bundesliga

How Real Madrid-bound Jude Bellingham became one of the world's best midfielders at Borussia Dortmund

xwhatsappmailcopy-link

Jude Bellingham leaves Borussia Dortmund for Real Madrid, bringing an end to a career-shaping stint at Dortmund, spanning three years.

Bellingham's career in numbers

At just 19 years of age, Bellingham is the complete package: a dynamic midfielder who can win the ball and drive it forward, hold up possession, resist the press, find gaps in opposition defences, plus assist and score goals.

"He's one of the most gifted players I've ever seen," a starry-eyed Phil Foden said of his England teammate on ITV in December, after the Three Lions eased past Senegal to book a 2022 World Cup quarter-final with holders France. "I don't see a weakness in his game, I think he's got everything. I'm sure he's going to be the best midfielder in the world."

Foden was only pointing out what Bundesliga viewers – and Dortmund fans in particular – had known for a while: this kid is very special indeed. Bellingham is 'going to be' the best midfielder in the world, Phil? It's entirely possible that he already is.

How many other 19-year-olds have already made over 130 competitive outings for one of Europe's top clubs, and even worn the captain's armband? How many teenagers have been guaranteed starters in their domestic league, winning the most challenges AND having their team's most shots on goal? How many already boast 24 international caps, featuring a World Cup goal and assist? How many have a retired shirt number (!) at one of their former clubs?

Watch: Bellingham was named Bundesliga Player of the Season in 2022/23

It's little wonder Dortmund coach Edin Terzic recently described his No.22 as "the oldest 19-year-old I have ever seen", with England counterpart Gareth Southgate highlighting his remarkable recent progress: "I don't think we could have predicted how quickly he would mature. In the last five months that has gone to another level."

Bellingham's achievements would be exceptional at any age, but the fact that he has done so much, so young, shows that he is a once-in-a-generation talent, not unlike the Gallic superstar he faced in England's narrow last-eight defeat: Kylian Mbappe. There are distinct parallels between two of the World Cup's top performers. Articulate and mild-mannered off the pitch, fiercely competitive on it, they seemed blissfully unaware of any pressure on their shoulders in guiding their nations to the latter stages of the tournament.

"I've not seen a young midfielder perform like that for years," declared ITV pundit Roy Keane, who marshalled the Manchester United midfield as captain in their glory years of the 1990s and 2000s. "Usually you see that from a world-class player who is 26 or 27. Everything he does in the game, what goes on in his brain. Decision-making, end product, final pass. The kid has everything."

"He looks like he can do absolutely everything," echoed Gary Neville, another former Manchester United captain. "Is he a holding player? Is he an attacking midfielder? He's everything in one. It's the composure and maturity and the fearlessness that I can't get my head around. I've watched players for England play for many years – the weight of the shirt was enormous. He just doesn't feel it at all. He looks like he belongs out there."

Watch: Tactical analysis of Jude Bellingham

No doubt being thrown in at the deep end with Dortmund helped Bellingham to develop his apparent imperviousness to any kind of pressure. Having joined from Birmingham City as a promising 17-year-old in summer 2020, he was one of the first names on the teamsheet by the halfway stage of 2020/21. He ended up starting 19 of 31 appearances in the Bundesliga, eight of 10 in the UEFA Champions League, and all six in the DFB Cup as Dortmund thrashed RB Leipzig 4-1 in the final to lift the trophy.

He scored his first goal for Dortmund in the opening round of that successful DFB Cup campaign, which made him their youngest-ever competitive goalscorer until Youssoufa Moukoko struck against Union Berlin in the Bundesliga several months later. He remains the club's youngest ever goal-getter in the Champions League and DFB Cup, and holds several other precocious records: he's the youngest player from any club to reach 75 Bundesliga outings, the youngest at BVB to have made 100 competitive appearances, and his 92 Bundesliga games are the outright most by a teenager.

"He made the decision to go to Germany, when he could have probably made easier decisions in terms of his lifestyle, his family," explained Mike Dodds, Bellingham's former coach at the Birmingham youth academy, on BBC Radio 4. "But he wanted to make a footballing decision – what was best for his career – that he thought was the next step for him. And the proof is in the pudding. He's obviously made the right decision because he seems to keep excelling in terms of his development."

Watch: Bellingham - Made in the Bundesliga

The Bundesliga has long been the perfect playground for young talents for flourish, with Dortmund in particular helping some of the best in the business to maximise their potential. Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic, Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland all emerged as world-class talents at the Signal Iduna Park, so it was hardly a surprise that the club managed to attract Bellingham, already touted as one of England's future stars during his time at Birmingham.

It was when he left the Blues that Bellingham was subject to one of the quirkier episodes of his career. The CEO at the time, Xuandong Ren, insisted that his No.22 shirt be retired, even if at that point he had only played one senior campaign for his boyhood club. Bellingham himself seemed faintly uncomfortable with the decision – later admitting to The Times that he "probably didn't deserve it" – but in a rather unorthodox way, the Midlands club seem to have anticipated the impact he would end up having for club and country.

"He's possibly the best 16-year-old I've ever seen," former Birmingham captain Harlee Dean recently told The Athletic. "He'll be England captain. Any club on the planet could take him."

The 22 itself has significance. Bellingham has continued to wear that number for Dortmund and England, and it's no coincidence; it goes back to a performance review he had with Dodds during his time at the Birmingham academy.

"He said he wanted to be a No.10," Dodds explained to The Athletic. "I said, 'I think you can be a 22'. He asked what I meant, and I said, 'You can be a No.4, a No.8 and No.10, someone who can do it all. We said he could do the not-so-nice bits of the game; breaking play up, running around, making tackles, so he could play in deeper areas as a '4'. The '8' would be the box-to-box player, getting up and down with energy and driving the team on. And your '10' would be scoring and creating'. I told him he was doing himself a disservice by wanting to be a 10, because I thought he could do it all."

Bellingham (c.) has worn the number 22 since bursting onto the scene with boyhood club Birmingham City. - Clint Hughes, via www.imago-images.de/imago images/PA Images

The statistics suggest that Dodds knew exactly what he was talking about, and bear out Neville's impression that Bellingham is an "everything in one" midfielder. In the 2022/23 Bundesliga, he contested and won the most challenges (482) as a battling ball winner. As a box-to-box ranger he drew the division's second-highest number of fouls (73), completed 84.9 per cent of his passes, and ranked fifth in the charts for sprints (884) and intensive runs (2,526). And in the final third, he had the most shots on goal of any Dortmund player (65), scoring eight times and providing four assists.

Crucially, he had the sheer energy and stamina to fulfil such a demanding, all-purpose role. He featured in all but three Bundesliga matches, only missing out through suspension and injury - and his absence in the must-win meeting with Mainz on the final day was cruelly felt. He covered an impressive average distance of 10.5 kilometres per game - yet it is not just his outstanding physical attributes that make him such a formidable package.

"Mentally, he's very strong," observed former Dortmund winger Otto Addo, who has worked as an assistant under Terzic and is still employed by the club as a talent scout. "He's prepared for the negative spells. There's a real maturity to the way he deals with situations. He's incredibly confident, which helps him perform at the highest level and shrug off mistakes."

Watch: All of Bellingham's Bundesliga goals and assists

Bellingham also has clear leadership qualities. When Dortmund made the short trip to Cologne at the start of October, captain Marco Reus was sidelined with injury and vice-captain Mats Hummels was ill, meaning Bellingham – named third captain by Terzic in pre-season – ended up leading his side out for the first time. He thus became the youngest Bundesliga skipper since data collection began in 1995.

"It's a dream come true," Bellingham told bundesliga.com. "When I first signed for this club, it's something that I never even thought was possible, until I met the players and realised they can give me the belief to one day be the captain."

Dodds insists that what set Bellingham apart back in Birmingham was "a real desire to be the very best at whatever he turned his hand to" – and that motivation to keep driving forward has clearly stayed with him in Germany, both literally and metaphorically.

"He wanted this responsibility, so we were happy to give it him," Terzic said of Bellingham's addition to the Dortmund leadership group, alongside the highly experienced duo of Reus and Hummels. "He's been one of our most consistent players over the past couple of years. We don't even know yet how good he is – we're trying to find out where his limit will be."

Bellingham wore the captain's armband four times for BVB in 2022/23, inspiring them to wins over Sevilla, Bayer Leverkusen and Chelsea. - Lars Baron/Getty Images

The more Bellingham plays, the higher that limit seems to be. His England teammates certainly weren't shy about singing his praises during the World Cup, with Henderson telling beIN Sports, "I feel I'm running out of things to say about him. Incredible mentality, incredible player. He's a one-off and we just need to let him enjoy his football."

"The world is his oyster," chimed in Luke Shaw. "And he can be anything he wants."

And what Bellingham clearly wants is to make his mark on football and add many more trophies to that DFB Cup he lifted with BVB. The Meisterschale slipped cruelly out of Dortmund's grasp at the end of 2022/23 - with an injured Bellingham only able to watch from the sidelines as the title went to Bayern instead - but he earned some measure of consolation by being named the Bundesliga Player of the Season, which he described as one of his proudest achievements.

"You can have all the money you want from playing football," Bellingham once told the official Dortmund podcast, after witnessing the incredible send-off given to club legends Marcel Schmelzer and Michael Zorc at the end of 2021/22. "But being appreciated for creating so many memories for so many people – for winning the league, however many cups, and winning the Champions League – that lives longer than any car you could buy, or house you could buy. That's the thing that motivates me to create memories in football that I'll remember forever, and other people will remember forever."

Even if things didn't go England's way at the World Cup, and even if Dortmund were pipped at the last in the Bundesliga, the multi-faceted midfield marvel still had a magnificent campaign - and he's clearly destined for greatness.

Andy Smith