17-year-old Jude Bellingham has recently broken onto the global stage of football with his lucrative £25 million transfer to German giants Borussia Dortmund in late July. Previously of English Championship side Birmingham City, Bellingham joins a powerful cast of the worlds best young players currently donning the yellow and black of Dortmund including Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland, and Giovanni Reyna to name a few, notably all 20 years of age or younger.
Fans and footballing nerds of the popular game Football Manager will be very familiar with the highly demanded teenager labelled as a ‘breakthrough prospect’, giving Bellingham strong recognition and moderate fame throughout today’s football society before his move to Germany, with many quick to stamp the midfielder as a great in the making. Dortmund, a club who are known for their long-term thinking and approach to squad depth are often seen leading Europe’s biggest club’s when it comes to investing in the star’s of tomorrow, and have clearly identified Bellingham as a prodigy with immense potential. The club and manager Lucien Favre, now face the task of guiding the British wonder-kid in his younger years with the ultimate reward of producing one of the world’s best footballers in the future.
Throughout this scout report, I will delve into Favre’s tactics so far this season at Dortmund and Bellingham’s role within this to date. I will use this tactical analysis to encode Bellingham’s performance’s, particularly positioning and technical ability in the hope to discover what makes him such a good player at such a young age.
This analysis shows Bellingham is a versatile central midfielder. His movements off the ball are quick and dynamic allowing him to receive and turn in tight area’s around the pitch, adding an attacking threat from deep positions. He links play very well both vertically and horizontally, aiming to get himself on the ball as much as possible with a high work rate to become the linchpin of every possession for his side.
Being young, energetic, and sharp on the ball allows Bellingham to effect the game box to box, and is confident dribbling at opposition defence’s especially in 1v1 situations, reflected in his 72% success rate from the 13 dribbles he’s attempted this season. He moves the ball quickly and accurately through the midfield, patiently waiting for the right time to unleash a penetrating ball into the final third for Dortmund’s ruthless front three. Again we’re shown this through his 5 key passes from 3 Bundesliga games thus far.
As well as being a magnet to the ball in the middle of the park, Bellingham possesses’ a tenacious defensive mindset in transition, matching the high-velocity style engraved within Dortmund’s tactical philosophies. Bellingham’s acceleration often means he beats opposition players to the loose scraps in 50/50 situations, and his general high-intensity play sees the Englishman often turnover possession for his side through relentless nibbling tackles, mirrored in his 11 ball recoveries so far in 2020/21 through 262 minutes played.
Bellingham possesses traits of a modern-day Regista dropping deep into a 6 role to receive from the backline before looking to play precise forward passes.
Borussia Dortmund Structure
Favre has set his team up in an attacking 3-4-3 formation this season as shown below. Dortmund look to play out from the back at every opportunity, using the back three and their reliable distribution of the ball to encourage a possession-based build-up game. This is best highlighted in Favre’s decision to move long-time midfielder Emre Can down into the central defensive trio, in an attempt to motivate prolific passing front back to front.
Rotation and movement off the ball from the midfield and forward units are critical to Favre’s tactics in order for players to receive between the lines of opposition banks, with flexible positioning and interchanging arrangement becoming common themes for Dortmund this season. Often well see one of the front three drops down to receive deep, overloading the opposition midfield, or the contrast of one central midfielder joining the offensive line leaving a sole pivot 6, creating a temporary 3-3-4 formation ready for a long ball over the top of opposition press’.
So how does Bellingham fit into this? Before the season start, many spectators would have guessed the teenager to be a regular bench player this season, getting minutes here and there until he’s fully matured and ready to start for the top European club. But to Bellingham’s delight, it has been the opposite, starting all three league games for Dortmund so far. He is yet to complete a full 90 minutes, but this still speaks to the trust manager Favre has in the young gun and his abilities.
Often used as attacking midfielder, or 10 at Birmingham City, Bellingham has seen himself take on a deeper 8 role with the aim to link play between the defensive and forward unit of Dortmund. This role entails a box-to-box philosophy for Bellingham, covering a tremendous amount of ground and looking to always be in a position to receive when his side is in possession, especially from the wing-backs so he can look to horizontally switch the play to the oppositions weak side, a principle Bellingham excels in.
Commonly against a more modern opposition formation, the central pair will be outnumbered against a midfield three, signifying the importance of effective movement from Bellingham to find space to receive and lose markers, avoiding the possibility of teammates becoming isolated on the ball. He’s accepted more defensive responsibility well thus far and has operated in tangent with midfield partner Axel Witsel effectively.
Bellingham optimises the back three’s strong and accurate distribution, receiving and turning in tight areas for Dortmund to move the ball forward quickly, expressing trust between the two parties in his first touch and technical ability. Bellingham has the energy and willingness to bomb forward from deep positions, often seen underlapping on the inside of wide-man Sancho in attack’s adding an offensive threat to the already vicious German attack. This is a risky move though, as his midfield partner Witsel can be left alone and vulnerable in central areas should the opposite counter-attack from a turnover.
Bellingham has been confident in possession and must continue to do so in this deeper playmaker role, as Favre expects the youngster to have a balanced ratio of forward to sidewards/backwards passes in this role in order for his team to have a chance of breaking down opposition defences. This new positioning for Bellingham does allow the opportunity for him to express himself, as we’ve seen already from the three league games so far all-round impressive vision and creativity.
A large part of Bellingham’s game so far at Dortmund is his ability to receive from the back three centrally and break opposition lines in the build-up phase. By this, we mean moving into a position or pocket of space in-between the opponents forward and midfield blocks, or midfield and defensive blocks, where one successful pass will take an entire opposition unit out of the game.
The next step in taking advantage of this manoeuvre is for Bellingham to turn and play forward as quickly as possible either into the feet of the front three or with a through ball towards on running attackers in-behind the opposition backline. The fact that Bellingham and Witsel often come up against three central midfielders makes the space for him to operate in extremely limited, and even more impressive in relation to how productive Bellingham has been in the movements needed to find himself space.
This is a hard task to ask for a player who is still developing, and the ability to evade defenders and drift into these half-spaces is accompanied by elite players and necessary when playing 2v3 in the midfield. We see from the example below, Bellingham has made the move away from the ballcarrier while opposition defenders are attracted to the ball, into a horizontal channel positioned between the Augsburg defensive and midfield unit. Now with Bellingham situated in space, one pass with accompanied with a positive first touch eliminates six Augsburg players from the game, with Bellingham now set to run at the opposition defence in a favourable 4v4 attack.
Breaking opponent lines takes courage from Bellingham to move beyond and away from the ball, and is a very untraditional action of a central midfielder as it risks leaving the team extremely unguarded should the pass be intercepted or inaccurate.
It’s important to spotlight this pattern is aided hugely by two other factors. The first being the exceptional passing accuracy of teammate Mats Hummels to remained composed when no easy forward options are available and effectively spot Bellingham through multiple Augsburg players. And the second being the positioning of teammates around him to create the space for Bellingham. The front three of Dortmund have moved centrally and narrowly with Augsburg midfielder’s being sucked inside in an attempt to ‘front-mark’ and block passing lanes into the feet of Haaland, Sancho, and Reyna… an effective and common element of Dortmund’s play. This momentarily free’s Bellingham to drift a touch wider and receive on the angle from Hummels, with the Augsburg midfield too far away to challenge once the pass is made.
Against Freiburg, we see here again how far beyond Bellingham has gone in comparison to midfield partner Witsel, in an attempt to break the opponent’s midfield line. On this occasion, the Freiburg right back decides to step inside to challenge the receiving Bellingham. Consequently, this free’s up the left-winger Reyna who receives from a Bellingham first time ‘around the corner’ pass, igniting a dangerous Dortmund attack.
This example helps show us the dilemma Bellingham’s quick movements are creating for the opposition as he leaves the midfield area, opponents are unsure and unorganised as to who should be following/marking Bellingham, and as we’ve seen here it can lead to Dortmund having a 2v1 superiority in favourable advanced area’s of the pitch.
It’s clear to see this procedure is a combination of Bellingham’s intelligent positional awareness and Dortmund’s team chemistry in relation to understanding each others game. Adding to this, another option for the ballcarrier is created when Bellingham does move wider for a Dortmund attacker to drop deep from behind the Augsburg midfield and receive where Bellingham would usually be positioned. This simple co-operative movement and interchanging of positions have found to be enough to derail opponent defensive structures for Favre’s side this season.
Favre has placed a large responsibility on Bellingham and Witsel to together break up opposition play through interceptions and a disciplined defensive structure with the goal to frustrate the opposition in defence.
In the 3-4-3 formation, Dortmund have been able to close the space more quickly and look less susceptible to defensive errors. The back three quickly become a back five out of possession with the wingbacks dropping down, and Bellingham and Witsel remaining compact in central areas.
With Haaland in the lineup, Sancho and Reyna seem to come back more frequently to join what is very much a 5-4-1. Wingers quickly coming back during defensive transitions was a feature of Favre’s 4-2-3-1 formation, which would frequently become more like a 4-4-1-1 out of possession. Bellingham and Witsel are at times required to defend in wide area’s following the deep positioning of the wing-backs, illustrating how crucial it is Bellingham can cover ground all over the park for his side.
Favre’s defensive philosophy very much relies on all eleven players being trained and focused on their positioning and compactness throughout the units, accompanied by a non-stop mindset to win all 1v1 situations and block opponents from facing the goal with the ball within the Dortmund half.
Bellingham’s defensive determination and admirable persistence goes hand-in-hand with Favre’s tactical outlook, making the teen a vital part of the structure out of possession, as well as seeing Bellingham set the standards on the field when it comes to tackling intensity and turnover opportunity identification.
Despite size and age, Bellingham is surprising strong into his challenges both on the ground and aerially, with a ‘brick-wall’ attitude that has seen him take out many opposition players on the way to retrieving the ball remaining effective and avoiding recklessness. His defensive capabilities in 1v1 situations along with the intimidation he seems to impose on opposite midfielders through share-will are comparable to the likes of Casemiro of Real Madrid or N’Golo Kante at Chelsea. These are near impossible characteristics to come by for a teenager just breaking into the professional game, earning respect and recognition from Dortmund fans and the manager also contributing to his 17 challenges in the league, which is very high for a central midfielder at this stage of the campaign.
We see from the image below against Bayern Munich, Dortmund are set in a compact 4-5-1 formation whilst Bayern maintain possession with Dortmund obligating to block passing channels and force errors out of their opponent. Bellingham reacts to a poor sidewards pass and recognises this as an opportunity to move out of the block and ultimately push Bayern backwards through a series of pressing actions backed by his teammates.
This action showed maturity and tactical adeptness from Bellingham to instigate a violent press in the late stages of the game, and speaks to the defensive intensity Favre has encouraged within him. In a team full of established superstars, maybe a hard hitter willing to do the gritty work is exactly what Dortmund need to remain solidified this season.
Against Freiburg, Dortmund had just lost possession and Bellingham was well out of position high up the field. Despite being covered by a team-mate, Bellingham did what most players today wouldn’t, and sprinted 20 odd yards to pressure the Freiburg left-back in possession who was in no threat to the Dortmund goal, recover the ball in a heartfelt tackle, and set Dortmund away on the counter-attack. This colossal effort sets Bellingham apart from the rest of the midfielder’s in the Bundesliga and demonstrates a slice of his well-rounded midfield play. This continues to make a case that Dortmund won’t have the same commitment defensively when Bellingham is not in the team, and he is quickly making himself an essential part of Favre’s future plans based on his out of possession dedication.
Jude Bellingham is a magnet to the ball, an 8 who has the desire and energy to play box-to-box for 90 minutes yet owns the tactical knowledge to perform effectively in a deep-lying playmaker role. His connection with the back three has been instrumental so far in Dortmund’s ability to play through the thirds, and Bellingham excels at receiving in tight areas being technically skilled enough to get himself out when swamped by opposition players.
The Englishman has shown bravery to find pockets of space beyond his midfield line and directly affect Dortmund’s attacking third play… let’s not forget he already has 1 goal and 1 assist to his name along with 5 key passes in just 262 minutes of football. Defensively, Bellingham shows immense persistence and a hunger to win possession not many young midfielders have, making him a unique asset and a fan favourite for the future. From the 6 appearances he has made for Borussia Dortmund, Bellingham looks most settled than anyone else in the side, playing with confidence in every action he takes, and most importantly performing to the expectations his manager Favre will be demanding of him.
As the season progresses I expect there will come a time where Favre is forced to play Bellingham for full 90-minute games as he continues to establish himself amongst the squad with every kick and outperform his fellow teammates. Bellingham doesn’t show any signs of being out of place with the European giants and instead encourages the forward opinion that he is on the path to becoming one of the world’s best players.