Editor's note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting. In his latest column, he looks at Borussia Dortmund's newest signing: Jude Bellingham.
Amid the wave of English teenagers coming through across football, the story of Birmingham City's Jude Bellingham is certainly one of the most remarkable. It's unusual to see a 16-year-old establish himself as a regular in a league as demanding as the English Championship, but what is even more uncommon is doing so in central midfield. Now Borussia Dortmund, home of some of the world's most exciting prospects -- Jadon Sancho, Giovanni Reyna, Erling Haaland, etc. -- awaits the Birmingham City starlet as they confirmed the transfer on Monday.
Those who have scouted and followed the Stourbridge-born midfielder over the past decade might not be so surprised to see Bellingham -- who turned 17 on June 29 -- breaking through at the first-team level, being well aware of his quick feet, ability to twist and turn himself out of tight spaces and natural talent with the ball. Neither would they be astonished by the monthslong pursuit by top clubs both home (Manchester United) and abroad (Borussia Dortmund) for the teenager.
What might be unexpected, though, is to see a kid, one who traded mainly on his technical and individual skills, already possessing the engine to last the full 90 minutes and the body to cope with the hustle and bustle of one of the most physical, challenging leagues in the world.
This relatively recently acquired general athleticism and the ability to cover ground might be explained by the blessing of an early-developing body and youthful enthusiasm. Yet, perhaps even more impressively, Bellingham's football instincts and tactical discipline are already at a level where letting him loose in a demanding role -- like one-half of a central midfield duo -- comes with very little risk.
Intriguingly, the England under-17 international possesses quite an unusual skill set for a central midfielder, which begs the question: Where will he end up playing at his new club?
Before he departed on July 8, Birmingham City head coach Pep Clotet occasionally fielded the prodigy as a wide midfielder, giving him the freedom to act as a slightly deeper "inverted winger." Bellingham certainly has the pace of a wide player, yet he also boasts the close control and technical ability of a player who's used to dealing with the ball in tighter, more central areas of the pitch. While possessing the work rate of a box-to-box or a defensive midfielder, his passing gets more adventurous once he reaches the last third. In contrast, his passing during a normal buildup possession sequence tends to be on the ordinary side; his completion ratio on long-range passing is surprisingly poor.
As opposed to most teenagers enjoying a breakthrough season, Bellingham is never afraid to ask for the ball; there's very little timidity in his game overall. He's always looking for the right spaces to receive the ball, and is keen on linking up with the full-backs in wider areas or creating the link between the attack and defence in the middle of the pitch. This refusal to be pigeonholed is one of the reasons why Bellingham is so exciting -- he relies on his instincts, and at 17, there's still room to mould him into a new role or specialist position.
So what kind of player will emerge once BVB starts the offseason with the young Englishman?
Just looking at his physical characteristics and the way Bellingham instinctively likes to play football, it's tempting to think that the "No. 8" role -- or box-to-box midfielder, preferably in a midfield three -- would suit him best. While he's recently shown for Birmingham that he's not just a pure creative player, using him in a deeper holding role would be a waste given his excellent attacking attributes. Doing so would also stifle his attacking edge and mostly negate his burst of pace and ability to outpace opponents with the ball at his feet.
To get the best out of Bellingham, Dortmund should give him the ability to roam, break with the ball, find the best attacking positions and capitalise on his intelligent off-the-ball running, which often drives him into the box for late, one-touch finishes.
Bellingham has already proved that he's fully equipped to handle senior football and is not just another flashy prospect. Consequently, adapting to Dortmund's rapid football, based on fluid overlapping movements and few touches on the ball, shouldn't pose too many problems; in fact, we can expect to see a surge in his goal and assist tallies in the Bundesliga. (Bellingham has "only" four goals and three assists this season.) At Birmingham City, a team who have found themselves on the fringes of the relegation battle this season, he's been drilled to focus on the defensive side of the game, whereas the Borussia Dortmund experience -- with added time on the ball and flair players in support as far as the eye can see -- will be mostly about keeping tabs on what's in front of him.
Borussia Dortmund have built a strong reputation for nurturing and molding some of Europe's top talent, and it will be fascinating to see just what the German club has in store for the talented 17-year-old from Stourbridge.