The Battle for Jude Bellingham
By: Phillip Jong Min Lee
As the biggest and most widely played sport this world has ever seen, the soccer industry involves frequent transfers with big money throughout the summer and winter transfer windows. During this passing 2022-23 season, English Premier League clubs alone have spent over 3 billion US dollars on transfer spendings. Likewise, player transfers are undoubtedly a huge part of soccer, as players are often brought in and sold to complete tactical coherence or even to re-brand the culture of a soccer club.
As the 2022-23 season is approaching its end, there is increasing interest in potential transfers that will take place this coming summer. The main spotlight points at Jude Bellingham, the English teenage prospect. The article will examine how Bellingham would fit into different tactical systems of the soccer clubs with the strongest links to Bellingham. I will also provide context of how Bellingham developed as a soccer player throughout his career and compare his statistics and performance metrics to players that occupy similar roles in the respective teams linked to him. In comparing player statistics, I will be using statistics per 90 minutes, as the players being compared have played varying numbers of minutes throughout this season. Furthermore, since the players in comparison all compete in different domestic leagues across Europe, the statistics employed in this article will primarily be from the 22-23 UEFA Champions League season.
From Birmingham to Dortmund: Bellingham’s Journey to the Top
Bellingham's journey from Birmingham to Dortmund has been nothing short of remarkable. Having started his soccer career in the U7s at the Birmingham City FC academy, Bellingham made his professional debut for Birmingham City at the age of just 16, becoming their youngest ever player in the process. He quickly established himself as a key player for the club, making 44 appearances in all competitions and scoring four goals.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before he caught the attention of Europe’s top clubs. While gaining interest from big clubs such as Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund during the January transfer window of 2020,
Bellingham stayed at Birmingham and played a crucial role in saving the club from relegation. Eventually, in the summer of 2020, Bellingham made the move to Borussia Dortmund in Germany. The German club paid a
reported fee of £25 million to secure his services, making him the most expensive 17-year-old in history at the time. In appreciation of his contributions, Birmingham City retired Bellingham’s number, 22.
Having a kit number retired in soccer is a rare occurrence; those who have had their numbers are often legendary figures who had illustrious careers, such as Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, and Bobby Moore. As such, Bellingham’s performances at Birmingham were inspiring and unprecedented. The number worn by Bellingham, 22, epitomizes his style of play: performing multiple roles as a ball chasing defensive midfielder (4), a driving force as a box-to-box midfielder (8), and a central playmaker (10), the typical jersey numbers/roles add up to 22.
Bellingham's move to Dortmund has proven to be a wise decision for both player and club. He made an instant impact for the team, playing a pivotal role in their midfield. His playing style perfectly suited Dortmund's high-pressing, attacking approach to the game, and he has become a fan favorite at the Signal Iduna Park.
One of the key aspects of Bellingham's game is his versatility, as he continues to wear 22 and plays with the same mentality. He is comfortable playing in a number of different positions across the midfield, and his ability to switch between roles has been a huge asset for Dortmund. He is equally adept at playing as a deep-lying midfielder, attacking midfielder, or even as a winger; his energy and work rate make him a valuable asset in all roles.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bellingham's game is his maturity and composure on the pitch. Despite his young age, he plays with a confidence and assurance that belies his years. He is not afraid to take risks and always looks to play with positivity and creativity. Bellingham’s traits as a natural leader on the pitch accounts for how he was given the captaincy for Dortmund, making him the youngest player to ever wear the armband in the Bundesliga.
As arguably the most all-round soccer player in today’s game, Jude Bellingham is yet again heavily linked with multiple clubs this summer. With his contract with Dortmund running out in 2025, a huge bidding war is expected this coming summer for one of the biggest prospects the soccer world has seen in decades. While there is no release clause set for Bellingham, Borussia Dortmund is currently reported to value Bellingham at 150 million euros.
As a result, only the biggest clubs have expressed interest and are expected to splash cash for Bellingham, the most likely suitors being Real Madrid, Manchester City, and Liverpool.
NpxG - Non-penalty xG
GCA - Goal Creating Action (based on goals and assists)
As shown in the plot above, Bellingham’s statistics regarding goal contributions are exceptional. Compared to some of the regular starting midfielders at Real Madrid, Liverpool, and Manchester City, Bellingham ranks second in both Non-penalty xG and Goal-creating Actions, trailing slightly behind Kevin De Bruyne. As such, Bellingham’s ability to provide and create goals, and to get in the right positions to score, as a teenager, demonstrates that he is ready to compete at the next level.
Tkl - Tackles
Int - Interceptions
Defensively, Bellingham is also strong and disciplined. He has excellent awareness and is able to read the game well, often intercepting passes and breaking up opposition attacks. He is not afraid to put in a tackle and his physicality is a great asset in winning back possession of the ball. Despite taking on more attacking roles, Bellingham ranks second in tackles and interceptions won, winning the ball back 4 times per match on average. Bellingham’s defensive prowess, along with his offensive capabilities, allows him to be tactically flexible and assume any role in midfield.
Prg Carries - Progressive Carries = carries that progress the ball towards the opposing goal line by at least 10 yards
Succ TO - Successful Take-ons = number of defenders taken on successfully by dribbling past them
Bellingham's technical ability is also a key factor in his success. As a skillful dribbler, Bellingham is capable of taking on defenders 1-on-1, and is able to drive the ball forward from midfield, creating space and opening up opposition defenses. Compared to his potential competition for starting spots in midfield, Bellingham ranks first in successful take-ons, successfully dribbling past at least 2 defenders every game. While Bellingham ranks third in progressive carries, it is worth noting that Bernardo Silva, who is ranked first, is often assigned more defensive responsibilities; the differences in tactical roles allow Silva more space to carry the ball up the field.
Passes cmp - Passes completed
Pass cmp % - Pass completion percentage
Prg Dist - Passes = Progressive distance covered by live ball passes
Though Bellingham’s passing ability is not a weakness, his passing statistics reveal that Bellingham relies more on his dribbling ability to progress the ball. Bellingham ranks second to last in progressive distance covered by passes and last in quantity of passes completed per game. While his pass completion percentage shows that Bellingham isn’t far off from the other players in the sample group, his lacking in quantity of and distance covered in passes highlight Bellingham’s tendency to resort to his technical abilities to progress and distribute the ball.
SCA-PassLive - completed live ball passes that lead to shot attempt
SCA-TO - successful take-ons that lead to a shot attempt
The plot above further consolidates the claim that Bellingham has a strong preference towards taking on defenders, rather than passing. While he ranks second to last in shot creating actions from passes, Bellingham leads the group by a huge margin in shot creating actions from take-ons.
Overall, comparison and analysis confirm Bellingham’s comprehensive set of skills: Bellingham has demonstrated excellence with regards to defending capabilities, ball progression, technical ability, and delivering the final product. In determining which club’s tactics would best suit Bellingham, while his all-roundedness reduces the risk of failure, it is crucial to note each team’s play style and how Bellingham could complement original members of the teams.
In joining Real Madrid, Bellingham has the advantage of joining the midfield of current European champions. Real Madrid’s offense, with Benzema and Vinicius Jr, is composed of players capable of taking the most advantage of the space created by Bellingham. Considering how Real Madrid’s midfield duo of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are adept at passing and distributing the ball, it seems likely that Bellingham’s more direct style of play will fit right in. The plots above show that Modric and Kroos, while trailing behind in carries and take-ons, boast high productivity in passing metrics. Bellingham’s defensive prowess, offensive output, and ability to take on defenders might introduce a fresh dimension of chemistry to an elite midfield with experience. Moreover, in the likes of Camavinga, Valverde, and Tchouameni, Bellingham will have up-and-coming players like himself to foster a different kind of chemistry. As these midfielders are more defense-oriented and lean toward link-up play to progress the ball, it will allow Bellingham to focus on developing his offensive traits such as his ability to take on players and scoring.
Similarly, in joining Manchester City, Bellingham will combine with a more complete and coherent midfield that is expected to lift trophies year in and year out. However, the inherent nature of Guardiola’s tactical system should not be overlooked. Manchester City had brought in a variety of top-notch players like Ferran Torres and Fernando, only to find that they lacked the tactical intelligence to fully carry out Guardiola’s tactics. Under Guardiola, Manchester City operates in a highly calculated and organized manner, and requires certain types of players in particular positions. For example, it may be difficult for Bellingham to co-exist with players like De
Bruyne and Phil Foden in midfield; these midfielders also prefer a more direct style of play, as opposed to players like Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan, who tend to focus on controlling the tempo of the game by holding the ball and allowing teammates to fill their assigned positions. It is also worth noting that there is always the risk of players moving to the Premier League failing to adapt to the faster tempo and more physical play in England. A plethora of top quality players from the Bundesliga, such as Jadon Sancho and Timo Werner, have failed to replicate their successes in the Premier League.
Up until last season, Liverpool’s midfield was once considered one of the world’s best. Fabinho’s defensive stability and Henderson’s leadership may serve as the ideal platform for Bellingham to flourish as a playmaker in midfield. In addition, Bellingham’s physicality in defense could strengthen Liverpool’s press and act as a buffer in midfield. However, throughout the 22-23 season, the midfield trio of Henderson, Thiago, and Fabinho slowly started to deteriorate. Though the long list of injuries this season in Klopp’s high pressing system contributes to the increased workload on the midfield, considering the age of Henderson (32), Fabinho (29), and Thiago (31), it may also be the case that Liverpool’s midfield is simply past its days. Furthermore, as with Manchester City, the risk remains for Bellingham with regards to whether he will successfully adapt to the Premier League.
To conclude, a move to Madrid seems to harbor minimal risk in Bellingham’s integration. In a team renowned for its winning mentality and a league with relatively less competition, Bellingham will have more room to grow as a player. On top of that, proliferating in one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs will add much more to Bellingham’s resume for the future.
While Bellingham's journey thus far has been extraordinary, looking to the future, there is no doubt that Bellingham has a bright career ahead of him. He has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting young talents in European soccer, and his versatility, technical ability, and defensive discipline make him a crucial player for both club and country. He is already considered to be one of the best midfielders in the world as a teenager. His potential is enormous, and it will be fascinating to watch him develop and grow as a player in the years to come.