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Jude Bellingham: The evolution of Real Madrid’s ex-Birmingham and Borussia Dortmund midfielder

After joining his boyhood club as a seven-year-old, Bellingham progressed rapidly through Birmingham City’s academy to make his first-team debut aged just 16 years and 38 days, becoming their youngest-ever player.

He played one full season for Birmingham, making 41 appearances in the Championship and scoring four goals, before signing for Borussia Dortmund for £25m in the summer of 2020.

When he left, Birmingham retired the number 22 shirt the teenager had worn following his breakthrough. It was a number he’d wear again in Germany and one that had particular relevance to the midfielder’s development.

As Bellingham worked with the youth coaches within Birmingham’s academy, they wanted his game to incorporate elements of a defensive midfielder (traditionally a number four in English football), a box-to-box number eight and a creative number 10. Add all three together, you get number 22.

This nurtured a versatility that served Bellingham well upon his senior breakthrough at St Andrew’s.

“When he went to the first team at Birmingham, he played wide,” former Birmingham left-back Paul Robinson, who coached the young Bellingham at the club, tells BBC Sport.

“He played wide right, he played wide left. For his development, he had the makings of playing in different positions higher up the pitch. Jude was always capable of doing that because of his brain.”

Most often, though, the Stourbridge-born star played as a deep central midfielder, dictating play in the middle of the pitch. His combined average of 4.01 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes that season remains a career high.

“When he was 15, 16, his position was the number six, being able to get on the ball and dictate games with his quality of passing,” adds Robinson. “I’ve never seen someone so young be so intelligent in terms of understanding the game.”

Bellingham also worked on aspects of his game that, four years later, are bearing fruit now at Real Madrid.

“You could see the chops that he does now, where he goes right foot-left foot and comes back on himself,” says Robinson. “He still does that. That’s what he’s comfortable with and he knows it works.

“The biggest thing that I picked on with Jude was that he couldn’t really head the ball. So we worked on it with crosses and worked on his timing, getting into the box and getting headers. And when you see him now with what he’s doing, he’s on autopilot – he knows what he needs to do and he just does it.”

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