There’s Nothing Jude Bellingham Can’t Do

Welcome to Window Shopping, a recurring feature in which Defector highlights and analyzes some of the biggest players rumored for a big-money transfer each window. Each summer and January, we will take a look at these potential stars in order to answer two simple questions: Who the heck is this guy, and why is he worth so much money?

Did you know that Jude Bellingham is 19 years old? Anyone who is vaguely aware of the Borussia Dortmund and England wonderteen probably knows that fact. After all, it’s right there in the word: wonderteen. Still, though, watching him roam the midfields of Germany and, more recently, Qatar makes me forget sometimes that he is barely an adult. That’s what being both 6-foot-1 and a starter for England will do for a player’s reputation.

Bellingham is the one that got away from English teams, so it makes sense that he is, by a comfortable margin, the most sought after English player on the transfer market these days. Having come through Birmingham City’s youth system and into the first team, there were rumors in 2020 that he would move directly to one of the big clubs in his home nation. Manchester United was the rumored front-runner there, but Bellingham wisely made a move to continental Europe instead, going to Dortmund, ready to enjoy all of the playing time that the black-and-yellow promised, for around €30 million.

With that move, Bellingham became an immediate lock in the starting lineup, even at the age of 17. He made 46 appearances for Dortmund in that debut season, and won the newcomer award for the Bundesliga. After another stellar season at Dortmund in 2021-2022, Bellingham’s eventual return to England, for a lot more than €30 million, started to feel like a foregone conclusion.

That’s where Bellingham stands now, with the bonus of a great World Cup boosting his reputation and value. Bellingham played in all five games for England in Qatar, scoring once and assisting another as the Three Lions made it to the quarterfinals, where they lost to eventual runners-up France. Bellingham looked like he belonged out there with the best of the best internationals, only really having a poor game against the United States’ whirlwind midfield. He was one of the best English players in the opening 6-2 win over Iran, and the best, period, in the round of 16 thumping of Senegal, where he both assisted Jordan Henderson’s opener and kick-started the counter for England’s second with a powerful drive from deep in his own half:

Now that the tournament is in the rearview mirror, the question is one of timing for Bellingham. Dortmund knows how to get the maximum value for its young stars, as evidenced in part by Jadon Sancho’s €85 million move to United in the summer of 2021. The team will not cave to pressure from Bellingham or any prospective buyers, so it’ll be up to the top English sides that want his signature to pony up a rather ridiculous amount of money. Nothing that Bellingham has shown over the last two-and-a-half seasons hints at him being a bust, but will he able to grow into what will surely be a €100 million-plus price tag?

It’s Liverpool, innit? For months now, the Pool Boys have been not just linked with, but heavily favored to sign Bellingham, with the only question being one of pricing. Bellingham is the perfect match, at any cost, and if the flood of rumors is to be believed, he will be throwing on that iconic kit as soon as January, but most likely in the summer:

Of course, nothing is simple when it comes to Liverpool’s midfield, and there is a higher-level question remaining here: Given reports that John Henry and Fenway Sports Group wanting to sell off the club, will they spend so much money in hopes of making the asset more valuable prior to a sale? Or will they refuse, allowing Bellingham to go elsewhere, such as Manchester United, the other rich side that’s been consistently linked with Bellingham over the last year-plus? Oh, and hey, Paris Saint-Germain is also making noise. And there’s always Real Madrid, who will at some point have to replace Luka Modric. Maybe. Who knows with Modric? Point is, there’s a lot of money at stake here, but Liverpool does appear to be the first domino that needs to fall.

No, Bellingham will definitely be on the move, if not now, then in the summer. That’s not really in question; Dortmund can try to play hardball but it makes no sense for everyone involved to not see Bellingham move for a ton of money. If there is bullshit to be found here, it’s regarding the aforementioned John Henry factor, and your guess is as good as mine there. Henry has spent money for Liverpool, but he also hasn’t spent as much as the club has needed in recent years to keep the good times rolling. The midfield has needed reinforcements for some time now, and yet, there hasn’t been a truly marquee signing since Thiago—wonderful and injury-prone as he is—in September of 2020.

It is also not bullshit that teams like United, PSG, Madrid, and maybe Manchester City would snap at the chance to sign Bellingham if the Liverpool links fall through, so stay tuned for that, I suppose.

Take your pick for this section. If a central midfielder has to do something to be considered top class, chances are that Bellingham can do it well. Let’s start with the offense. Despite playing mostly as either a pure central midfielder or a defensive one, Bellingham gets involved in a lot of attacking plays. He’s comfortable with the ball at his feet driving forward—see his run on the counter against Senegal above for an example—but also running into open space. Statistically, he’s a creative passer—he generates 3.32 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, and five progressive passes in the same timeframe—but also a powerhouse of a dribbler. He’s not afraid to take on defenders, but also seems to know when a majestic pass, like this one against Borussia Monchengladbach in November, is needed instead:

In defense, though, Bellingham might be even more impressive, and more valuable. The man does not stop running or hounding opponents when his team is off the ball. He is a tackling machine—averaging almost 2.5 per 90—but he’s not a headless chicken. He also knows when to sit back and intercept passes. Add to that his tall frame, and he’s impossible for most midfielders to out-duel in the air. The combination of his defensive solidity and forward momentum makes him as well-rounded a central midfielder as exists in Europe right now, and he will likely continue to refine his decision-making on when to go up and when to create from deeper.

Honestly, finding a flaw for Bellingham is a bit of a fool’s errand right now. Given all that he can and does do for Dortmund and England, any shortcoming is more related to potential bonuses in his repertoire rather than a glaring red flag. So, sure, he could and maybe should score more, given how good his movement on and off the ball is, but do I really want to ding a do-it-all midfielder for not also doing a forward’s job? He still scores at a top six percent rate for midfielders in the top five leagues in Europe, so it’s not like he’s lacking there, unless the plan would be to move him even further up the pitch. (That’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it would certainly reduce the value of some of his more midfieldesque talents.)

Perhaps the only thing that truly stands out as something Bellingham isn’t already elite at is controlling a game in possession. He’s a good passer, not a great one, unless he’s pushing at the backline in counters and quick moves. (There, he is stellar.) When it comes to slowing a game down to let his attackers find open spots, he could use a bit more patience. However, asking this of Bellingham is a bit like asking a high-end sports car to be good at parallel parking; it’s not why you drop the bag for in the first place.

If a top team needs a midfielder who can rotate through each of the three main archetypes—destroyer, creator, and ball-carrier—then Bellingham should be high on its shopping list. In a three-player midfield, he can slot in at the base of the pivot to provide a high-quality passer and dribbler while not giving up much defensive quality. He can also play as the most advanced of the trio, using his runs and dribbling skills to put pressure on a backline already dealing with a team’s attackers. His most valuable role, though, appears to be the No. 8-style midfielder between those two. That would give him the freedom to be everywhere at once, and it’s the role where he has found most of his success at Dortmund. Freed from being the main defensive backbone of a midfield, Bellingham can still press maniacally but also move himself into dangerous positions once his team recovers the ball.

What is so great about Bellingham, though, is that he’s not necessarily restricted to one of those roles in a particular game, or even in a particular stretch of time within a game. If he were to play in a midfield with just one other partner, he can move between playing as the most reserved of the duo, shielding his defense, and the more attacking midfielder, overloading the center of the park. He’s probably a bit less stellar in this set-up, by virtue of not having a set role, but no top team would have to tweak their system extensively to fit him in. He would fit just as well in Liverpool’s three-midfielder formation as in, say, Chelsea’s 2-1 set-up, behind a Mason Mount-type and next to Jorginho.

Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager’s position, the fans’ outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.

Given that Bellingham is the brightest jewel in the English player pool, it’s safe to say that every Premier League club who does not sign him will hate this most. That is, of course, on a sliding scale: The clubs that actually can afford him and appeal to him—say, the Manchester sides, or Liverpool, or Chelsea—will rue missing out on Bellingham with a white-hot rage, while a side like Southampton will only look on in envy before getting back to a relegation battle. I think Liverpool would likely suffer the biggest blow if Bellingham doesn’t, as expected, become a Red; not only do they need midfield help as soon as possible, but Bellingham fits perfectly in Jürgen Klopp’s system of high-pressing and versatility.

Speaking of Liverpool’s midfield, there will be a handful of hangers-on at Anfield who would see Bellingham’s signing as a death knell. Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and James Milner (if he continues to stick around, somehow) will see their playing time decrease rapidly with the addition, and even captain Jordan Henderson should begin a slow phasing-out process if the sale goes through.

Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.

I try to be level-headed when it comes to these Window Shopping analyses, because players can and do fail for a variety of reasons, even with a good track record and loads of potential. Let’s forget that when it comes to Bellingham, though. Here is a teenager who isn’t just good for his age, but great for any age already. He’s got the physical and mental tools to be a star in a season or two, not three-to-five. His versatility makes him a fit for any team in the world, and the room he has to grow might make him even more valuable than he already is. If I had a huge budget and free reign to sign any player in Europe, I’d have to look long and hard for one that is a better purchase than Bellingham right now. For these reasons, Jude Bellingham grades at a 99.9 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.

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