In what has been a season of struggle and upheaval for Atlanta United, George Bello has provided the franchise a rare glimpse of light in 2020. Chris Smith has the lowdown.
Date of Birth: January 22, 2002
Debuted in MLS at 16 years old in September 2018
A YEAR OF UPHEAVAL AS AN ATLANTA UNITED PLAYER
After three years of untold success, making the play-offs in their inaugural year, lifting the MLS Cup in 2018, then winning the US Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles in 2019, Atlanta United's current campaign has been something of a disaster.
Star striker Josef Martínez has been sidelined for all but the opening few games with an ACL injury, while fellow designated players Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martínez and Ezequiel Barco have been sold or stuck in the treatment room themselves.
A horrendous run at the MLS is Back Tournament in July, where Atlanta lost all three games against New York Red Bulls, FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew without scoring a single goal, resulted in Frank de Boer losing his job and the club are yet to find his replacement as Stephen Glass continues to fill the void on an interim basis.
That is an intimidating set of circumstances at the best of times without even mentioning the effects of a global pandemic. However, at just 18 years old, Bello has taken it all in his stride.
STYLE OF PLAY
Quick; has the engine to get up and down the left flank for the full game
Good at getting past his defender one-on-one in the final third
A strong defender relative to his age and experience
Creative contribution and decision-making in the final third
Still only 18 years old, it feels like Bello has been around forever having made his debut way back on September 2, 2018, even scoring his first-ever MLS goal just a month later at 16 years and 257 days old.
Injuries have haunted him since, though. Bello made just one senior appearance across all competitions in the 2019 season but this year, he’s been almost ever-present, clocking up almost 1,600 MLS minutes.
Although there is a wide variety of talent coming out of MLS and North America as a whole right now, there appears to be a particular focus on full-backs.
Alphonso Davies has been flying the flag for Major League Soccer and Canada with his treble-winning exploits at Bayern München, while his team-mate and former FC Dallas youngster Chris Richards has seen minutes on the pitch as a right-back, although predominantly a centre-back.
Sergiño Dest recently became the first American to play for Barcelona’s first team after moving from Ajax. Meanwhile, at a lower level, United States internationals Antonee Robinson and Reggie Cannon are starters for Fulham and Boavista, respectively, the latter moving to Portugal from FC Dallas in September.
Bello is a perfect stylistic fit alongside those mentioned above. The Nigerian-born teenager fits that old American stereotype of being quick across the ground and immensely fit, able to race up and down the left flank for the full 90 minutes.
However, anyone who has watched him in action will know Bello is much more than a mere athlete.
The American under-17 international is first among Atlanta United players when it comes to attempted dribbles (41) and level with Barco in terms of completed dribbles (26) in 2020. He is never more at home than when he’s racing into the final third to commit his opposing full-back in a one-on-one duel. Bello almost found the net in this manner against the Red Bulls during MLS is Back, smashing the frame of the goal after some fine work to create the opening for himself.
Bello is far more solid defensively than many other full-backs his age, or those who share his forward-thinking nature, too.
Of the 19 opposition dribbles he’s contested this season, Bello has made a tackle nine times, giving him a relatively solid dribblers-tackled rate of 47.4%, while no Atlanta United player has made more than his 43 tackles overall.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Like any teenager, especially those proving themselves in MLS, Bello is still very much a diamond in the rough with a couple of key areas that need polishing.
Bello has provided the second-highest number of crosses (32) among Atlanta United players during 2020 but has only contributed 13 shot-creating actions and generated 0.5 xG Assisted tally. Overall, he has one goal and one assist to his name this season.
While Bello is getting into the right areas, his decision-making can often let him down, while the quality of his delivery needs work.
As interim boss Glass put it: “His work rate to get back after he was supporting the team to go forward, the timing of his runs, the aggression of his runs. His final ball can still get slightly better but the more he gets into those positions he’s going to continue to improve.”
That being said, it’s also important to remember that the Five Stripes have been missing their star striker for most of the season, instead rotating through deputies such as Adam Jahn, Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres and Jon Gallagher.
Another, slightly more intangible area for Bello to work on is his defensive positioning. While relatively solid in the tackle and quick across the ground when dealing with opposition forwards, Bello has often been found switching off to runners when defending at the far post, while he is also guilty of drifting too far wide when the Five Stripes are holding a defensive shape.
This can leave a huge gap between himself and the left-sided centre-back which MLS’ better attackers are easily able to exploit.
Of course, a frustrating end product and lapses in concentration are nothing new when it comes to teenagers and to hold these areas against Bello would be incredibly harsh.
The 18-year-old has already proven himself a lively attacking threat and a non-compromising defender when required. As Glass says, the rest will come with time and experience.
After bursting onto the scene in 2018, Bello was quickly linked to the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton in the Premier League. However, his injury problems soon put those links to bed.
But Bello is at full strength again now and reaping the benefits of regular minutes on the pitch.
No doubt his immediate future will be focused upon working out the kinks in his game to become a more decisive player in the final third and a more solid defender at the other end who is as much about snuffing out the opposition as he is one who relies solely on recovery speed.
Should Bello achieve that, and thus improve Atlanta United as a whole in the process, it won’t be long until there is a number of European clubs moving in for him once again.