Bellingham ready to succeed Haaland, Sancho as Dortmund’s brightest prospect

Even at the tender age of 17, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham isn’t surprised by the trajectory his career has taken in the past year.

“Not really,” he told ESPN. “I have worked so hard to get here, and I’m working so hard now to be able to compete and do well in every game I play in.”

A year ago, Bellingham was fighting to keep his former club Birmingham City — where he made his debut with the first team at 16 — away from relegation in the Championship. He was the youngest, but also one of the best players in the second tier of English football. Now, after a £30 million transfer last summer, he’s starting for one of Europe’s elite clubs, has made a big impact on the Champions League and is now a senior England international, having been handed his debut last month against San Marino.

It is not just the midfielder’s talent with the ball that’s impressive, but his maturity too. Bellingham still looks like a teenager, but he plays and talks like he’s been at this level for years. His assessment of his performance in the 2-1 Champions League quarterfinal first-leg loss against Manchester City, in which Dortmund conceded the game-winner in the 90th minute to Phil Foden, was indicative of his confidence and form.

“I’m not bad at football,” he said with a smile. “I wanted to be effective with the ball, and nasty without it.”

He was certainly effective against City, despite Dortmund’s eventual elimination. Bellingham had a goal ruled out in the first leg (the “foul” he was penalised for — when he intercepted a stray ball and slotted home — on goalkeeper Ederson seemed particularly pedantic); he lived up to the “nasty” tag too as his aggressive and intense chasing of the ball helped Dortmund keep City under pressure and off balance.

“Jude is a great young player,” Dortmund manager Edin Terzic told ESPN after the game. “How many 17-year-olds in Europe could produce this kind of performance? He has everything.”

The second leg saw more of the same; Bellingham opened the scoring on the night with a stunning curling effort, which made him Dortmund’s youngest-ever scorer in the Champions League at just 17 years and 289 days. Unfortunately, Emre Can’s handball gave Man City an opening as Riyad Mahrez netted from the penalty spot and Foden scored again as the Premier League champions-elect went on to complete a 2-1 (4-2 aggregate) victory.

Foden may have claimed many of the headlines but Bellingham’s performances reminded everyone why so many clubs were after him last summer. Indeed, he has become every bit as important to this Dortmund team as Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho.

Bellingham has played more than many expected, logging 40 games in all competitions so far and, despite a dip of form earlier in the season, has performed at a level that has surprised everyone. He had never played abroad before and he didn’t speak German when he moved over, but he has seemingly conquered the Bundesliga already. His well-taken first goal for the club against VfB Stuttgart 10 days ago, when his team was 1-0 down in a game they could not afford to lose, was massive.

The last couple of weeks have been full of these kinds of Bellingham moments. So maybe we should just listen to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola? City scouted the midfielder when he was at Birmingham and although they decided not to make a move, now (like every other big club in Europe) they are thinking about trying to sign him — not this summer but more likely the following one.

“Maybe he is a liar,” Guardiola said of Bellingham after the Champions League second leg. “Maybe he is not 17 years old. I can’t believe that he is 17. He’s so good for 17 years old, he’s a fantastic player. There was one moment when he didn’t get the ball from central defenders, how he shouts and demands that ball to him at 17 means a lot. I spoke with his manager and he told me what you see in these two games is like every training session.”

There is obviously room for improvement, notably his finishing as he should be scoring and creating more, but he could become the most complete midfielder ever. He is part of a new breed of midfielder, the ones who can do everything, in the mould of Paul Pogba. He can play everywhere in midfield, as a No. 6, No. 8 or No. 10. He can sit deeper, play higher, defend and attack as easily. But he can also be aggressive.

With the race for top four in the Bundesliga approaching its critical point — Dortmund are fifth; four points behind Eintracht Frankfurt with five rounds left — and a place in the England squad for Euro 2020 in the summer up for grabs, Bellingham has all the motivation he needs to finish the season as strongly as possible.

The teenager is still humble. He gave an interview to a few of the TV crews in place on the pitch at the Etihad and said with a smile: “They probably all wanted to speak to Erling and not me!”

He might have been right, but he’ll be the star attraction soon enough. In his career plan, Dortmund are the perfect club right now to continue his development and learning but, much like his teammates, he will soon need to take the step up to become one of the best in the world.

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