Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

REID | What Makes Jude Bellingham So Good? Football’s Unquantifiable Nature

In this edition of “Between the Lines,” Owen Reid (CAS ’26) breaks down Real Madrid midfielder Jude Bellingham’s excellence beyond the numbers.

My two favorite sports are undeniably European football and baseball. 

I appreciate baseball for how easy it is to explain why good players are good players: The best baseball players will always have the best statistics, be it batting average, fielding metrics or earned run average (ERA). 

Football is fundamentally different: The best players are not always as easily explained through statistics. Rather, their success is often hidden between the lines in the unquantifiable areas of positioning, reception of passes or pressing the opposition. 

Midfielder Jude Bellingham has been arguably the best player in the world over the last six months. After winning the Golden Boy Award at the 2023 Ballon d’Or ceremony, he leads LaLiga, Spain’s top division, with 14 goals for Real Madrid. To put that in perspective, a midfielder has not finished as LaLiga’s top scorer since the 1977-78 campaign. 

According to FotMob, an online football data compiler, Bellingham has the highest average match rating, a statistic calculated by averaging subcategories of play, including possession, passing and attacking, of any player in LaLiga — and it is not close. His average 8.19 out of 10 rating is 0.41 better than second place İlkay Gündoğan; that 0.41 margin is equivalent to the difference between the second and 20th-best average match rating

If Bellingham is the league’s top scorer as a midfielder, the best player on a per-match average basis, an Englishman in a Spanish game and only 20 years old, how is he enjoying so much success? The answer lies in the less quantifiable aspects of the beautiful game. 

Football is unique in two ways: It demands movement and concentration on the ball, similar to basketball, hockey or lacrosse, but is played at a slower pace and is lower scoring. Especially in the Spanish game, these factors make positioning — a skill Bellingham has mastered at a level beyond his years — the key to success. 

Often, midfielders find it difficult positionally to move forward and create goal-scoring opportunities without leaving gaps in the middle third of the field for an opposition counterattack. Bellingham simply ignores this: In the 2022 Bundesliga season, he ran an average of 6.7 miles per game, fourth highest among all Bundesliga players. Bellingham has the positional prowess to be potent in front of the goal while not sacrificing his defensive game.

Thirteen of Bellingham’s 14 league goals this season were tap-ins or inside-the-box conversions rather than stunners or individual efforts. Even with his elite 29.8% shot conversion rate, Bellingham’s 8.5 expected goals are well short of his actual 14 goals. This isn’t luck, but instead a combination of Bellingham’s exceptional understanding of attacking positioning and his unparalleled will to get where he needs to be and finish. 

Bellingham’s hype this season comes from his goalscoring, but he has also quietly been one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. He ranks in the 95th percentile or higher in tackles won, interceptions, duels won and possessions won in the final third among all Spanish league players. Bellingham’s ability to maintain his defensive and attacking play at such an elite level makes him one of the world’s most complete players. 

Beyond any accumulation of statistics, Bellingham absolutely passes the eye test. And don’t just take my word for it — legendary manager Pep Guardiola had said of Bellingham in 2022: “Everybody knows about his quality and skills… [but] this guy is something special in terms of mentality.” 

Bellingham plays with a conviction and vigor that I haven’t seen in years. It’s no mistake that he was awarded the captain’s armband at his former team Borussia Dortmund at just 19 years old. This grit and determination in his play helps explain why he has performed at such a high level in his first season with Real Madrid. 

Football can certainly be analyzed with numbers, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a purely statistics-based game. During the 2015-2016 Premier League season, even though Harry Kane scored a league-best 25 goals, midfielders N’Golo Kanté and Moussa Dembélé finished with higher average match ratings because of their statistics-defying abilities to control the midfield. 

Although Aaron Judge’s 210 OPS+ explains his 2022 American League Most Valuable Player season, if Jude Bellingham wins the Ballon d’Or in 2024, statistics will not tell the whole story. Instead, Bellingham is deserving of the award for his unquantifiable qualities in positional understanding, ability to maintain defensive and offensive prowess and exceptional mentality. 

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Hoya

Your donation will support the student journalists of Georgetown University. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The Hoya

Comments (0)

All The Hoya Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *