If Manchester United scouts were keeping an eye on Declan Rice for England on Wednesday night, then the eye might have been drawn to his midfield partner and a sense of what might have been.
United are interested in Rice as they look to strengthen their midfield ranks, but with three years remaining on his contract at West Ham United and Chelsea also keeping an eye on the 22-year-old, a deal will not be easy to do.
The Hammers hold all the cards with Rice and he will cost a significant sum this summer, making any deal unlikely when United are also trying to strengthen at centre back and right-wing.
Had they managed to clinch the signing of Jude Bellingham 12 months ago, then they wouldn’t need to be looking at any midfielders. The 17-year-old was exceptional on his first start for England in the tepid friendly against Austria and a day later he was voted the Bundesliga’s best newcomer after a brilliant season with Borussia Dortmund.
United put out the red carpet to try and convince Bellingham to swap Birmingham City for Old Trafford, but the temptation of first-team football and a clear development path with Dortmund was difficult to turn down. Jadon Sancho has shown how quickly young English players can develop with Dortmund.
Bellingham has made 33 starts for Dortmund this season, including in many of their biggest games, but watching him star domestically and in the Champions League, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t already be in the United first-team as well.
While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has tended to go with the Fred/Scott McTominay axis this season, there’s certainly a feeling United need a little more drive from those deeper midfield roles. Rice can provide that, he has taken up some advanced positions this season and is a confident dribbler from deep, but Bellingham is a box-to-box midfielder who, at 6″1′ has the height and physicality to compete, but is also a threat going forward.
He’s contributed to Dortmund’s attack this season and was a threat in the opposition box at set-pieces for England at the Riverside Stadium. On the eve of that game Gareth Southgate was asked about Bellingham. The England boss isn’t usually one for hyperbole but his immediate response of “he’s phenomenal” was a giveaway to the extent that the teenager has impressed in senior England training.
United are making a habit of seeing young players they wanted to sign join Dortmund, but as with Erling Haaland they should be retaining an interest in Bellingham. If Rice is too expensive this summer, then the ideal plan could be to wait 12 months and see if Bellingham can be tempted back to the Premier League.
Had United managed to sign Haaland in January 2020 and Bellingham last summer then Solskjaer’s squad would have a very different look now, but there’s only so long you can lament the ones that got away. To sign them both next summer would probably be a £150million outlay, at least, but there’s no doubt both would significantly strengthen this squad.
As good a player as Rice is, Bellingham is surely the midfielder with the higher ceiling. United have already missed out on him once, but on the evidence of this season he’s a player who won’t be with Dortmund for long before one of the European superpowers makes their move. It could work out nicely for United.