Borussia Dortmund coach Edin Terzic called Jude Bellingham “the oldest 19-year-old I have ever seen” this week.
It did not sound like a huge compliment at first but was certainly intended as one — recognition that the England midfielder is mature beyond his years in both performance levels and character.
At every stage of his two-and-a-half-year spell at Signal Iduna Park, Bellingham has exceeded expectations.
He became a regular instantly, six months earlier than Dortmund had anticipated. By the end of last season, a midfield without him was already unthinkable. “It’s a bit frightening, really, to consider how well he has done,” then-Dortmund assistant coach Otto Addo told The Athletic in the summer of 2021 as the teenager helped England get within a penalty shootout of winning the European Championship.
And it now turns out that the stellar 2021-22 season which followed was only a prelude to another quantum leap in the current one.
It is no exaggeration to say that the boy from Stourbridge has evolved into Dortmund’s most important senior player after adding goals to his considerable repertoire. Nine in 19 games is a return a striker would be proud of, let alone somebody playing central midfield.
There is an argument that he has been shooting a little too often from distance in the Bundesliga, perhaps reflecting Dortmund’s problems with breaking down deep-lying defences, but his shot map for the five Champions League group games he played in reads like that of an elite poacher.
He is unfailingly making the right runs into the box to find the big scoring opportunities.
Experience is undoubtedly a factor in getting where he needs to be, as is his phenomenal fitness.
Bellingham has played every minute of this season’s 12 Bundesliga games and also those five Champions League matches (Terzic rested him for this week’s finale away to FC Copenhagen). In the DFB-Pokal, Germany’s FA Cup, he has played 118 minutes out of 180 in Dortmund’s two ties so far.
Opponents simply cannot cope with his dynamism: Bellingham is the most-fouled player in the league with 37, just like last season (91, the next-most was 71).
But there are a few external factors at play as well.
Without Erling Haaland up front this season and with no Sebastien Haller around to directly replace him — the Ivory Coast striker signed from Ajax in the summer has just resumed training following surgery for testicular cancer — Dortmund have relied on their midfielders to pick up the slack in the final third.
Whenever Youssoufa Moukoko has led the line, in particular, the 17-year-old’s movement into the channels has created spaces in central areas that Bellingham could drive into. The absence of captain Marco Reus, who has played only 45 Bundesliga minutes since mid-September because of ankle problems, has probably played a role in that respect as well.
Julian Brandt, who has mostly played in the No 10 position during Reus’ injury, likes to drift wide, creating yet more opportunity for Bellingham’s central runs.
The former Birmingham City youngster has clearly relished those wide open spaces.
His Smarterscout pizza chart for this season shows how his carry and dribble volume has shot up (94 out of 99) in comparison to the previous one (80/99).
The most striking difference in the statistics is, of course, his increased attacking output, but one of the key reasons for that is, ironically, found in a performance indicator that has declined.
Despite being the Bundesliga’s best ball-winner — going into this weekend’s fixtures, he had contested (347) and won (202) more one-vs-one duels than anyone else in the league — smarterscout figures show his defending intensity has dropped from 86/99 last season to 70/99.
Defending intensity measures how often a player is the most relevant defender when their team are out of possession. The higher the number, the more the player is actively applying pressure and making defensive actions.
Why is Bellingham relatively less important for Dortmund’s out-of-possession game? Salih Ozcan.
Signed from Cologne in the summer, Turkey international Ozcan was described as “the most important transfer of the summer window” by Matthias Sammer. And the former Dortmund and Germany icon seems to have been proven right.
A destructive player by nature, Ozcan’s discipline has allowed Bellingham to make more frequent forward runs.
Other than the second in a 3-0 win over third division 1860 Munich in the cup and a late clincher against Copenhagen after the Turk had been substituted, Bellingham has scored all of his goals this season with Ozcan by his side, or more accurately, watching from a few yards behind him.
At first, Bellingham was only finding the net regularly in the Champions League, when Dortmund played with a three-man midfield that had him in an attacking No 8 position, protected by both Ozcan and Emre Can. Lately, though, the goals have also started to come in the Bundesliga, where Terzic favours a 4-2-3-1 system.
“He’s enjoying his football so much that I sometimes have to call him back to his position. But it’s incredibly fun to play with him and to mop up behind him,” Ozcan said.
Knowing when to go and when to stay in a midfield two marks yet another stage of Bellingham’s rapid development. There can be little doubt over his starting role when the World Cup begins later this month but it’ll be interesting to see whether Gareth Southgate will manage to get quite as much out of him in the current England set-up.
After Bellingham shone against Ivory Coast in March, in just his fourth start for the senior side, Southgate described his ideal role as a “foraging No 8”.
That night, he had played slightly further forward — Southgate called his role closer to a “pressing No 10” — with Declan Rice and James Ward-Prowse providing security in midfield behind him. But it was indicative of the fact that even in Bellingham’s bright young England career so far (he made his debut two years ago this month and has 17 caps already), his best position is still not entirely clear.
Go back to last year’s European Championship, Bellingham’s first major tournament, and he never started a game among his three appearances.
Instead, he was used intelligently by Southgate as a ‘closer’ to help England finish off games they were already leading in (the fact he was asked to do this job before his 18th birthday is telling enough in itself). He came on for Harry Kane against Croatia and Jack Grealish against the Czech Republic, giving England an extra body in the middle of the pitch to get 1-0 wins over the line.
The assumption back then was that Southgate would always prefer to pair Rice with Kalvin Phillips in the middle of his team, either as the central midfield two in a 3-4-3 or the base for a No 10 (most likely Mason Mount) in a 4-2-3-1.
But as we get closer to that World Cup opener against Iran two weeks on Monday, Southgate’s options have broadened out, and Bellingham was a key figure in June’s four Nations League games.
He started in a two with Rice in a 3-4-3 when England were beaten 1-0 away to Hungary, played 75 minutes of the comeback 1-1 draw with Germany in Munich alongside the West Ham man in a 4-2-3-1 after Phillips’ early injury and then started in a midfield three when England hosted Hungary. After he went off for Phil Foden with 68 minutes played in the latter fixture, England conceded three goals on the break.
When England got to their final Nations League games in September, Southgate decided to go back to the 3-4-3 system. With Phillips injured, Bellingham started alongside Rice in the middle. He was one of England’s better players on a difficult, goalless night against Italy in Milan, always trying to drive the team forward, and then exceptional in the 3-3 with Germany at Wembley.
It now feels that Rice and Bellingham are the obvious pair if Southgate opts for that system against Iran.
No other English player can provide the same stability, intensity and even maturity the teenager does in the middle of the pitch.
But the temptation will always be there, if Southgate wants to drop a defender and change to a 4-3-3, to give him extra licence to go and forage further upfield.
Positionally, Bellingham should shine in either system, as long as Rice is happy to sit in and provide cover. But the evidence of what we have seen at Dortmund this season is that if you can build a system which allows Bellingham the freedom to get forward and score goals, he will more than pay back the trust placed in him.
It could be time, going into the World Cup, for Southgate to take the high-risk, high-reward approach.
Additional reporting: Jack Pitt-Brooke and Mark Carey
(Top photo: Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund/Getty Images)
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Publish date : 2022-11-05 05:24:50