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Jude Bellingham

Birmingham City, 2019–

Name a major European club and you will probably be able to find a link to Jude Bellingham. Birmingham City’s 16-year-old starlet has, over the course of this, his breakthrough season, been linked with – deep breath – Manchester United, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Tottenham, Arsenal, Wolves and more.

Whether or not all of those clubs are genuinely interested in the teenager remains to be seen, but the fact that even one of them might be keen on a player who has less than a season of second-tier experience under his belt and is valued at £30m suggests he could turn out to be something special.

Role at Birmingham City
Having become Birmingham’s youngest-ever player at 16 years and 38 days old last August, Bellingham has quickly made himself an important part of Pep Clotet’s midfield. He scored a winning goal against Stoke in only his second substitute appearance in the Championship, and then repeated the feat when making his first start at Charlton in Birmingham’s next match. He hasn’t looked back since.

His goals, both in the blue of Birmingham and while captaining the England Under-17 team to victory in last year’s Syrenka Cup (a friendly tournament in Poland), have a touch of Frank Lampard about them. The angle of his runs and positioning may differ from those the current Chelsea head coach displayed during his long career, but Bellingham times his late arrivals in the box perfectly and has already shown great composure when finishing in crowded areas.

He is far more effective inside the penalty area than he is outside it – in his competitive games for club and country this season, he has hit the target with 11 of his 22 shots (50 per cent) from inside it, scoring five times. Outside the box, he has hit the target with only six of 26 shots (23 per cent) and scored only one goal – the aforementioned winner, albeit deflected, against Stoke.

The youngster’s all-round game makes him a suitable option in several positions, however. The majority of his appearances have come in a central or left-midfield position, but he has played in all positions across the middle and as a striker in the 4-4-2 formation preferred by Clotet, as well as in defensive midfield, off the left and behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 shape. Wherever he plays, however, Bellingham likes to come looking for the ball. He rarely hugs the touchline if named as a wide midfielder, and tends not to look for balls played in behind if operating as a forward.

Instead, he almost constantly offers teammates a passing option. In that sense, he does much of his best work moving into the half-spaces – usually on the left – and combining with the full-back. If, as is usually the case, he is playing as the left-sided midfielder, Bellingham likes to move off the flank to receive, leaving space for left-back Kristian Pedersen – the Championship’s highest-scoring full-back this season – to drive forward into (above).

Tactical analysis
When playing in central midfield, Bellingham likes to drift wide to try and combine with the wide midfielder and supporting full-back. He has incredibly quick feet and does his most impressive work in small spaces, playing short, sharp passes to emerge from tight situations. He also has a very small turning circle, and can drop a shoulder before darting in the opposite direction to shake off a marker.

Beyond that, he also possesses the ability to commit opponents to a challenge before swiftly flicking a neat pass into space to release a teammate. One example of this was in the win at Bristol City in February, when he drew four defenders towards him and then, off balance after a nudge from Niclas Eliasson, released Lukas Jutkiewicz down the left for a counter-attack (above and below). More often than not, Bellingham gets the weight of his pass just right.

As might be expected from such an inexperienced player, overconfidence can sometimes contribute to him making the wrong decision. His faith in his own dribbling abilities means he has attacked opponents more times than any other teammate this season, despite having often been a substitute, but a 58 per cent success rate suggests he is attempting to do so too regularly when he could instead attempt to play a more straightforward pass.

The way he plays – always after the ball, extremely brave in possession and capable of dribbling his way out of tricky situations – hints at a player bursting with confidence. He is at his best when playing short passes, usually under pressure – without question, one reason he has attracted so much interest – but he isn’t quite as effective when playing over longer distances.

All too frequently, with the chance to break presenting itself, Bellingham looks for the killer pass too early when he would be better off waiting for a simpler option – as shown in an example (above and below) from a recent FA Cup tie against Coventry.

Throughout the 2019/20 season, he has attempted 11 long balls from the defensive third of the pitch into the opposition’s half but only once found a teammate. The vast majority of the chances he has created have resulted from short, clever passes instead of hopeful, longer balls.

Ambitious passing should be encouraged at his still youthful age, but his overall pass success rate of 75 per cent is too low for a central midfielder. A rate that low suggests he takes chances, but this style has brought little reward – he has so far recorded only two assists for his club.

Bellingham is not getting ahead of himself, though, and that is apparent in his workrate. He averages 3.2 tackles per 90 minutes played in the Championship this season and, despite starting only 25 of a possible 37 games, ranks in the top 20 of all players for total tackles made. He can be a little overenthusiastic and occasionally get beaten when diving in for a challenge, but his pace tracking back means he can often stop his opponent advancing too far into more dangerous areas.

Clotet has been impressed by Bellingham’s attitude, claiming the 16 year old – he turns 17 in June – is “very mature and very focused”, and the Spaniard has done an admirable job of slowly introducing him to professional football. Some Premier League followers would have been disappointed to see Bellingham rested for the recent FA Cup tie against Leicester, but he is now so important to the team that Clotet decided to keep him fresh for a subsequent league fixture.

The profile of Birmingham’s strikers contributes much to the fact that they so regularly adopt a 4-4-2, but as his career progresses Bellingham is perhaps more likely to become an attacking number eight in a 4-3-3 or even a number 10 in a 4-2-3-1. Given his potential and the reported interest in him, it might not be long before we get to see him in either of these positions – and at a higher level.

Jude Bellingham

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