At just 19 years of age, Borussia Dortmund's Jude 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. Is he already the best in the world?
"He's one of the most gifted players I've ever seen," a starry-eyed Phil Foden said of his England teammate on ITV, after the Three Lions eased past Senegal to book a 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 is only pointing out what Bundesliga viewers – and Dortmund fans in particular – have 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 100 competitive outings for one of Europe's top clubs, and even worn the captain's armband? How many teenagers haven't missed a single minute in their domestic league, winning the most challenges AND having the most shots on goal? How many already boast 20 international caps, featuring a World Cup goal and assist? How many have a retired shirt number (!) at one of their former clubs?
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'll be facing in England's last-eight showdown: Kylian Mbappe. There are distinct parallels between two of the World Cup's top performers so far. Articulate and mild-mannered off the pitch, fiercely competitive on it, they have seemed blissfully unaware of any pressure on their shoulders in guiding their nations to this stage 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."
Watch: Jude Bellingham - cool under pressure
Bellingham certainly put in a typically Bellingham-like performance against Senegal, full of industry and determination. And in the big moments, he was there: latching onto Harry Kane's through ball to tee up Jordan Henderson perfectly for the opener, then winning the ball back deep inside his own half, skipping past several green shirts and feeding Foden, who set up Kane for a second goal that ultimately put the game to bed.
The Dortmund midfielder continued to harry and snap at his Senegalese opponents, and despite going off on 76 minutes he finished the game with the highest number of pressing actions (45), challenges won (nine), blocks (five), successful tackles (four) and dribbles (four), plus his assist for Henderson. Talk about an all-action performance.
"He looks like he can do absolutely everything," added Gary Neville, another former Manchester United captain, on ITV. "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."
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, and the youngest at BVB to have made 100 competitive appearances.
"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."
Watch: Bellingham - the difference maker
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 this season's Bundesliga, he has contested and won the most challenges (245/428) as a battling ball winner. As a box-to-box ranger he has drawn the division's highest number of fouls (45), completed 84 per cent of his passes, and ranks fourth in the charts for intensive runs per game (80). And in the final third, he has had the most shots on goal of any Dortmund player (30) and delivered 17 passes to a shot, scoring three times and providing two assists.
Crucially, he has the sheer energy and stamina to fulfil such a demanding, all-purpose role. He is the only BVB player to have spent every minute on the pitch in the Bundesliga, and ranks sixth for distance covered per game (10.9km). 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, having stepped down as Ghana coach since their World Cup exit. "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."
Bellingham also has clear leadership qualities. When Dortmund faced 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 at the RheinEnergieSTADION. 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 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."
The more Bellingham plays, the higher that limit seems to be. His England teammates certainly haven't been shy about singing his praises, 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.
"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."
It may seem far-fetched to imagine a teenager helping his nation to win the sport's greatest prize, but that's exactly what Mbappe did for France at the World Cup four years ago. And even if things don't go England's way against Les Bleus, Dortmund's multi-faceted midfield marvel is clearly destined for greatness.
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