There is a reason Jude Bellingham wears the number 22 and always has done. It sums up his style, and why he is perhaps the brightest of a line of young England stars.
“He said he wanted to be a No 10. 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’,” Mike Dodds, his former academy coach at Birmingham City, said.
“We spoke about Paul Gascoigne. 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.
“So I told him he was doing himself a disservice by wanting to be a 10, because I thought he could do it all.”
There is such beauty and relatability in that story, but it proves that Jude Bellingham, who turned 18 during England’s summer of hope and romance at Euro 2020, really is the complete midfielder. He showed it at Birmingham, becoming their star player from the moment he made his debut in 2019.
For someone so young, every single instinct must have been flagging for coaches to protect him but his performances made it impossible not to praise him. As the weeks went by, it became painstakingly obvious that he would soon outgrow his home and his surroundings. In the summer of 2020, German football, and Borussia Dortmund, came calling.
Bellingham’s intelligence and composure on a personal level shone through. Dortmund was the right move for his development and clearly the next part of the roadmap. There has been no slowing down of his progress; he’s grown and adapted to his surroundings and his reputation has gone stratospheric. He was playing for England before he could legally celebrate a call up with a beer but nobody thought it strange.
Gareth Southgate has used him sparingly but for how much longer you have to wonder. Opposition and a number of other factors must be taken into consideration but the midfield looked so much more dynamic and energetic with Jude Bellingham in it against Andorra than against Hungary for long spells and certainly against Poland recently.
Tactical flexibility is becoming so important in football and the role of the midfielder is blending. It is no longer enough to be defensive or a playmaker. The world needs more ‘number 22s’; Bellingham may seem unique, but the truth is he may just be among the first of a new breed.
Signing for Dortmund has so often been seen as a stepping stone, you get the sense that is just the way they like it. Jadon Sancho is evidence of this, having signed for Manchester United this summer. Erling Haaland seems destined for his big move in a year but it won’t be long until Jude Bellingham is on the wish list of every club in Europe. There isn’t a midfield in the Premier League he wouldn’t improve.
Calls for Manchester United to sign either Bellingham or the other poster-boy for the next generation, Eduardo Camavinga, who joined Real Madrid at the end of the transfer window, went unheeded. Paul Pogba is divisive at best but there is little doubt the teenager would slot in perfectly either instead of or, tantalisingly, alongside Pogba.
Perhaps the most obvious move would be Liverpool. Fans at Anfield have been left concerned by the lack of strengthening to Jurgen Klopp’s squad and, despite the return of Virgil van Dijk whose injury last season was seen as the main reason for the Reds’ timid Premier League title defence, there is a sense that only Ibrahima Konate’s arrival will not be enough to relaunch their bid. Klopp has built and maintained one of the best starting Xis in Europe, but depth is an issue, and that was hit by Georginio Wijnaldum’s exit.
Without Wijnaldum’s energy, industry and goal threat, Liverpool will lose a lot this season. Even without injury troubles, it is their midfield which has been criticised most because it possesses little more than functionality.
Klopp has a sea of options who each cover one aspect of the position and they come together like cogs in a great machine. Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcántara and Fabinho will not improve either; adding Jude Bellingham into the mix could rejuvenate the entire team. No wonder there are so many reports hinting at a raid for the second city superstar next summer.
The world really is Bellingham’s oyster. It is only a matter of time until he is running England’s midfield and is back in the Premier League as one of the world’s leading ‘number 22s’.
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