There might have been nobody in the stands at the Etihad Stadium, but Erling Haaland surely felt the gaze of world football on him as he led Borussia Dortmund into Tuesday’s Champions League quarter final against Manchester City. After so much speculation about his future, of a potential summer move to City, this was the Norwegian’s chance to prove himself to Pep Guardiola.
By full time, though, Haaland had been outshone by another young talent. While the 20-year-old striker played well, assisting an equaliser for Marco Reus, it was English teenager Jude Bellingham who caught the eye most. He was the one who looked most comfortable, most at home on the Champions League stage.
City struggled to cope with Bellingham for much of the match. So many opponents have been suffocated by the Premier League leaders this season, but the teenager burst through their midfield a number of times and would have scored a first half equaliser had it not been for the baffling decision of the referee to penalise him for a foul on Ederson despite winning the ball cleanly in a tackle. Nonetheless, he still made his mark.
Bellingham’s rise over the last year has been remarkable. Signed for £25 million from Birmingham City last summer, he was billed as one for the future. Almost immediately, though, Bellingham made himself a key figure at the Westfalenstadion and has since made 37 first team appearances for Borussia Dortmund so far this season, including nine in the Champions League. Not bad for a 17-year-old.
England boss Gareth Southgate has had positive things to say about Bellingham, highlighting his “thirst” and calling up the teenager for the recent World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland. Despite this, there is some doubt over whether he will be included in England’s Euro 2020 squad such is the stiff competition for places.
Not only should there be a place for Bellingham in Southgate’s 23-man squad, though, he should start for England this summer. Southgate doesn’t have another midfielder like Bellingham. In fact, there aren’t many midfielders like Bellingham anywhere in the European game right now. He gives England something different, another dimension.
It’s somewhat difficult to pinpoint Bellingham’s exact position on the pitch. He isn’t a number six, nor is he a number eight or number 10. The 17-year-old performs duties normally associated with all three positions, protecting the back four, driving the ball forward, picking passes forward and making runs in behind.
English eyes have been on Borussia Dortmund for quite some time following the emergence of Jadon Sancho as a Bundesliga superstar, but Bellingham could soon surpass his countryman in terms of his importance to the national team. England have a number of exceptional wide forwards, but they don’t have a complete midfielder in the mould of Bellingham.
Dortmund used a 4-3-3 formation to good effect in Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to City and in that shape it was possible to imagine how Bellingham could thrive for England in a similar system this summer. With someone like Declan Rice or Kalvin Phillips anchoring the midfield and Phil Foden or Mason Mount operating as a pure creator, Bellingham would be harnessed.
What was most encouraging about the teenager’s performance at the Etihad Stadium was his fearlessness. In the past, young English players have been guilty of shrinking when the spotlight is on them. This new generation not only seem more equipped to handle the big occasion, it’s when they do their best work. The occasions don’t get much bigger than the Euros.