With the transfer market continuing on a seemingly endless trajectory of inflation, more and more clubs are devoting more resources towards purchasing and developing young players. Rather than shelling out tens or even hundreds of millions to acquire established world-class players, teams are now trying to produce their own. Most of the time, these players populate a club’s academy, with only a few successfully making the gradual progression to the first team.
Some players, though, transcend their age by virtue of their quality and make themselves integral parts of the senior squad at ridiculously young ages. Eduardo Camavinga at Stade Rennais. Rayan Cherki at Olympique Lyon. Giovanni Reyna at Borussia Dortmund. Teenage prodigies have become the latest sensation of the footballing world, and they are perhaps more highly prized than ever before. Given this, it’s no surprise that 16-year-old Birmingham City midfielder Jude Bellingham has become one of the most sought after English players.
Birmingham boss Pep Clotet has been consistent in his use of a standard 4-4-2 as his preferred setup. While Bellingham usually plays as a left or central midfielder, he has also been used as a right midfielder, a second striker, and a defensive midfielder. Such versatility is a testament to Bellingham’s intelligence and wide array of attributes.
Defensively, he is an energetic presence. His speed allows him to cover large amounts of space to either help his team shore up opposition counter-attacks or get tight to his opposite man and place him under pressure quickly. Bellingham’s numbers speak for themselves: 2.3 tackles, 5.7 defensive duels, and six ball recoveries per 90 are impressive numbers for any player, let alone a 16-year-old.
Beyond his defensive ability, Bellingham also relishes his defensive duties. He doesn’t merely defend because he has to, he sees it as an integral and enjoyable aspect of his game. That mentality is reflected in his relentless work rate and persistence in defending throughout a match, elevating the efficacy of his defending overall. Having that mentality is something that is virtually impossible to coach, so the fact that Bellingham is as willing a defender makes him all the more impressive.
With the ball, Bellingham is most important in progressing possession from defense to attack. He often drops deep on the left-hand side of the pitch, collecting the ball deep before either driving past the defensive line or shifting the ball to more advanced teammates.
Dribbling is undoubtedly his greatest offensive strength. The Englishman completes 60% of the dribbles he attempts, allowing him to evade opposition markers when progressing the ball in wide or central areas. He doesn’t tend to isolate an opposition defender out wide like a traditional winger but instead will use his dribbling to wriggle out of congested areas before moving the ball on to more advanced teammates. Bellingham is also not afraid to drive into the box himself, although this is a less prominent aspect of his play.
The England youth international’s passing is somewhat rudimentary, functional without being extraordinary. His passing range is limited, and he is rarely able to play creative, defensive-splitting passes successfully. While he will often attempt ambitious crosses or passes, they rarely come off. At 16, he is bound to have deficiencies in his game, and in time he will almost certainly become a more accomplished passer. He already has an intuitive ability to pick the right pass at the right time, and he is good at moving the ball quickly. It allows Bellingham to be a solid option for recycling possession.
Bellingham has been linked with a number of clubs, but Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund appear to be the favorites to sign him, with the latter reportedly ahead in the chase. Should he follow the likes of Reece Oxford, Ademola Lookman, and Jadon Sancho in making the switch from England to Germany, Bellingham could quickly become an important player for Dortmund.
While stacked with prodigious attacking talent, Dortmund has at times, lacked balance this season. In both of their preferred setups – the 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 – the double pivots are often left to cover large swaths of space in front of the back four, usually with limited success. Emre Can has helped in this regard, and the likes of Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel are energetic presences, but Dortmund could use more options in this area.
Bellingham would suit a box-to-box role in a double pivot well. His energy in defence would allow him to work well in a high-pressing team, and he could have both the physical and defensive attributes to cope with the added defensive responsibility well. In possession, his dribbling from deep could allow Dortmund to better cope with other high-pressing teams in the Bundesliga.
His tactical versatility would likely be appreciated as well. Maybe he could be used as a number ten, a left wingback in a back five, or as one of the flanking attacking midfielders in the 4-2-3-1. Bellingham would not just be joining a club with a storied track record of youth development, but also one that would suit his style of play.
Bellingham is anything but a complete player, and he may not immediately get regular game time for Dortmund. But if he has anything, it’s time and talent. If he can maximize both, he will undoubtedly be set for an illustrious career.