Jude Bellingham’s emergence in senior football has to go down as one of the biggest stories in England outside of the Premier League.
At the start of the season, the 16-year-old (16!) was drafted into Pep Clotet’s squad at Birmingham City and whilst many may have been aware of his precocious talent when he was playing Under-23s football at age 15, it was difficult to envisage him becoming a key figure in the first-team at this tender age. And yet, after his debut in August, Bellingham has gone from strength to strength, racking up nearly 1,900 minutes of senior football, playing as a central or wide midfielder.
For someone who hasn’t yet signed a professional contract, because he’s literally to young to be legally able to do so, to play week-in and week-out in a tough league such as the Championship is surely unprecedented, at least in recent times. And it is of no surprise that Chelsea, according to a report from Goal, are among several clubs vying for the starlet. Interest from Manchester United was well-documented in January but one can be sure that Bellingham has a very long list of admirers across Europe.
As the ever-astute @chelseayouth notes, interest in Bellingham isn’t new at all. He has been well sought-after before this season. Chelsea even tried to bring him to Stamford Bridge last summer.
Bellingham has been on the club's radar a lot longer than just this season. They made significant overtures to try to get him last summer, as did just about every big club you care to guess at, because his talent has been evident for a long, long time. https://t.co/fDvmSyQQgp— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) February 18, 2020
So why are we and others so interested?
Watching Bellingham instantly tells you he’s mature beyond his years. It’s a testament to his ability and how easily he’s taken to the senior game that Clotet trusts him to play in a two-man midfield. Tall and rangy in frame, Bellingham may not be the most proficient at scrapping it out in aerial duels just yet, but he’s a force when it comes to winning possession and ball-carrying. He also possesses the proficiency to operate in the attacking third and has chipped in with 4 goals and 3 assists so far, the majority of which came whilst deployed as a wide midfielder. He isn’t known for his passing ability just yet, although the Blues employ a direct style of football that places emphasis on vertical progression rather than tidy passing.
Players like Bellingham obviously don’t come around very often. His value will have presumably soared even further by the summer, with prices in the region of £50 million being mooted. And since youngsters are prone to suffering sophomore slumps, it’d be understandable if Birmingham City were to cash in and reap the rewards for their investment in him.
But would spending that much on any teenager be a wise move for any team? Chelsea have invested heavily in youth in the last twelve months — even some have gotten away, like Tariq Lamptey — and will surely be aware of all the considerations necessary.
The aforementioned report by Goal claims Chelsea’s interest in Bellingham has caused contract talks with Tino Anjorin to stall, which seems like a bit of a stretch.
Anjorin, who is a year-and-a-half older than Bellingham, has been making waves with his performances for the Under-23s in Premier League 2 and the EFL Trophy, where he faced senior opposition. Anjorin can also operate in central and attacking midfield, like Bellingham, and his physical presence is reminiscent of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as well. Following his first-team debut against Grimsby Town in the FA Cup, Chelsea have been trying to tie Anjorin down to a deal that runs until the summer of 2025.
Would purchasing Bellingham potentially block Anjorin’s pathway? It’s certainly a possibility, just as it certainly could have nothing to do with it. Either way, it’s understandable for the Chelsea youngster’s representation to not rush into a long-term commitment with 18 months still left on his current contract, when there may be better options available elsewhere. The easy answer to this situation is probably along the lines of “you can never have too much talent” or “the cream always rises to the top” but youth development and the entire situation of English youngsters at “top” Premier League clubs is, unfortunately, not as simple — yes, even in the age of Frank Lampard’s youth revolution.
Personally, I’d prefer that Bellingham avoid the glamour of the Premier League at this stage of his career altogether. It’s important to consider the physical and mental strains that being thrown into the senior game at this tender age bring, never mind the immense scrutiny that comes with life at the top level in England. On the surface, it seems a far wiser choice to stay at Birmingham a season longer or take a move abroad to one of a number of his presumed German suitors.
This would also allow Chelsea to commit to giving a pathway to Anjorin, who is arguably the crown jewel of the academy in his age group. By the time Bellingham may be wanted by clubs in England again (albeit for double the price, unless his agent is smart about negotiating an exit clause), we might have a clarity on whether it’s an either-or situation or if the two midfielders could co-exist, not to mention Anjorin’s own ceiling, among other things.
At a time when homegrown talent is far more open to leaving clubs like Chelsea early, and even going abroad, these situations can set an important precedent. The decision won’t be easy for either side, especially as there very well could be a full-on bidding war for Bellingham in the summer. Either way, it’s going to be a very interesting situation to monitor.