How do you stop Jude Bellingham? LaLiga players, coaches sound off

Jude Bellingham stands, arms outstretched, facing the crowd, celebrating another goal. It’s a pose that LaLiga players, coaches and fans have gotten used to seeing this season. From San Mamés to Balaídos, Montilivi to Montjuic — and, of course, at the Santiago Bernabeu — Bellingham’s 16 goals have helped Real Madrid top the table. Going into Sunday’s El Clasico with Barcelona (stream LIVE on Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN+), they’re eight points clear of their rivals, with seven games left to play.

Bellingham’s packed 2023-24 highlight reel includes a brace against Barca in the season’s first Clasico, Madrid’s 2-1 comeback win in October, featuring a goal-of-the-season contender and a 92nd-minute winner. In Europe, there was his virtuoso solo effort, carrying the ball from the halfway line, away at Napoli in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Later, there were two goals in February’s 4-0 demolition of Girona, which effectively knocked the Catalan side out of the LaLiga title race and put Madrid in pole position.

There have been setbacks, too. In November, Bellingham dislocated his left shoulder — he still plays with strapping to protect it — and in February, he twisted his left ankle. He was sent off against Valencia for disputing the referee’s decision to blow the final whistle before Bellingham’s header hit the net. His goal scoring suffered.

“The main thing that killed my rhythm was the [ankle] injury,” Bellingham said this week. “Finally I got over that pain in my ankle, played against Valencia, scored what I thought was a perfectly good goal, and got suspended.”

Despite that dip, Bellingham’s performance has surpassed all expectations. “At the beginning I was a bit surprised, I didn’t know much about him,” teammate Antonio Rüdiger said this month. “But, wow, he’s a big personality already, the way he handles himself … I’m not surprised anymore.”

His coach in Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti, agrees: “We weren’t surprised as a player, but we were as a person. Really professional. Really serious. Really humble. For his age, he’s really mature.”

With Madrid closing on the LaLiga title — barring an unlikely late implosion — Bellingham can make a case for being the most influential player in Spain this season. But what has it been like for opponents going head-to-head with him? ESPN spoke to players and coaches who’ve had to face Bellingham on the pitch in 2023-24 to discuss his strengths as a player, and ask how, or if, they can be dealt with.

When the LaLiga season kicked off last August, nobody knew quite how important Bellingham would be for Real Madrid, so soon. He was a €103 million summer signing, but he was also 20 years old, adapting to a new league and a new culture. He’d impressed teammates in pre-season — even veteran teammates like Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who’ve seen it all — but there were no guarantees of an instant impact.

Then Bellingham scored on his competitive debut, a 2-0 win at Athletic Club on Aug. 12, with a first-time, mishit finish he described as “lucky.” He never looked back. His confidence growing, he went on to score in his first four LaLiga games.

The third of those games was a 1-0 win away at Celta Vigo, on Aug. 25. USMNT midfielder Luca de la Torre started for Celta and was substituted seconds before Bellingham’s 80th-minute winner, an instinctive header from inside the six-yard box, after Kroos’ corner was flicked on by Joselu.

“He’s very good at arriving in the box,” De la Torre told ESPN. “As a midfielder, it’s really difficult to mark for a centre-back, who’s focusing on the striker. He scored against us from just being in the right place at the right time. It can be really hard to defend against. If he can read the game well and know where the bounce is going, you have almost no chance.”

Bellingham’s early-season form extended to a record-breaking 14 goals in his first 15 Real Madrid appearances in all competitions, more than either Cristiano Ronaldo or Alfredo di Stefano, the two biggest names in the club’s history. Then, in Madrid’s first big test of the season, Bellingham came up short. The team lost 3-1 at Atletico Madrid in the derby on Sept. 24. On a bad day for the team — which had plenty of shots (20) but no really significant chances — Bellingham managed just one effort, a tame first-half shot blocked by a defender.

“We were lucky,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone told ESPN. “He’s an extraordinary player, and we were lucky. [Bellingham] has something that’s difficult to spot, and that’s his runs from deep. He’s a midfielder who’s also a forward.

“We always tell defenders the same thing: [Watch the] ball, [watch the] player. There are times when you lose sight of them. You watch the ball, and miss the movement. Or you watch the movement, and miss the ball. And it’s difficult to defend in those circumstances. With his movement, you lose control of the player. And then, where might he show up? It’s no coincidence. He appears, and arrives from deep …. And he’s at a club where he has everything he needs to improve. I like him a lot.”

That derby defeat remains Real Madrid’s only loss in LaLiga this season.

For much of the campaign, Madrid’s closest competition at the top of the table hasn’t come from Atletico or Barcelona, but surprise packages Girona. And, in turn, the Catalans have inspired two of Madrid’s best performances: The 3-0 win at Montilivi on Sept. 30 and a 4-0 victory at the Bernabeu in the return fixture on Feb. 10; Bellingham scored in both.

“He’s having an amazing season,” defender Eric García, who’s on loan at Girona from Barcelona, told ESPN. “He’s a great player. He was showing it already in Germany [with Borussia Dortmund], and in the [England] team. But [Madrid] have a lot of dangerous players. We can’t only focus on one, because then you have Vinicius [Junior], you have Rodrygo [Goes].”

Bellingham himself has talked about how much he loves playing with the two Brazilians, who are Madrid’s second- and third-highest scorers behind him. “When everything clicks, [that front three] is beautiful to play in. There have been a few games where we’ve felt we’ve all been at our best,” Bellingham said this week.

It’s easy to imagine that February’s win over Girona — when Vinicius, Bellingham and Rodrygo all scored, with Vinicius assisting the other two — was on his mind. “Stopping [Bellingham] is difficult,” Girona midfielder Aleix García, another of this season’s outstanding LaLiga players, told ESPN. “He’s playing at a high level. But you have to work as a team. Maybe in individual duels we’re not as strong as Real Madrid. But as a team you have to try to do a good job, and counteract their strengths.”

“He’s an all-round midfielder,” Girona goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga says. “He covers the whole pitch. He can play as a forward, score goals, and bring the ball out from the back. Physically he’s very good, and we have to deal with that. Maybe we don’t have that physical power, but we have to stop him as a team. That’s the key word.”

Other opponents have presented more of a challenge, and not always those you’d expect.

Bellingham’s only goalless draw in a Real Madrid shirt was with Rayo Vallecano at the Bernabeu on Nov. 5. Rayo are having an underwhelming season and their record at the stadium is dreadful — they’d lost every previous game there for over 20 years — but this time, they frustrated Madrid and Bellingham. The midfielder had 88 touches, the most of any player on the pitch, completing 58 of his 65 passes. But he couldn’t score with any of his three shots. Rayo’s defence stood firm, denying Madrid space through the middle.

“We’ve seen the ability [Bellingham] has to break lines,” Rayo playmaker Isi Palazón told ESPN. “His physical strength, and above all the goal-scoring capacity he has. You’d never have imagined he’d have scored so many goals.”

Those goals started to dry up in the new year, with injuries and suspensions playing their part. Bellingham has played 10 games for Real Madrid in 2024, scoring in two of them. Eleven of his 16 LaLiga goals came between August and November, the other five spread over five subsequent months. Two of the games in which he failed to score came against one of LaLiga’s most awkward, stifling teams: Beaten Copa del Rey finalists Real Real Mallorca, currently 15th in LaLiga. Madrid beat Mallorca 1-0 at the Bernabeu on Jan. 3, and registered the same narrow scoreline away at Son Moix last weekend.

Bellingham played in both matches, scoring in neither. His combined xG, or expected goals, for the two games was 0.15, from four chances. The closest he came to scoring — by far — was hitting the crossbar on Saturday with a curling shot from outside the box, before being substituted in the 64th minute.

“We didn’t have any specific tactics [for him],” Mallorca forward Cyle Larin told ESPN, speaking before that second meeting. “But he’s a great player. He’ll adjust to your tactics. He’s very smart. It’s difficult to stop him, but we managed to do that [in January].”

“I watch a lot of games,” Mallorca goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic told ESPN last week. “You see how players shoot, how they move, how they run. When Real Madrid come, you watch their players in attack: Vinicius, Bellingham, Rodrygo. I analyse them. But at the end of the day, it’s live play. Anything can change in a second. You have to be focused and prepared.

“[Bellingham] is an amazing player. He isn’t a classic striker — he’s more of a No. 10, but he’s scored a lot of goals. He’s helped Real Madrid a lot. And I’ll face him in the Euros in Germany in two months [when Serbia play England in Group C] so I’ll play him one more time.”

There’s no bigger stage than El Clasico, and no better time for Bellingham to rediscover his goal-scoring form than Sunday’s game at the Bernabeu. Barcelona are reeling after their Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain in midweek, and the opportunity is there for Madrid to land a decisive, knockout blow for what’s left of the LaLiga title race.

Bellingham’s contribution to the first Clasico of the season will be hard to top. Barca had been vastly superior for the first hour of that game at Montjuic, before the midfielder intervened with his most iconic moment in a Real Madrid shirt. “Bellingham changed the game with his two goals,” Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen said afterward.

“He’s a great player, but he’s in a state of grace,” Barca coach Xavi cautioned. “The ball falls to him [for the winner] with a rebound. He’s feeling confident. Today he made the difference.”

Bellingham’s goal scoring might have slowed, but he’s still LaLiga’s second-highest scorer, one behind Girona forward Artem Dovbyk — who overtook him last weekend — and he might still end the season as Pichichi, the first division’s top scorer.

“What makes me anxious is if I don’t score, and the team don’t win,” Bellingham said on Tuesday. “I know my game is more than goals. If you watch the games, you can see that …. Of course I want to score goals, I love scoring, and especially when you get into the rhythm of it, you don’t want to stop. But I can affect the game in different ways.

“I didn’t expect to come here and score so many goals, but now that I’m here, I want to take that responsibility… I’m up to 20 now [in all competitions] and hopefully I can get more before the end of the season.”

El Clasico would be a good place to start.