How Jude Bellingham will fit at Borussia Dortmund 2019/20 – scout report
Birmingham City’s prodigy Jude Bellingham has caught the eye of the biggest clubs in football with his performances in the EFL Championship this year. He has been a standout for the club in the league with four goals and two assists from midfield but the numbers that are the most important for the likes of Manchester United and Bayern Munich, who have been heavily linked with Bellingham, is that he is only 17. Unfortunately for those big clubs, reports are suggesting that a deal with Borussia Dortmund is done and that the Englishman will join the die Schwarzgelben next season.
To begin this analysis, we have to take a look at how Bellingham has been used under Clotet at Birmingham. This season has been the 17-year-old’s first season in Birmingham’s first team and has featured in a variety of roles and positions. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first being that young players are often played out of position so that they are out of their comfort zone and are forced to become more efficient in their decision making. It is a method that managers like Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola have deployed before to good success. The second and main reason is that Bellingham is incredibly versatile and has already got a vast skillset despite his age, which will be touched on later on.
Above is Bellingham’s heat map from this season and it highlights his positioning on the pitch. Clotet has most often played him in the central midfield position as a box-to-box midfielder alongside Ivan Sunjic. However, the England U17 international has also featured on the left and right side of midfield in a 4-4-2. The heat map shows that Bellingham likes to play on the left side more often and occupies the left half-space a lot. Great young talents are always compared to football’s elite players and for Bellingham, it is the same. His versatility as a youngster in terms of playing in central and wide midfield, as well as his overall style of play, has meant that he has been labelled as ‘the next Steven Gerrard’ – a comparison that we will touch upon.
Gerrard was a player that was not known for his ability on the defensive end of the pitch but this is an area in which Bellingham exceeds in the most. Despite having a similar stature as the Liverpool legend, Bellingham’s lateral movement is far superior to Gerrard’s. The youngster is light on his feet when closing a defender and is not stiff in his movements laterally. Combine this with the fact he has very long legs that can help him hook the ball out from a distance that most players would dream of doing, it makes him a very difficult player to beat in a 1vs1 scenario.
The example below against Middlesbrough showcases this well. The Middlesbrough player drives in between two Birmingham players and into the box. Bellingham is acting as the help defender in this case and has to shift across laterally to help stop the attacker going through on goal. He does this great speed and can make the attacking player slow down and force him to make a decision to either dribble or play a pass.
The attacking player decides to try and dribble past Bellingham but the length and technique in his tackle mean that Bellingham and Birmingham win the ball back, which can be seen in the image above. To be able to do this confidently in the box speaks to Bellingham’s ability in defence and tackling and it comes from his great body movement. This plays a huge part in why his possession adjusted slide tackles are the highest out of any Birmingham City midfielder at 1.8 per game.
Whilst it’s great that Bellingham already has physical capabilities that many midfielders do not have, his defensive IQ is also impressive, which is what makes his quality on the defensive end so great and also points to why he can be great as he gets older.
In this example against Stoke, Bellingham recognises that a player is making an overlapping run out wide. His athleticism gives him the ability to chase that player and beat him to the pass, which helps stops the attack from Stoke altogether. Whilst it might look like a simple play, midfielders have to make them consistently. These hustle plays are a staple in Bellingham’s game since he is a very aggressive player in general. Another positive from his aggressiveness is that he rarely loses concentrations on defensive plays, which is incredibly impressive on its own let alone at 17.
Even if he does lose concentration or make a mistake in a play, his athletic ability can bail him out in certain situations. This can be seen below against Middlesbrough. Here, he does not realise that there is an attacking player behind him because he is an erratic scanner. He often only looks over the left shoulder when scanning, instead of scanning 360o but he did not even do that here. Bellingham is looking to press the player in front despite a teammate of his being relatively close to him. With the youngster slightly out of the passing lane, the Middlesbrough player in possession plays a vertical pass in the hopes of breaking the lines and progressing the ball. Bellingham can read this in time and is able to use his aforementioned quickness on his feet and shifty lateral movement to intercept the pass.
These mistakes, if you can call them that, are bound to happen to a midfielder and at 17, the rarity of these is phenomenal and with experience and coaching, it can be ironed out easily.
Combining his gifts in the physical department, knowledge of the game on the defensive end as well as his tenacious nature gives him great defensive output that can be captured somewhat by statistics. He ranks highly in successful defensive actions per game (10.52), aerial duels per game (3.83) and possession adjusted interceptions per game (5.63) and these are all second highest out of midfielders at Birmingham City. His 8.62 defensive duels per game ranks third in the team but he wins them at 60.24%, which is very impressive and a percentage only beaten by Sunjic.
Technical quality and positioning
One thing that also stands about Bellingham is his technical ability at such a young age. He has a very good first touch and his stature doesn’t prevent his dribbling ability but aids him. He completes 60.31% of his 4.45 dribbles per game, which is a great number of dribbles per game for a midfielder but an even better completion rate as above 60% is often earmarked as an elite completion rate. His build makes it difficult to get the ball off him as he has great control of the ball and long legs. Opposition defenders tend to get a foot on the ball but the ball always seems to ricochet off his legs into his own path thanks to his size. While there are definite improvements to be made in his dribbling, he can become similar to the likes of Paul Pogba and Mousa Dembele of Spurs fame in the future if he does make adjustments.
Below, we can see a glimpse of his dribbling quality against West Brom but it is difficult to convey in an image. The first image showcases Bellingham’s ability to find space with his positioning, a quality that will be touched on later in this section. Here, he is able to find the space in transition, which he can do since he operates as a box-to-box midfielder.
The second image illustrates his dribbling ability somewhat. He received the ball on the bounce and was able to bring it down expertly. With the defender looking to press him, he drops his right shoulder before driving to his left. The defender is unable to tackle him since the drop of the shoulder worked and his base as a player is slightly too wide. Bellingham could have opted to drive into space in the middle and play his teammate on the right but he decided to make the simple pass to the left in the end.
As mentioned just earlier, Bellingham can prove to be an offensive threat not only with his technical prowess but also his positioning. He has great positioning on the defensive side but he also tends to find space in pockets on the offensive end. There are plenty of examples of Bellingham doing this in the middle of the park and this helps in progress the ball but the example below is going to look at his positioning in the final third.
You, unfortunately, do not see the youngster calling for the ball before he even occupies the space, which speaks to his intelligence as a player. His positioning here makes it very difficult for Middlesbrough to defend. If the centre-back steps up to pressure Bellingham, he is capable of playing the pass to the left or right of him, with the striker on the right able to run in behind the defence. The player on the left of Bellingham is caught in the middle of two Birmingham City players so has no real great option to defend. In the end, Bellingham receives the ball and the centre-back attempts to press him as soon as the 17-year-old receives the ball. However, Bellingham is quick with his decision making and plays a first-time flick to his teammate on the left, which highlights his intelligence but also technical quality to make that flick work. The attack fizzles out as the ball across the box ends up being cleared. Bellingham has previously expressed his desire to move to a more attacking position, akin to prime Gerrard alongside Fernando Torres, as he develops and this example indicates that there could be potential for this to happen.
Speaking of the comparisons to Gerrard, one thing that Bellingham lacks compared to him is in terms of passing. His passing range and quality can be described as decent and still developing, which are words that aren’t used to describe his defensive or dribbling quality. To bring more context about the comparisons to Gerrard especially in passing, the current Rangers boss was a player that tried ridiculous passes whenever he had the chance. His range of passing was phenomenal as he could switch the ball with ease or could play small and precise passes into feet. Of course, it would be extremely unfair to compare Bellingham to those standards but it does give a benchmark of what could be possible in the future.
From watching him, it would not be too far of a prediction to say that the height Gerrard reached in terms of his passing quality can be reachable for Bellingham as he has shown similarities in his passing. The following two examples showcase some of the more difficult passes that he has attempted and that were well executed.
The first example against Stoke is the easier pass of the two and is one that a top midfielder is expected to make regularly. Bellingham picks up the ball in the midfield and takes a couple of touches before making a side-foot pass to the right-hand side to the winger. With plenty of space for him and the receiver, the pass is not extremely difficult but he can make these passes well consistently, which is the most important part.
The second example is a much more difficult pass and is highly impressive that he was able to make it with ease. He makes a dribble to find space, which can’t be seen in this image and then finds the right-back running in behind with a perfectly weighted lofted ball into his path. While the chance does go begging in the end, passes like this show that there is a lot of promise in the future that Bellingham can be a great passer in a couple of years let alone in his prime.
Of course with difficult passes, some of them do not always reach the target and can be wayward like the one in the example below. The dynamic midfielder attempted a very difficult outside the foot pass but he failed to find either of his teammates with the striker most likely the intended target given his position. The black dotted arrows represent the two passing options and the yellow dotted line represents where the ball ended up going.
There are occasions that Bellingham misses great passing opportunities as well, even though this is a rarity which is positive. In the example below, he could have easily played a long pass over the defence with the striker making a run in behind as well, which are represented by the black arrows. However, a moment of hesitation to play the pass indicates a slight lack of confidence to play the pass and the chance is gone. In the end, the striker checks his run to stay onside and Bellingham dribbles into the middle before making a simple pass into the striker’s feet.
While the pass over the top has a much higher chance of not reaching the striker, the value of the pass is much greater and could have led to an easy goalscoring opportunity, The attack fizzles out straight after Bellingham’s pass, which compounds this point. Playing more difficult and recognising these passes brings so much value to the team in terms of creating chances and progressing play and is how someone like Gerrard became so influential in his prime.
The numbers back Bellingham’s weakness in passing as his key passes per game are at a staggeringly low 0.2 even though he featured as a wide midfielder too. He does have the most deep completions per game out of Birmingham City midfielders but it is also at a very low 0.88. This does speak more to how Birmingham are lined up under Clotet but is still a low number regardless. In terms of progressive passes per game and its accuracy, he ranks the lowest with only 4.17 progressive passes per game with an accuracy of 69.92%. Dortmund midfielders are minimum at 5 per game and are even reaching numbers around 7 so that indicates the progress needed for Bellingham. Overall, his passing is still decent and there are a lot of positive signs that he can become a top passer in his prime. He just needs to work on progressing the ball by attempting some more difficult vertical passes as diagonals do not really add value to a team’s possession.
Role at Birmingham City
We have already discussed how versatile Bellingham is in terms of the positions he plays. However, the fascinating thing about the midfielder is his ability to play different roles in the positions he plays. As mentioned before, he plays in a two-man midfield alongside Sunjic as a box-to-box midfielder, which suits his attacking and defensive qualities very well. In the build-up phase, both Bellingham and Sunjic will be right in front of the two centre-backs with the full-backs pushing higher up as shown below.
The two midfielders line-up on the same vertical plane and the same goes to the two defenders as well. This shape does help contextual Birmingham City’s midfielder’s lack of progressive passes as ideally the central midfielders should be staggered. This is a feature that Dortmund do use in their build-up play. It does also point to how Birmingham play as they are more dependent on creating via wing-play.
As the ball reaches to Sunjic though, Bellingham does push forward as an attacking option. Here, he looks to get on the end of chances as a late runner into the box rather than help create even though he can do the latter as well. Those late runs into the box are how he has gotten the majority of his goals this season.
We have also touched on Bellingham’s aggressive playing style and this helps him be a pressing machine. His role is very simple and that is to close down the opposition players with the ball who are in the central area at all times unless Birmingham are in a deep block as shown below. Clotet’s tactics at Birmingham City does include pressing and Bellingham is often a pressing trigger himself given his ability in that department.
This example against Middlesbrough is in transition and the same rules apply for Bellingham. He forces the opposition attacker from the central area to go wide and pass the ball off and he does this by just applying pressure. Sunjic doesn’t follow as his role is to sit in the middle and let the opposition players come to him as he is the safety option.
When on the left or right-hand side of midfield, usually in a 4-4-2, he plays a similar role in both build-up and playing. There are slight differences of course though. He becomes an inside forward when playing in the wide areas and he looks to move into an area that usually a number 10 would occupy. This was touched upon earlier in the piece, as this is how he picks up positions between the lines for the most part.
Defensively, he still presses aggressively but this time focusing a lot on double teams and using the throw-in line as another barrier to his advantage. This can be seen in the example below.
Bellingham does extremely well to force the Barnet attacker wide covering the area in the middle with his good lateral movement and size. This traps the attacker into a double team and with the touchline as an added pressing tool, Birmingham should have won the ball back. However, in this example, the execution failed as the Birmingham City full-back did not cover the passing lane to the runner in behind. Whilst this press failed, the principle remains the same and is solid for the most part.
Potential roles at Borussia Dortmund
Bellingham will most likely be deployed in the two-man midfield in Favre’s 3-4-3 system and this will suit the Englishman well having played in that role for Birmingham. Of course, there are going to be slight variations, especially in the build-up. Compared to Clotet’s midfield pairing, Favre opts for a staggered midfield. This will help Bellingham improve in terms of his ability to progress the ball as this system is designed to maximise progression.
This example showcases how Dortmund’s double pivot works. Both Emre Can and Axel Witsel are marked in a circle, with Can closer to the halfway line and Witsel higher up. In the Dortmund build-up, multiple horizontal lines were passing options for the player, Hakimi, in possession. If Witsel were to drop back to onto the same plane as Can, it becomes much easier for Frankfurt to cut the passing lanes and mark both of them at the same time. However, as they were not on the same line, Sebastian Rode, Frankfurt’s holding midfielder, is stuck in the middle of both Witsel and Can and has to decide to mark one of them, meaning that one of the players will be free for the pass.
In terms of defensive work, nothing much changes from his role at Birmingham too, which again makes this a good transition for Bellingham. When Dortmund press high, which they often do, one of the central midfielders immediately pushes forward to press the opposition player. In this case, it’s Witsel and this is right up Bellingham’s alley. In this example, Can drops into the middle so that Leverkusen can’t play through the middle. This is similar to the role Sunjic plays as he is more often the more conservative player.
Another position that Bellingham could be used in, is as an attacking player in Dortmund’s three up top. He could play as an inside forward alongside the likes of Erling Haaland and perhaps Jadon Sancho if he stays at the club. With Dortmund playing such high positioned wing-backs and often having their two central midfielders drop deeper, this can maximise the space for the two attacking inside forwards. This is because of two reasons. The first is that the half-space opens when the wing-backs are high and wide and the second is that opposition in the Bundesliga try to press high meaning that Dortmund’s midfielders are pressed leaving even more space in the middle.
With Bellingham’s great ability to find pockets of space in between the lines, he could be a great asset in this role. Given that he also has great first touch, constantly uses turns and flicks and is a good dribbler, there is potential for him in a role like this.
An outside the box shout could be that Bellingham could feature at the wing-back position. As mentioned earlier, young players are often challenged by managers as they are deployed in positions that they are not hugely comfortable with. Bellingham is fantastic defensively and that would go to waste in Favre’s wing-back role but it would help the Englishman develop into a better ball progressor. His pressing quality will also be useful in that position. A major issue in this position would be his final ball delivery, which is quite hit and miss, especially his crossing. The likelihood of him featuring there for a large period is almost none but he is versatile enough to play in that position.
A reported £25m is the fee required for Dortmund to sign this wonderkid and it would be money well spent for the German giants. The 17-year-old has already proven to be a great player in the Championship despite his age and there are plenty of signs that he can become a top-class player in the future. His abilities defensively far outweigh his shortcomings in other areas yet he would not even be classed as a negative on the areas that he does lack in. That goes to show the quality on display and also shows how scary his upside is.
His seamless transition from the academy into the first team this year also gives credence to the idea that Bellingham can play meaningful minutes from his potential arrival to the club. Die Schwarzgelben already snapped up an exceptional English talent before and they look to have done it again if the deal for Bellingham does go through.