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The evolution of Champions League finalist Bellingham

Jude Bellingham
Jude Bellingham is aiming to beat his old side in the Champions League final [Getty Images]

Jude Bellingham has already led Real Madrid to a La Liga title this season and could yet be key to the club's quest to become champions of Europe for a 15th time when they face his former club Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley on 1 June.

Then it will be on to the European Championship, where he will spearhead England's hopes of a first major trophy in 58 years. He is a Ballon d'Or frontrunner, one of the most prolific scorers in Spain and a treasured talent back home – all at the age 20.

Yet Bellingham's game has already undergone several stylistic evolutions.

The playmaker

Jude Bellingham celebrates a Birmingham City goal
Jude Bellingham (centre) scored on his home debut for Birmingham against Stoke aged 16 [Getty Images]

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."

The powerhouse

Jude Bellingham in a Borussia Dortmund shirt, stands on the edge of the pitch and points towards a stand in the distance behind him
Jude Bellingham spent three seasons at Borussia Dortmund [Getty Images]

Bellingham arrived at Dortmund as a 17-year-old with just a single season of senior football under his belt, yet the Englishman impressed his new team-mates with his technique and physicality.

"He was very confident," says former Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Burki. "You could see from the first training he was not shy of going into duels and showing his qualities and his mentality. It was clear from the beginning that this is a guy who is very good for our team.

"He was very young when he joined us. He gained experience really fast because he played almost every game. I think he improved in his decision making and also in his personality a little bit."

Initially, Bellingham was deployed in a similar role to the one in which he'd shone with Birmingham, as a deep-lying playmaker. But he gradually took on more of a box-to-box role at Signal Iduna Park.

As he became more of an attacking force, his average for shot-creating actions per 90 rose – from 2.06 in his first season in Germany to 3.35 in 2021-22 and finally 4.18 in 2022-23. His ability to drive forward from midfield is reflected in his average for progressive carries (defined as any time a player carries the ball forward 10 yards or more, or into the opponent's penalty area) rising over the same period from 1.48 per 90 to 2.52 and then 3.24.

"At first, we had him more as a number six because of his physicality and his ability to win important duels," Burki recalls. "And also with the ball he was very good. Now, he's playing more on the attacking side than the defensive.

"I wasn't expecting that. But the quality that he had, the mentality, you could see that he was something special."

The last phase of his development at Dortmund was to add goals to his game. In the 90 appearances he made in his first two seasons with the club, he had scored 10 goals. He played 42 games for BVB last term, scoring 14 times.

"It didn't surprise me because he was always very good at finishing," says Burki. "He was more precise, didn't try to score with force. He was putting the ball into the corner. With his technique, physique and mentality, it doesn't surprise me that he is also very good at scoring goals."

The poacher

Jude Bellingham celebrates El Clasico winner
Jude Bellingham scored a late winner in both Clasicos against Barcelona this season [Getty Images]

Despite his improved scoring efforts in his final season with Dortmund, few could have anticipated how prolific Bellingham would be for Real Madrid this season.

Since signing for Los Blancos in an £88.5m deal last summer, the England superstar has scored 23 goals in 41 games. He is the third highest scorer in La Liga, with 19 goals – more than Robert Lewandowski, Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata.

Bellingham's average of 0.77 goals per 90 this season is a vast improvement on his previous high mark with Dortmund of 0.27. His expected goals per 90 average of 0.45 is a jump up from 0.27 in his final Bundesliga campaign.

"He hinted at that at Dortmund because they pushed him into more of an advanced role as time went by," European football expert Andy Brassell says of Bellingham's superlative scoring record in Spain. "But to score goals in that sort of volume was probably something even he wasn't expecting.

"The positioning is definitely important. He plays as a number 10 or sometimes even higher for Madrid. They've been playing without an orthodox striker sometimes, tucking him in behind two 'strikers' in Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr, who are inclined to go wide, thus creating central space for him."

If there is any criticism of Bellingham's performances for Madrid this term, it is that his scoring has dipped somewhat since the turn of the year, with just six goals so far in 2024, and he hasn't made as great an impact as expected in the biggest Champions League games. But Brassell believes these experiences will aid his long-term progression.

"It's something that Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo went through, being questioned – could they consistently do it in the biggest games?" he says.

"Bellingham is going through that at the moment and I think wise people will look back on this time and realise it helped build him and make him even more resilient, helped him work out how to deal with being a key player and a marked man."

Whether his scoring feats continue or whether he settles back into a deeper midfield role upon Kylian Mbappe's expected arrival next season, Bellingham has already established himself as an icon at the Bernabeu and bedrock of any success Madrid will enjoy in the near future.

"His mentality to be the best is what will keep driving him," adds Robinson. "He will want to be the best player in the world."