While 2020 has been testing for most, Jude Bellingham will surely look back on it as the year that changed his life.
Having sealed a big-money move to Borussia Dortmund from Birmingham City in pre-season, he subsequently got himself straight into the first-team picture at Signal Iduna Park and has now been rewarded with a first call-up to England’s senior side at the age of 17.
It caps a remarkable rise for the young midfielder, who was representing England’s Under-16s as recently as April 2019.
His promotion from the Under-21s comes as a result of James Ward-Prowse pulling out of the squad due to injury, with Bellingham set to become the third-youngest England debutant of all-time behind Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott if he features in any of the Three Lions’ three games this month.
But, while Bellingham’s momentous call-up is a cause for celebration, it has posed questions for manager Gareth Southgate – namely, why not the more experienced options?
Too soon for Bellingham?
There is no doubt Bellingham has started brightly at Dortmund – after all, he has attempted more passes (292) than any other under-18 player in Europe’s top five leagues this term, while his dribble success rate (58.3 per cent) is third among players in the same age bracket to have tried 10 or more.
Similarly, no other under-18 player can match his 12 tackles. He has fitted in well with Lucien Favre’s high-pressing, attacking style and his adaptation is all the more impressive given his age.
But at the same time, it has been pointed out by Southgate’s critics that Bellingham has made just four top-flight starts in his career – can a player truly show the required level of consistency across such a small sample size?
The counter to that argument is, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Raheem Sterling, Harry Winks and Dele Alli are just three of the players to have received senior England call-ups before starting five matches in one of Europe’s top five leagues.
Nevertheless, Bellingham’s call-up does – on the face of it – seem somewhat premature given there are comparable players of greater experience who have either been excelling recently or have impressed for England in the past.
Maddison and Barkley in the lurch
James Maddison and Ross Barkley appear to be seen as the two most hard done by in being ignored by Southgate.
Bellingham is certainly a more like-for-like replacement of Ward-Prowse than the aforementioned pair, but England have often looked short of creative ideas in the past few months – perhaps Barkley or Maddison would have been welcome additions in that sense.
After all, Barkley is averaging 2.9 chances created per 90 minutes for Aston Villa this term, compared to Bellingham’s 1.6, a decrease one might expect for a player who usually occupies a pivot role.
Similarly, Barkley has been involved in three goals (two scored, one set up) to Bellingham’s solitary assist, but the choice likely comes down to Southgate’s trust – or lack thereof – in the Villa star or Maddison to effectively play a deep role.
While Maddison’s distribution accuracy of 90 per cent may be an improvement on Bellingham’s 86 per cent, the youngster is averaging many more passes per game (79 to 46). Likewise with Barkley, who plays 40 passes every 90 minutes with an accuracy of 83 per cent.
It also seems likely that Maddison is not helped by the fact he has made just two Premier League starts this term, though he was bright against Wolves at the weekend.
It is the sequence data that arguably gives us the greatest insight to Southgate’s thinking with regards to this trio, however.
Southgate has a penchant for deep-lying midfielders who are tidy in possession, and Bellingham has been involved in 57 open-play passing sequences per 90 minutes this term, far more than Barkley (39) and Maddison (41).
He also starts such sequences (12 per game) more often than his rivals (11 for Barkley, 7 for Maddison), while 1.4 per 90 minutes end in a shot. This is also greater than the output of Barkley (0.9) and Maddison (0.7).
So, while Barkley and Maddison might offer more in the final third, Bellingham’s role as a midfield pivot for Dortmund this term has seen him shine in terms of passing and recycling possession.
England fans may not like Southgate’s apparent reliance on deep midfielders, but the fact he has chosen Bellingham to fill in for Ward-Prowse does make sense stylistically.