Jean-Ricner Bellegarde has taken longer than expected to make it from his roots in the Parisien suburbs to the Premier League.
The delay is out of character — on the field, Wolves’ latest signing gets everywhere as quickly and directly as possible.
Bellegarde’s game is all about moving from A to B with the minimum of delay, as Molineux witnessed on Saturday in an eye-catching first appearance in Wolves colours during the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool.
“He created big differences and was one of the Ligue 1 players who gained more metres than anyone else, either by passing or carrying the ball,” says Cyril Olives-Berthet, who covers Bellegarde’s former club, Strasbourg, for L’Equipe.
But although his on-field style is unashamedly direct, Bellegarde’s career path has seen a much more gentle progression.
He might have been a Wolves player several months earlier had an ankle injury not stopped January negotiations in their tracks. The Premier League club, managed at the time by Julen Lopetegui, had lodged an initial offer but the setback put paid to any hopes of a mid-season move.
Undeterred, Bellegarde returned to fitness in March as a man on a mission and secured his move in the final hours of the summer transfer window.
By then, Bellegarde had already rejected a new contract with Strasbourg and completed several months of English lessons, such was his determination to test himself in the Premier League.
He left with the best wishes of most Strasbourg fans, although the sight of him holding a Wolves shirt aloft in the French club’s stadium — the deal was completed so late Wolves officials had to travel to complete the medical and formalities — prompted a minor backlash.
As a teenager, Bellegarde seemed destined for big things even more quickly, having emerged as the star of Lens’ academy and captained the club at 19 in the French second division.
“When he arrived in Strasbourg from Lens he was the gem of the Lens academy and he was one of the best young players in France,” says Olives-Berthet.
“A lot of big French clubs and some European ones were interested.
“It was a surprise to everybody that he signed for Strasbourg because they were an average club at the time but he chose their project.
“He settled great and he was very influential, especially during the season under Julian Stephane, when they finished sixth in Ligue 1.”
Despite his injury, last season’s tally of two goals and six assists was the best return of his career for goal involvements, including this stunner on the final day of last season against Lorient.
And this season brought two goals and two assists in just three games before Wolves came calling.
“He’s had a few good seasons now,” says Jeremy Smith, a journalist covering French football closely. “He started at Lens, who were in the second division, and he did very well and impressed a lot of people.
“Throughout his career, he’s got better and better, a steady progression. He’s now 25 and at the peak of his career.”
While the goals and assists caught the eye at the start of the season, it was Bellegarde’s work in build-ups that first caught the eye of Wolves’ officials, who began monitoring him in 2018 when scout Alex Acton was impressed by a display for Lens against Auxerre.
Romain Barq, the club’s French co-ordinator, has monitored his displays for Strasbourg and, though Wolves had prioritised other players for much of the summer, the departure of Matheus Nunes late in the transfer window prompted a fresh move for Bellegarde.
Wolves were most struck by the 25-year-old ball-carrying skills — the attribute that Nunes contributed most in his single, largely underwhelming year at Molineux.
We can analyse Bellegarde’s strengths using data from Opta and Smarterscout, a free-to-use site favoured by clubs to aid their player research.
Smarterscout employs advanced analytics to break down elements of a footballer’s game into different performance, skill and style metrics, with results adjusted to reflect Premier League standards.
The site awards players scores of 0-99 for various stylistic actions, showing how they compare to their positional peers, so Bellegarde’s ‘carry and dribble volume’ score of 98 from last season shows he was among the most regular dribblers per touch in Europe’s top leagues.
His raw data shows he completed 3.6 ‘carries’ into the final third per 90 minutes last season, placing him in the top two per cent of Ligue 1 midfielders last season, marking him out as an excellent exponent of what coaches would describe as ‘dragging his team up the pitch’.
So we know his dribbling is effective, but it is rarely ‘showy’. Wolves fans should not expect too many stepovers or dragbacks.
“He’s got fire in the legs,” says Olives-Berthet. “He has dribbling ability but it’s not flashy, it’s just super effective and he gains space and metres with the ball or without it, with great passes.”
The benefits of his game were encapsulated in this move during Strasbourg’s 2-1 defeat to Lyon in April.
Bellegarde receives possession deep inside his own half.
He takes a direct approach to burst past the first defender.
He then cuts inside another opponent.
He shrugs off a final challenge.
And finally, he spreads the play out wide with a raking pass.
The timing of Bellegarde’s arrival and Nunes’ exit will lead to inevitable comparisons between the pair, and there are clear similarities.
They share the same greatest strength — the ability to ride challenges and carry the ball quickly from their own half into opposition territory and, just as Nunes played in a range of midfield roles for Wolves last season, Bellegarde showed his versatility for Strasbourg.
But there are differences, too.
“There are some similarities,” says Wolves head coach Gary O’Neil.
“They play in similar positions and have decent athleticism and can drive with the ball. Nunes was doing it in the Premier League and Jean was doing it in France, so the transition will be important, and how quickly we can get him used to the Premier League.
“There are differences in how they see the game and how they work.
“I don’t view this season as us losing key players and replacing them with individuals. There needs to be a team effort, everyone pushing in the right direction to make up for some of the talent we’ve lost.”
The most obvious difference comes in passing. Nunes’ preferred style was neat, tidy and often short, whereas Bellegarde’s passing takes the same direct approach as his dribbling.
A graph plotting the passing and dribbling styles of midfielders in Europe’s big leagues last season shows the difference between the pair — Bellegarde is at the extremes of the chart but Nunes is more conservative with his passing.
In short, a high proportion of Bellegarde’s actions try to propel the team forward.
And Bellegarde’s Smarterscout score of 80 for progressive passing, which rates how often per touch a player attempts to move his team at least 10 metres upfield with a pass, shows he was among the more direct passers last season.
His score of two for ‘link-up play volume’, which charts how often per touch a player’s passes do not move his team 10 metres or more upfield, underlines how much Bellegarde values advancing his side up the field compared to keeping play ‘ticking’.
His preferred approach can be seen in this example from Strasbourg’s 2-1 pre-season friendly win against Hoffenheim this summer.
Bellegarde receives possession inside his own half.
His first instinct is to spin and play the ball behind the German side’s defence.
And he succeeds in feeding team-mate Lebo Mothiba, who fires a shot just wide.
Defensively, Bellegarde’s relatively high score of 77 for ‘ball recoveries and interceptions’ suggests a committed approach, but his lower ratings for ‘defending impact’ and ‘disrupting opposition moves’ hints at a need to improve at making his challenges count.
It is an area of his game that might need to improve if he is to fulfil the vision some of his Strasbourg coaches had for his future.
“Some people in Strasbourg think his best position in future might be as a No 6,” says Olives-Berthet. “They think he might become an Andrea Pirlo style of player in front of the defence and with his great technique, he can be like a quarterback.
“He played this position for five or six games under Stephane and he was so good at it.
“He even played right-back in a couple of games. He’s really versatile but normally he’s been more of a No 8, a great box-to-box player.”
It is that energy and those ball-carrying skills that Wolves will be looking to harness and could push Bellegarde into international contention.
He represented France’s under-19s, under-20s and under-21s but is some way from their senior squad. He has also been offered the chance to play for Haiti, the nation from where his family moved to France.
For now, he is looking to build on his positive first impressions at Molineux.
“His approach and his work ethic and how well he understands what you ask have been really good,” says O’Neil.
“And there’s no fuss. He never questions what’s been asked of him.
“It’s a step up into the Premier League but we’re excited to see how well and quickly he can an impact.”
(Top photo: Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)