Manchester United have been pretty consistently linked with Birmingham City starlet Jude Bellingham since his impressive run of breakout performances early in the 2019/20 season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made it clear with both his comments on the subject and United’s Summer 2019 transfer haul that he is keen to identify and attract the brightest young talent in the country, and Bellingham seems to check those boxes.
But who is Bellingham? And what does he do? It’s hard to say for sure what kind of player Bellingham will be, as he is still only 16 years old, but in this piece I’ll try and identify what he could bring to United right now based on what he’s shown in just one season of professional football.
Awareness in Attack and Transition
Bellingham’s awareness in the attacking third sticks out. He is particularly creative at opening up space around the edge of the area, and many of his passes through to goal come after beating a man in tight vicinity.
In terms of getting the ball forward, Bellingham is quite good at that too. Though he can be a bit quick to go down, he’s quite comfortable moving the ball up the field and taking on a few of the opposition along the way. He’s won a few free kicks for Birmingham City in these situations as well, setting up dangerous set-piece opportunities. He’s also pretty good at opening up space to fire off a shot himself if he can’t find a teammate. Although his shots on target are quite a bit fewer than his total shots attempted this season, he does have 4 goals to his name from 8 shots on target.
United have lacked this sort of creativity in attacking midfield, particularly due to depth issues. Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard have been capital B Bad this year, and though Juan Mata can still make useful contributions, his days as a regular starter are behind him. Without Pogba for much of the season we’ve seen just how poor the depth in that area really is. Bellingham is only 16, but has shown an energy and awareness in the attacking third beyond his years. He won’t get regular minutes at United with Pogba and Bruno Fernandes healthy, but his versatility as a midfielder could make him a viable option off the bench and in rotation despite his lack of experience. He certainly won’t have dynamic competition on the bench.
Versatility, Creativity, Physicality
The Championship can be a bit overlooked at times simply because it’s a second tier professional league, but it’s still proven to be a relatively tough proving ground. In regards to defensive football, the lower tiers are often more physical and less technical than the top flight, which can make offensive creative expression a bit more difficult. Despite this, Bellingham has thrived as a creator in Birmingham City’s midfield, and is dynamic enough to play multiple positions as an attacking midfielder.
Bellingham has an athletic build for a 16-year-old, already at just under 6’0, and is fairly quick. He’s very technically gifted, with some nice dribbling moves as well. All of this has helped him to break through to the first team in a professional side at such a young age, and he’s made himself more versatile to keep earning minutes. Bellingham has made 7 starts in left midfield, 9 in right midfield, and 14 in central midfield. His assists have all come from wide positions, but even drifting towards the middle of the park he is able to create opportunities for his teammates. He rarely runs beyond the forward line or the opposing defense, which means that he largely stays true to his position, but still has a nice successful dribbles rate. He doesn’t get caught out often, and at United would be an active presence in the middle of the park.
Bellingham isn’t exactly a prolific goalscorer or provider, but he has 4 goals and 3 assists to his name across all positions, which isn’t bad at all. As an attacker he still has some work to do, but can already slot into a handful of different roles, making him even more valuable.
Something that has stuck out in Bellingham’s game tape apart from his attacking awareness and creativity is his ability to win 1-on-1 battles in midfield. He’s got a decent record in winning both tackles and take ons. He has 20 pass interceptions this season and 46 tackles won. This is pretty impressive considering he mostly plays in a more attacking role in the midfield, including occasionally out wide.
Defense appears to be one of the more developed aspects of Bellingham’s midfield game, and his tackling ability and positional awareness make him an already reliable asset defensively in the middle of the park. Despite Birmingham City having one of the poorer defensive records in the Championship, with a -9 goal difference currently, Bellingham provides a rather nice +0.41 on-off net goals per 90. His ability to win back the ball and provide an extra defensive screen in midfield aren’t otherworldly by any means, but this level of contribution to a Championship team at his age is a pretty impressive for a player that plays a mostly attacking role.
Statsbomb made Bellingham one of their in-focus players in late November as they compiled a list of potential Championship stars, and the numbers back up claims about his defensive ability in midfield.
“It doesn’t need saying that it’s a case of when and not if the youngster makes the move to the top of the game,” writes Oliver Walker, “but for now, Birmingham fans will try to enjoy him while they can.”
Bellingham has been described by some writers as a box-to-box midfielder because of his versatility. It seems as though he’s more comfortable in an attacking midfield role, but being a more dynamic central midfielder is never a bad thing. His level of competition isn’t that of the Premier League yet, but his performances definitely warrant a move to a higher level. Bellingham’s arrival could be sealed for a price similar to that of Daniel James — if United can make it happen — and it should also comfortably be within their financial limits in a COVID-19 affected transfer market.
Even if he doesn’t break through and become the next great player of his time, Bellingham can provide competition and depth in midfield. He’s only been in professional football for one season, but has the look of a player that United should take a risk on, and in a position of need no less. Solskjaer has shown in his time as manager that he is willing to give youth a chance, so long as they offer something to the first team. Bellingham at the very least has the talent and potential to earn such a chance for himself.