Liverpool have never even tried to directly replace Steven Gerrard. There’s never really been much point. Put simply, it’s immensely difficult to find a midfielder capable of producing otherworldly all-action performances as their former captain did weekly. He’s arguably the club’s greatest player of all time over Kenny Dalglish. Yet the ‘next Gerrard’ may now be evolving in front of their eyes in the shape of Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham.
Still only 17, Bellingham was named in Gareth Southgate’s 26-man England squad for Euro 2020 on Tuesday following a brilliant debut season in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Southgate reflected: “Jude is phenomenal. Just in training in the last couple of days, to have a 17-year-old, who wants to compete with senior players, not only has the technique, but the competitiveness and maturity… he’s a hugely exciting player.
“We’re not just taking him [to Euro 2020] for the experience. I don’t see anything in his character that means he won’t succeed. His performance levels with Dortmund in the big Champions League games were the things that really struck us. He stood up in those big moments. They are the moments we’re really assessing the players on.”
Considering Gerrard hadn’t even made his senior Liverpool debut at the same age, Bellingham’s performance levels are quite ridiculous. He can’t even drive himself to training yet yet has made nearly 100 senior career outings for club and country.
A year on from a £25million move from Birmingham to Dortmund, Transfermarkt already rate him at £50m, a value that will only soar in the coming years. More realistically, you might be looking at closer to £80m to sign him – and that’s now, not in a few years. The Stourbridge-born teenager doesn’t even turn 18 years of age until the 29th of this month.
Despite that, he’s already racked up 46 first-team appearances for Dortmund, added to 44 at previous club Birmingham, with eight goals and seven assists coming in those 91 matches. And he’s played for England three times too, impressing against Austria on Wednesday night with an assured and intelligent display.
It’d be one goal more had he not been robbed of an Etihad strike against Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals, though he scored in the second leg which prompted Pep Guardiola to say: “I cannot believe it, maybe he’s a liar! He’s so good for 17 years old, he’s a fantastic player.”
City’s rivals Manchester United had monitored Bellingham for nearly two years before his Birmingham departure and had built up a close relationship with the player’s family, believing they stood a good chance of a deal. It has even been suggested Sir Alex Ferguson met with them.
But Dortmund offered a destination where he would be guaranteed senior minutes, as shown by countryman Jadon Sancho’s progression there since a £7m move from Manchester City in 2017. Sancho is now one of Europe’s most exciting players.
“The record Dortmund have got with young players in recent years is unrivalled in European football. Weighing all that up and the people we met there, the stadium and fanbase, it made me fall in love with that club as well,” Bellingham said after rejecting a more lucrative offer from United (though he’s still said to be paid a handsome-enough £50,000 a week in Germany).
A driving ball-carrying box-to-box central midfielder with ample ability on both sides of the ball, Bellingham has the energy and aggression but also the composure and technical guile of the heart-on-sleeve Scouser. Bellingham will go on to play any midfield role that he wants to play, but the best bet is on him becoming a dynamic all-rounded tour de force like Gerrard was.
Bellingham breaks defensive lines for fun and will score plenty of career goals but is excellent defensively too, showing remarkable maturity, and is showing the tactical understanding already that Gerrard had to wait for the deep-thinking Benitez’s Anfield arrival to truly develop.
With Liverpool’s midfield core ageing, Bellingham should be looked at as the ideal leader of the next era of Klopp’s engine room. He truly does have the ability to be for Liverpool in a few years what Gerrard was for the likes of Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez.
There’s even the prospect of Bellingham playing under his idol at Anfield in the future, because current Rangers manager Gerrard is widely seen as the replacement for Klopp in 2024 when the German’s contract ends. That is provided he maintains his current trajectory, having just gone the season unbeaten to deliver the Gers’ first title in a decade.
To have Gerrard in the dugout and the ‘next Gerrard’ charging about the Anfield turf would be a surreal scenario for Liverpool, but it’s not an unrealistic one at all. But the Reds should do all they can to line up a future move for Bellingham regardless of who’s at the helm – he’s going to take the world by storm.