Manchester United head into the summer transfer window desperate to reinforce their side with a new midfield addition, and on Tuesday night, they were once again reminded of what they could have had.
While the Wembley boos for club captain Harry Maguire set the post-match agenda following England’s convincing win over Ivory Coast, the midfield performance of Jude Bellingham somewhat went under the radar as he put in another age-defying performance. Still only at the age of 18, Bellingham not only looks destined to play for England as a teenager at the World Cup in Qatar later this year, but he also looks like he could be starting those matches, such is his maturity in midfield.
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Last year, he showed signs of brilliance when he played a key role as Dortmund lost to Man City in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. This season, he has established himself as a leading figure for the German side with his performances on the pitch.
He finished Tuesday’s match against Ivory Coast with 100 per cent dribble completion, 100% crosses completed, 100% long passes executed, an overall pass accuracy of 88%, five ball recoveries, two shots on goal and one chance created. It seems like the only criticism that can be aimed at Bellingham is that he might need to specialise in one particular role going forward, because right now he is managing to excel in whichever midfield role he is playing in.
Just this season alone, Bellingham has played in five different midfield roles: attack, central, and defensive, as well as both on the left and right flanks. The very reason he wears the No.22 shirt is that, despite growing up with a desire to be a No.10, Birmingham academy coach Mike Dodds told him he could be a No.4, No.8 and No.10 all wrapped into one.
The outing for England on Tuesday night saw Bellingham mimic childhood idol Paul Gascoigne as a dazzling playmaker and once again showcased just how much he could offer in an attacking aspect. Instead of being the defensive midfield reinforcement, United are so desperately in need of this summer, the Birmingham-born midfielder might well be their long-term replacement for Paul Pogba instead.
With the focus on signing someone to strengthen the spine of the squad defensively in the next transfer window, a move for Bellingham isn’t an immediate priority. The timing could work perfectly for United to finally get their man next year instead.
In a recent formation change, Fred has prospered further up the pitch and could well be a suitable stop-gap should Pogba depart for free at the end of the season. By next year, Dortmund might finally be in a position to let Bellingham go, with the club understandably reluctant to sanction his sale this summer when star striker Erling Haaland will also leave.
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Two years ago this month, Bellingham was given a tour of the United training ground where he met key figures, including then-executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and head of corporate development Matt Judge, but ultimately, he had his heart set on Dortmund. A key factor in his transfer decision was the clear development path the German club were offering as well as guarantees about playing meaningful minutes at such a tender age.
It’s hard to imagine him being the same player he is now had he joined United instead. If he were to become available this year or next, there would be no disputing the guarantee of first-team minutes for Bellingham at United – they just need to convince him of that.