If the next evolutionary phase of Gareth Southgate’s football is truly upon us then it is Jude Bellingham who is making it possible. At Euro 2020 England lined up with two deep midfielders, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, sitting and protecting the defence.
In Qatar, it is different. Rice is still there, giving others the chance to shine with his efficient passing and positional discipline, but partnering him now is a teenage sensation with the potential to shatter all the accusations of Southgate as too cautious and pragmatic.
Bellingham is a gamechanger for England’s coach. The 19‑year‑old was astonishingly good when England opened their World Cup by crushing Iran 6-2 on Monday. It was Bellingham’s first start in a tournament, but it was impossible to detect any nerves. This is a young talent who knows that he belongs.
Bellingham is starring for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and his brilliance against Iran suggested he has every intention of taking this World Cup by storm.
Dortmund’s latest whiz‑kid does not really do doubts. He has scored big Champions League goals and was everywhere against Iran. His first touch, a crossfield pass to the right for Kieran Trippier, was a sign of easy confidence. His maturity was evident in the way he tracked back to halt counterattacks. The quality was there when he speared a pass through to Callum Wilson to set up Jack Grealish for England’s sixth goal.
“We have played together four or five times now,” Rice said of his midfield partner. “I said to him in the tunnel: ‘This is your stage, go and flourish. I’ll be there behind you to sweep up and give you the ball for you to go and do your thing.’ I know my role. I am there to stand in front of the back four, protect, get on the ball and move it around.”
Yet it is not the case that Bellingham wanders off and leaves Rice isolated at the base of midfield. He may be a kid, but he understands the game. It is not an exaggeration to say England have a complete and very modern box-to‑box midfielder. Bellingham is part of the collective. He was perfectly happy dropping back to defend against Iran and perfectly capable of stepping in to win the ball back.
Equally it is what he did in Iran’s half that grabbed the attention. Everyone had anticipated a slog. After the anxieties of a fraught Nations League campaign, would it be a repeat of that deathly goalless draw with Algeria at the 2010 World Cup?
Not with Bellingham around. He gives England’s midfield new angles and possibilities. The idea of Southgate as a defensive manager has always felt reductive – he wants control and believes clean sheets win international tournaments – but the emergence of Bellingham has made England less predictable. Take the opening goal against Iran. At the risk of stating the obvious, it would not have happened if Phillips had started instead of Bellingham. That willingness to burst into the box, to drive through the lines and disrupt Iran’s organisation, would not have come from Phillips, who is goalless in his 23 appearances for England.
This is not to argue that Phillips, who has been excellent for England, will not have a role to play during this tournament. But Bellingham is on another level. There are so many facets to his game and the way he met Luke Shaw’s cross to give England the lead with a looping header was a clear example of his potential to make Southgate’s approach far more effective against negative opponents.
Now there will be comparisons to former English greats. There is the hunger for goals that marked out Frank Lampard, the insistent power of Paul Ince, the technical ability of Paul Scholes and the imagination of Paul Gascoigne. Older fans will think of Bryan Robson’s bravery. Then there is the athleticism of Steven Gerrard, though the former Liverpool captain never quite had the discipline, or indeed the managers, to be truly effective at international level.
So perhaps we have to look further afield. And if we are talking about the complete box-to-box midfielders, then perhaps the player who really comes to mind is the former Germany captain Michael Ballack. The leap for the first goal was very Ballack. But so was Bellingham’s command of the position, the way he puffed out his chest, won his tackles, got around the pitch and played with his head up, ensuring that Iran had no way of containing England.
With Mason Mount counter-pressing and linking play further forward, there was a nice balance to Southgate’s midfield. Bellingham grew in stature after he became England’s second-youngest scorer at a World Cup and was soon rolling through the challenges to combine with Harry Kane when the captain set up Raheem Sterling for the third goal.
It is all good news for Kane. Southgate has often relied on him and Sterling for goals, but there is another threat for defenders to think about now. They know Bellingham will be coming at some point. They will try to stop him but in this instance the hype looks justified. Bellingham is a star, a marketing dream, who will be coveted by every top club in Europe next summer, and his emergence has given Southgate every reason to dream.