Bellingham has truly endeared himself to the Real Madrid fanbase and is on the road already to becoming a Real Madrid legend.

With Real Madrid short of options in attack, Bellingham's focus this season has often been on scoring goals, rather than providing them for others. His three assists in LaLiga have been overshadowed by seven for Kroos, and four each for Modric, Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo Goes, Fede Valverde and Fran Garcia.

Take a look at "chances created," where assists are combined with key passes so that a player isn't penalised statistically for a teammate's wayward finishing, and those numbers improve a little. Bellingham has created 37 chances in LaLiga so far this season. That's the same number that Kaká, widely regarded as a high-profile Real Madrid flop, managed in 27 appearances -- six more than Bellingham thus far -- in 2011-12.

That Real Madrid team of a decade ago, a ruthless counterattacking unit built by manager José Mourinho to take on Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, included the player who has created the most chances in any LaLiga season since 2010: Mesut Ozil. Ozil created an astonishing 119 chances in 2010-11. That's more than three times as many as Bellingham so far. It's also 25 more chances than Lionel Messi ever delivered in a single season at Barcelona.

The only Madrid player to come close to Ozil is a name that might surprise you, but shouldn't: the underrated Angel Di Maria. The Argentina winger created 91 chances in Carlo Ancelotti's first season in charge of Real Madrid, 2013-14. After that, you'll find the likes of Isco and Kroos, who created 79 chances each in 2013-14 and 2016-17. Modric's most productive season saw him create 61 chances, in 2015-16.

Di Maria is also the Madrid player to have played the most throughballs -- a defence-splitting pass for a teammate -- since 2010, with 78 in 2010-11, followed by Cristiano Ronaldo with 58 that same season, both a symptom of that team's emphasis on rapid transitions to open up an opponent.

You might expect Bellingham, with the high-octane duo of Vinícius and Rodrygo ahead of him, to do well there. But the midfielder has played just 16 throughballs this season, the same number as James Rodríguez in 2014-15, or Luka Modric in 2013-14. That might be a reflection of the packed, deep-lying defences Madrid now tend to face every week.

Passing and tackling

The words "Real Madrid" and "passing" inevitably bring one name to mind: Toni Kroos, the unflappable pass-master whose metronomic precision has tied Madrid's midfield together for a decade. Kroos' pass completion rates are the stuff of legend. Coach Carlo Ancelotti joked earlier this month that it was hard to pick out Kroos' best season, because "his percentage of [completed] passes is the same as it was 10 years ago."

The facts support Ancelotti's assertion. Kroos posted a 94.9% pass completion rate in 2021-22, a 94.6% pass completion rate in 2022-23, and he has a 94.4% pass completion rate so far in 2023-24. Even as the German considers retirement, there's no sign of standards slipping. Comparing Bellingham to Kroos feels unfair. They're radically different players, doing complementary midfield jobs. Bellingham's pass completion rate in LaLiga this season is a respectable 89.6%, with 992 of 1,107 attempted passes completed.

The only Madrid player who could match Kroos for passing is currently top of the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen: Xabi Alonso. The former Liverpool, Madrid and Bayern Munich player-turned-manager completed 2,473 passes in the 2011-12 LaLiga season, the most of any Madrid player in the 14 seasons for which data is available. Kroos' highest tally is 2,277 in 2015-16.

Alonso also excelled with passes into the final third, a statistic which helps illustrate when a player's passing is helping to hurt an opponent, rather than just passively maintaining possession. Since 2010, no LaLiga player has played more than Alonso's 595 passes into the final third in 2011-12.

Alonso was almost as effective without the ball. In the last 14 seasons, he made the most tackles by a Real Madrid midfielder, with 110 in 2010-11. He's followed by Casemiro -- now at Manchester United -- with 109 tackles in 2017-18. Both far eclipse Bellingham's 30 tackles so far this season, albeit playing in a more advanced role with fewer defensive responsibilities.

It's Casemiro who has made the most recoveries -- when a player picks up the ball when neither team has possession -- with 294 in 2019-20, compared to Bellingham's 94 this season. And as for yellow cards, Bellingham's five in 2023-24 look pretty tame alongside Alonso's 13 in 2011-12 -- it was a Mourinho team, after all -- and 12 for Casemiro in 2019-20.

An analysis of Bellingham's numbers at this stage is inherently premature: the season isn't over yet, and Madrid still have 12 league matches left, with a potential six Champions League ties if they go all the way to the final at Wembley on June 1.

If he maintains his goalscoring rate so far in LaLiga -- averaging 0.76 goals per game -- in what's left of the campaign, he'd be looking at a total of 24 league goals. That's another eight between now and May. It's a big ask, but with Madrid still to face struggling sides like Celta Vigo, Cadiz and Granada, as well as tougher tests Athletic Club, Barcelona and Real Sociedad, it shouldn't be beyond his reach.

Longer term, the expected arrival of Kylian Mbappé poses another question: what impact will playing alongside one of the world's best forwards have on Bellingham's numbers? Coach Ancelotti could accommodate Mbappé by dropping Bellingham deeper into midfield, which could limit his goalscoring potential. Equally, the addition of Mbappé might draw opponents' focus away from Bellingham, resulting in more space and more opportunities to get into the penalty area.

In the meantime, a late glut of goals at the business end of this season -- like his 13 goals in the 13 games which started the campaign, but now with even higher stakes -- would help back up Bellingham's statistics with something even more tangible: trophies.

Bellingham's ankle sprain meant he couldn't lead that push in the first leg against Leipzig, but he's been targeting a return in the second leg on March 6. At Real Madrid -- above all in the last decade -- the number that matters most is the answer to the question: "How many Champions Leagues have you won?"

In the current squad, Luka Modric, Nacho Fernandez and Dani Carvajal can all respond with "five." Bellingham has work to do.