‘Good dribbler, tremendous passer’ – what Erik ten Hag said about Manchester United’s possible Jude Bellingham alternative

Manchester United look set to miss out on Jude Bellingham for the second time in four years, with Real Madrid the clear frontrunners in the race to sign the England midfielder.

It is testament to English football’s academy system that two of the best young midfielders in the world were nurtured in London and Birmingham.

Jamal Musiala may turn out for Germany when international dates roll around but between the ages of eight and 16, he honed his skills at Cobham. Jude Bellingham, meanwhile, joined Birmingham City as an under-eight in 2010 and the Dudley-born teen remained there for a decade before beginning his Bundesliga adventure. His No.22 shirt hasn’t been worn at St. Andrew’s since.

Musiala only turned 20 in March and Bellingham is still 19, yet both men have been driving forces for Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund respectively in this season’s gripping title race in Germany.

Regardless of which player ends up hoisting the Meisterschale at the end of May, though, it is looking increasingly likely that this will be the last domestic battle that fans will get to see between Musiala and Bellingham for some time.

Reports in Spain on Wednesday suggested Real Madrid are optimistic of staving off competition from Premier League clubs to sign Bellingham, and thus adding him to their roster of remarkable young players that already includes Vinicius Junior, Federico Valverde, Rodrygo, Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni.

The Premier League is the most enthralling league in Europe but Real Madrid remains the pinnacle for most players – still as glamorous as ever, still dominant in the Champions League, still one of the biggest clubs in the world, still Real Madrid.

The development will not please Manchester United, whose manager Erik ten Hag had earmarked Bellingham, along with Frenkie de Jong – he of another Spanish superpower’s parish – as a preferred midfield signing this summer.

United must bolster their midfield if they are to have any chance of mounting a credible title charge in 2023-24, having seen their flicker of a challenge this term extinguished following injury and suspension to Christian Eriksen and Casemiro respectively in January.

Yet the chances of either Bellingham or De Jong being the one to bring about that improvement in Ten Hag’s midfield feel slim and United may need to reevaluate their targets.

Could one of Ten Hag’s former players be a suitable alternative to Bellingham?

Musiala is the brightest young star at Bayern but he is not the only young player in Thomas Tuchel’s squad who possesses outstanding technical quality in midfield.


Ryan Gravenberch played under Ten Hag for Ajax and, like his manager, departed the Dutch capital in 2022. Highly regarded since his days in the Ajax youth set-up, he made the move to Bayern last summer but is yet to make an impression in Bavaria.

Last month, the 20-year-old admitted he wasn’t happy with his lack of game time at Bayern having only started one Bundesliga match all season: “A year of training and playing at top level is beautiful and instructive. Although playing, it is mainly training. That has to change next season, then I really want to play weekly again. I haven’t spoken to the club management yet, so just wait and see what happens. But it is clear that this role does not match my expectations.”

Ten Hag handed Gravenberch his Ajax debut in August 2018 – just two months after the midfielder’s 16th birthday – and the Amsterdammer went on to play more than 100 times under Ten Hag.

Speaking about Gravenberch’s qualities last April, when negotiations over the player’s move to Bayern were already at an advanced stage, Ten Hag said: “Ryan is a very young player, but he has already gained a lot of experience. He has already played over 100 games in the Eredivisie, has played in the Champions League and has been called up for the national team. Despite his young age, he has already experienced a lot and, above all, won titles.

“He’s very important for our team because he’s a box-to-box player. He accelerates out of positional play, does good dribbling, has tremendous passing ability and participates in the build-up play. Due to his athleticism and physique, he is also strong in the transition game and can also win the balls. He’s come a long way, but can still learn a lot.”

Gravenberch may not want to call it quits at Bayern just yet but United could hand him a similarly sized platform on which to progress his career under a familiar manager. Time will tell if that is a route Ten Hag is open to exploring.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.