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Jude Bellingham, Liverpool, Manchester United and the battle to sign Dortmund star

The Athletic

On the eve of Liverpool’s pre-season tour of Asia in July, Jurgen Klopp was asked about ongoing speculation linking Jude Bellingham with a move to Anfield.

“He’s not on the market, so that’s the first problem with that player. Actually, it’s the only problem with this player,” he smiled.

Klopp is a huge admirer of the Borussia Dortmund midfielder but signing Bellingham this summer was never a realistic proposition for Liverpool. Having already lost prolific striker Erling Haaland to Manchester City, the German Bundesliga club had no intention of selling another one of their prized assets.

The landscape will be different next summer, however. Bellingham will have two years remaining on his contract, as things stand, and if that is the case, Dortmund’s resolve to keep him is set to be severely tested.

Liverpool will certainly be in the mix but competition for English football’s most exciting young talent is set to be fierce. Real Madrid, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea all retain a strong interest.

City boss Pep Guardiola, for example, described Bellingham as “exceptional” after he delivered a commanding performance in last week’s 2-1 Champions League win over Dortmund at the Etihad. On Saturday, he clocked up a century of appearances for Dortmund in their derby triumph over Schalke — a remarkable achievement in itself given he only turned 19 in June.

The battle for Bellingham is already underway.

What is Dortmund’s stance? Which of his suitors have the edge at the moment? And why is this teenager in such high demand anyway?

“Jude is very happy at the club, he is very committed to us,” Dortmund sporting director Sebastian Kehl recently told UK broadcaster BT Sport. “Hopefully he can stay, next season and for a long time. We try to keep our best players. Jude is one of those and we try to keep them for as long as possible.

“But in the end, money is another aspect and England pays a lot more than Germany. We have to renew our philosophy every year.”

Senior sources at Dortmund have dismissed suggestions they are already resigned to losing Bellingham next summer. They insist there has been no contact with Liverpool — despite some reports suggesting talks between the clubs have already taken place.

Dortmund, who bought him from Championship side Birmingham City for an initial fee of £25million (now $28.5m), rising to £30million, in July 2020 intend to offer him improved terms in the hope he will sign a contract extension and continue his eye-catching development in Germany.

However, if Bellingham does push for a move, Dortmund are adamant he is valued at around €150million (£131.6m, $149.4m). That would make him the most expensive British footballer in history. Unlike Haaland’s transfer to City in June, there is no release clause involved. His family never gave an indication that they wanted one — confident in Bellingham’s ability to the point that interested teams would pay what was required when the time came for him to take the next step.

“The club (Dortmund) have done loads for me and made me feel very welcome since I first came and gave me the opportunities to develop even further. To look past that and into the future would be disrespectful,” Bellingham said, diplomatically, when questioned last week.

Liverpool’s interest in Bellingham dates back nearly a decade.

He was in the under-11s at Birmingham when he travelled up to Merseyside with parents Denise and Mark for a two-day stint at their Kirkby academy. During his stay he made a lasting impression on staff, not only with his ability but with his maturity as he took part in a training session and was given a tour of the facilities.

Liverpool were hoping to convince his family to relocate the two-hour drive north from the Midlands. If it had worked, they would have enrolled Bellingham in Rainhill High School. At that time, signing him would have cost around £9,000 in compensation.

Matt Newbury, now their head of senior academy recruitment, knew Bellingham’s rich potential well having previously worked for Birmingham before making the move to Liverpool in 2012. They made their pitch and waited patiently for an answer.

However, when it came there was disappointment. His parents had opted against uprooting the family and he stayed put at Birmingham. Around the same time, City and Chelsea also pursued him.

Liverpool respected their decision and continued to keep close tabs on his progress as he went on to become Birmingham’s youngest ever first-team player, at the age of 16 years and 38 days, in August 2019. Within a year, he was breaking records in the Bundesliga.

Birmingham retired their No 22 shirt when Bellingham, then 17, left. He had been given it because academy staff said he was a brilliant No 4, No 8 and No 10 so they added those numbers together.

He had stood out a mile from under-eights level onwards. By the age of 15, he was training with the first team.

Birmingham have always refused to go into the specifics of the deal they struck with Dortmund. However, they do have a sell-on clause guaranteeing them a share of any future transfer fee which club sources have said remains higher than five per cent.


Bellingham playing against Wayne Rooney during his time at Birmingham (Photo: Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images)

Bellingham grew up idolising Anfield legend Steven Gerrard and has spoken of his pride at being named among the top five midfielders in the world by the now-Aston Villa head coach. He has also developed a close bond with current Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson during their time together on international duty.

“I like the way he plays. I like his personality, which is the most important thing. I like the way he conducts himself. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him. The sky is the limit for him, really,” says Henderson. The respect is mutual. Bellingham has described Henderson as the most professional player he has played with for England.

Liverpool’s recruitment staff view Bellingham as the complete box-to-box midfielder. He ticks all the boxes and it’s an area of Klopp’s squad that will be in need of a serious revamp after this season, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and James Milner all set to be out of contract.

After Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni opted to join Real Madrid instead of them this summer, Liverpool didn’t pursue an alternative — at least, not until their injury crisis really cut deep late in the window. They ended up agreeing a season-long loan for Juventus’ Arthur Melo on deadline day. Part of the reluctance to commit funds in August was down to the fact that other targets they wanted, such as Bellingham, simply weren’t available.

There is a fear the price of any deal — both in terms of the fee and wages — could escalate significantly if he lights up the World Cup this November and December. However, there appears to be little prospect of being able to get an agreement in place with Dortmund before the tournament begins two months from yesterday.

Putting in the groundwork with Bellingham’s father, who continues to have a major influence on his son’s career, is currently viewed as a priority for his suitors.

Manchester United were the English club who came closest to landing him before he signed for Dortmund.

At the time, mum Denise headed out to Germany to live with him, while Mark, who had juggled his police career with being a prolific goalscorer in non-League football for clubs including Halesowen Town and Stourbridge, stayed in the Midlands with their younger son Jobe, now 16, who recently agreed his first professional deal — also with Birmingham. The move to Germany was sorted out with the help of sports lawyer Oliver Hunt from the firm Onside Law, as per Hunt’s own Twitter account.

The Bellinghams visited United’s training ground prior to a deal being agreed with Dortmund. Staff remember Mark being thorough and professional, asking questions about daily operations and the sustainability of managers.

United had watched Bellingham play 46 times at the various levels since the age of 12 and the message that kept coming back was that he was a player to be signed immediately. The reports, which had a strong focus on where he received the ball and how he moved with it, were glowing.

Football director John Murtough struck up a relationship with Mark that continues to this day. United tried to sign Bellingham when he was 15 but a package could not be agreed and the family had a loyalty to Birmingham.

By the time Bellingham broke into Birmingham’s first team, United already had huge amounts of information on him. Assistant manager Mike Phelan travelled to watch him play live in a home game against West Bromwich Albion. He sat with Birmingham’s owners that day, who were open to selling the youngster in order to ease the club’s financial problems.

Phelan told United’s then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that Bellingham was a player of the potential of Gerrard and Paul Scholes.

For the family’s visit in March 2020, Solskjaer, who was desperate to land Bellingham, put together a committee in a bid to present a compelling case.

Technical chief scout Mick Court had an array of Bellingham youth-game footage overlaid on video of United first team in action, detailing how he might function in various formations — for example, at the foot of a midfield diamond or off the right. He prepared to explain to the family where United saw him fitting in and which facets of his game they would help him to improve.

Coach Michael Carrick, a former United and England midfielder, worked on the psychological factors of moving a family almost 100 miles north to Manchester from the Midlands. Going through Bellingham’s interviews, Carrick was struck by his football intelligence — he gave detailed, tactical answers rather than trot out cliches.

United wouldn’t include a guarantee of appearances in a contract offer as they felt that would have set a dangerous precedent. However, they put together a data-led presentation about the youngsters who had moved from their academy into the senior setup, such as Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay, and how the minutes given to graduates at United was among the highest in Europe.

Ultimately though, not all of what was prepared was used. Murtough led the process and gave a tour of facilities. Industry sources feel United’s Carrington base is no longer enough by itself to lure top talents, especially when set against training grounds at other top Premier League clubs.

Sir Alex Ferguson was present to shake hands with the family but rather than an extended audience with United’s great manager, their meeting was only brief. Some at United felt Bellingham, despite being 17 years old, was worth more than the £30 million price Dortmund ultimately paid, and advocated for a bigger financial push to get an edge.

Former United captain and midfielder Bryan Robson, who is part of an advisory group at the club, said: “We thought we had him and he would have been a great signing for us. But he definitely has it in him to become a great player for England.”

Ultimately, agency sources believe Bellingham and his family had long earmarked a move to Germany as the perfect stepping stone for him. Fellow England youngster Jadon Sancho had blossomed at Dortmund after leaving Manchester City at the same age.

Dortmund’s presentation was also highly persuasive.

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Bellingham celebrates scoring against Manchester City in the Champions League last week (Photo: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images)

They made Bellingham a promise before he signed and have proved true to their word. “They told me, ‘If you come here, we’ll develop you, you’ll get game time and you’ll be an international in two years’,” he said in an interview with the BBC.

He added: “Ideally you want to play for the club you support your whole life but you also want to reach the heights and fulfil your potential.”

Bellingham was only 17 when he made his senior England debut, against the Republic of Ireland, in November 2020 and he has so far collected 15 caps. Former Dortmund assistant manager Otto Addo summed up the speed of his development when he told The Athletic: “Jude’s incredibly mature for his age and quick to understand. He learns as much in one game as others do in six months. And he wants to learn, all the time.”

United feel his choice was not a negative towards them, but a pragmatic decision for his career, and that the recruitment department’s focus and dialogue with his family had at least put them in a two-horse race with Dortmund. They have continued to add to their Bellingham file and their admiration for him has grown during his two years in the Bundesliga.

The same goes for Chelsea, who were also heavily in for him before he signed for Dortmund. He certainly fits their new Todd Boehly model, in terms of both age and talent. Chelsea need a midfield succession plan with N’Golo Kante (31) and Jorginho (30) both out of contract next summer. Although they did address that to an extent this summer with the signings of youngsters Carney Chukwuemeka, 18, and 19-year-old Cesare Casadei.

Real Madrid arguably have less need for Bellingham, given the impressive impact of Tchouameni, who is 22, alongside 19-year-old Eduardo Camavinga. They also have Federico Valverde, who is 24. But Luka Modric, 37, can’t keep on defying the ageing process and the current European champions would certainly have the cash to compete with Premier League clubs for Bellingham.

One added consideration for them is Brexit, given that La Liga regulations only allow three non-EU players on the field. However, that situation was recently eased by Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior obtaining Spanish citizenship.

The biggest compliment you can pay to Bellingham is that he is not a specialist. In an age where we forensically examine a player’s profile to see what makes them stand out, he belies such categorisation into a single trait.

He is a generalist. An all-rounder. A versatile young player who can operate anywhere in midfield — and perform near enough any action on the pitch.

After making the move to Dortmund in that 2020-21 pre-season, people asked whether he could hold his own as a defensive midfielder in a double pivot. No problem. Left or right side of a midfield three? Of course. Able to push on further into an attacking midfield role? You bet.

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It’s testament to how crucial Bellingham has become for Dortmund that no player clocked up more game time than he did across all competitions for them last season. A total of 3,787 minutes across 44 appearances — all of them starts — is evidence enough that he has developed into the crucial player in their team.

In case we need reminding once more, Bellingham is still just 19 and playing with a maturity beyond his years. No teenager has been trusted to play more minutes across Europe’s top five leagues since the start of last season, with him edging ahead of Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, who turned 20 early last season.

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Bellingham possesses plenty of intangible qualities that you simply cannot capture in the data. His maturity, composure, and leadership all stand out as traits required to perform at the top level, where he already has plenty of experience.

His display against City in the Champions League last week was his 18th appearance in the competition — the most by any English teenager. Defining Bellingham as a box-to-box midfielder might do him a disservice, suggesting he is simply able to shuttle up and down the pitch with continued energy.

For the record, he is able to do that, but there is more nuance to his game. Looking at his touch map below across European competitions last season, you can see he would get involved in Dortmund’s build-up within central areas in his own half, but in attacking phases of play he would drift into half spaces or wide areas to receive the ball and support his full-back — depending on his role within the game.

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While Bellingham did contribute eight assists in the Bundesliga last season, it would be crass to appraise his direct attacking numbers in any way — given his role in the Dortmund team. Instead, we could work back to break down his overall contribution to his team’s attacking play via his shot-creating actions.

Using data from StatsBomb via FBref.com, the shot-creating actions metric includes the two offensive actions made prior to a shot being taken — whether that be passes, dribbles, shots, or drawing fouls.

While Bellingham did, as stated, play more minutes than any of his team-mates last season, it is interesting to see the spread of actions that contributed to Dortmund’s attacks.

Bellingham does not simply play the pass to his team-mate, he commits opposing players with his weaving dribbles in central areas, opening up space elsewhere for colleagues or drawing fouls to set up another attack. His 3.3 attempted dribbles per 90 minutes last season was among the top five per cent of all Bundesliga midfielders.

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One trait that will be suited to the high-pressing style of the Premier League is Bellingham’s work off the ball. As you can see above, his defensive actions contribute well to his team’s attacking play, turning the ball over in dangerous areas high up the field. That will be music to the ears of a manager like Klopp.

Here is an example of this from early in last month’s season-opening league game against Bayer Leverkusen, whose centre-back Jonathan Tah recovers the ball in a congested area.

Bellingham is relentless in pressing that extra yard to get tight to Tah…

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…before lunging in to nick to ball away, releasing team-mate Youssoufa Moukoko in the process.

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As Moukoko turns, Bellingham has continued the press to push forward and provide a passing option — you can see him pointing to where Moukoko could drop the ball back to.

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Instead, Moukoko flashes it across the box to Karim Adeyemi, whose shot is initially saved…

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…before it is bundled in by Marco Reus for what turned out to be the winner.

And look there in the six-yard box. Who in a yellow shirt has put in the extra yards to follow up on this threatening situation? Bellingham.

It is a goal where he will accrue no direct credit to his attacking numbers, but his defensive intensity and off-ball running were integral to the scoring of it.

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Data similarly cannot capture a player’s technique — their appreciation of space, the way they receive or strike the ball.

Even a quick look at a video would show that Bellingham has the technical quality that will keep him at the very top for the rest of his playing career. Put simply, he does the simple things very well.

At just 19 years old, it’s scary that we need no more convincing of his quality.

Bellingham’s family have previously set up two companies which are registered in the UK, Belloball and Bello & Bello Limited. This summer, the latter submitted an application to have ‘Jude Bellingham’ trademarked. It would cover everything from clothes to cosmetics and smartphone cases.

Part of them planning for his return to England? The commercial opportunities for such an articulate young player with such remarkable ability are certainly vast. He’s ambitious, he wants to win the biggest prizes and he is surely destined to grace the Premier League at some stage.

The when and the where are yet to be determined.

It will take deep pockets and a project as compelling as the one that took him to Dortmund to come out on top.

(Additional reporting: Gregg Evans, Mark Carey, Raphael Honigstein and Adam Crafton)

(Top graphic — photo: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)

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