Birmingham’s breakout star Jude Bellingham, 16, still comfortably qualifies to be profiled as part of our Academy Watch. But, the English midfielder’s career is taking off on a totally different trajectory.
Playing at youth level for his club must feel like an age ago to Bellingham. Everyone at Birmingham was aware of his talent at the end of last season as a promising 15-year-old but nobody could have really predicted the impact this kid would soon have on the first-team proceedings. Bellingham broke into the Blues senior team at full steam this year.
The teenager has played 32 matches in the Championship this season, notching up four goals and three assists; contributions more than appropriate for a midfielder his age. Bellingham’s preferred position is centrally. He’s the kind of midfielder who wants to put his stamp on possession. His energy and fearlessness allow him to go into tackles and win the ball back for his team all while being dynamic enough to get attacks going by striding into the opposition half and passing the ball into dangerous positions.
Bellingham’s football brain is developed way beyond his years. That’s part of the reason why Birmingham’s coaching staff has put so much trust into him throughout the season. He’s not a first-team regular by accident. Another positive to his game is his versatility. In spite of being a bit of a combative midfielder, Bellingham is also very technical and agile. He’s featured 14 times in his favored central midfield position, but he has also been deployed in other areas of midfield for the Blues this season — including 19 times on either flank and a couple of times further forward.
As far as 16-year-olds come, Bellingham is very close to being a total package. The upsides to his talent are evident. His ceiling is tough to gauge. The world is currently very much at his feet and it comes as no surprise that some footballing giants are currently demanding his services.
Most notably, Bellingham has been on the radar’s of Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund and quite frankly, he would fit perfectly into both of those projects. Both propositions favor letting younger players develop and employ exciting systems that would compliment the England youth internationals game.
So, how would Bellingham fit into the equation at United? Let’s take a look.
Solving this equation is certainly a little more difficult now than it would have been even in December, prior to Bruno Fernandes’ arrival. Back then, United’s midfield looked toothless and in need of inspiration. Now, all of a sudden, there’s life in it.
Fernandes has reinvigorated every one so much that there are now even rumors emerging of Paul Pogba being in talks with the club over a new deal. But all of that is not necessarily bad for Bellingham. Should he choose to come to United then you would like to think it’d going to be for the long run. It will not be a short-term commitment. Therefore, depth in midfield would give him time to come to grips with life at a club of United’s stature. There would be no pressure on his young shoulders. He would have time to develop while undoubtedly getting his chances to play in the first team.
A player at United that Bellingham has somewhat resembled in his short career so far is Fred. A box-to-box midfielder in a way. Someone who has a lot to offer on both ends of the pitch and a player who fits into United’s current style like a glove. That would warrant plenty of opportunities for Bellingham to continue his development in red, especially with the amount of competitions United are in every season.
And with this comparison now out there, let’s take a look at Bellingham’s numbers side by side with Fred’s just to get a grasp on what kind of player we are dealing with here.
For the most part, their respective numbers are very comparable despite the discrepancy of 11 years in age and with quite a few of those years translating to direct football experience at a high level. Fred has been the standout for United this season. After a shaky start, the Brazilian has turned into an enforcer and a very reassuring part of the midfield.
Fred boasts an 87% pass accuracy on 61.4 passes per game from the trenches of United’s engine room this season. A division below, Bellingham has worked up a 74.8% completion rate on 22.9 passes per game. The completion rates are not a world apart and also the styles have to be taken into consideration here, as well as quality of the respective teams. Fred has had a set role to play for United this season whereas Bellingham has often found himself as the utility man, filling in where Birmingham has needed him to for the benefit of the team. Bellingham also trails Fred slightly in the key passes department with 0.7 per game compared to Fred’s 1.4. But for a 16-year-old, those passing stats are promising. A solid foundation to build on.
In the ball-winning department, Fred has put in 2.2 tackles per game while adding 1.4 interceptions and 0.4 aerials won. Bellingham notched up 2.3 tackles per game for Birmingham, adding 0.7 interceptions and winning 1.1 aerials. Again, very similar despite Bellingham having played quite a few games away from the center of the pitch.
It is also worth nothing at this point that we are comparing Bellingham’s first full season in senior football with arguably Fred’s best so far. That’s a bar set quite high that the teenager is not all that far away from.
When analysing players in depth, you certainly don’t want to keep bringing age into the equation. But, in Bellingham’s case, 16-year-old central midfielders who are regulars for their club do not come around too often. And for his inaugural season in English football that’s so often cruel to young players, his numbers have certainly justified the praise.
It’s certainly a matter of when, and not if, Bellingham gets the big money move away from the Midlands now — and it is pretty safe to say that he is bound to be value for money for the club that snaps him up.
United were linked with Bellingham in January with a £30 million fee attached to the speculation; and if that’s still the asking price come this summer, there will likely be even more suitors at Birmingham’s door vying for his signature.
All things considered, this would be a very good move for United. Smart recruitment irregardless of whether Bellingham would come in to contribute in the first-team straight away or if he’d be sent back out on loan to continue his development playing regularly elsewhere, because that’s also an option. And with how much senior football experience Bellingham already has under his belt in comparison to the likes of James Garner and Dylan Levitt, two of the most promising midfielders currently at United that are older than him, the 16-year-old certainly looks like a low-risk, high-reward gamble.