Jude Bellingham's Real Madrid position offering Gareth Southgate's England a new dimension
Despite what his detractors may have you believe, Gareth Southgate has turned the Three Lions into one of the best teams in the world. A semi-final at the 2018 World Cup, a quarter-final in Qatar, the country's first European Championship final inbetween, where only a penalty shoot-out stopped them lifting the trophy.
Still it felt like there was something missing.
In those biggest of big games, England just lacked that extra ingredient to break down Croatia, France and Italy.
One of the best teams in the world, one of the best in Europe, certainly, felt like selling a squad so packed with talent – admittedly not as evenly spread as anyone would ideally like – short.
Now, courtesy of Jude Bellingham, England have that little bit extra.
They had Bellingham in Qatar, but that was Bellingham the box-to-box midfielder. This season's version plays in the hole behind the striker.
They had a world-class player before – Harry Kane, golden boot winner in 2018 – and no shortage of flair players – Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and more recently James Maddison – but within Southgate's 3-4-2-1, then 4-3-3, it just felt a bit too rigid, too restrained.
Then Bellingham moved to Real Madrid.
Southgate has been very lucky he has world-class managers to show him how to get the best out of some of his players – Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp with Trent Alexander-Arnold, Pep Guardiola's use of John Stones at Manchester City.
Carlo Ancelotti has unlocked something extra in the versatile Bellingham by playing him as Madrid's “No 10” between the lines of midfield and attack. Ten goals in his first 10 appearances basically forced Southgate's hand – 4-2-3-1 it is.
From there, Bellingham seized the European Championship qualifier against Italy and dragged England to a 3-1 win.
The 20-year-old showed leadership and a fondness for the big stage reminiscent of Wayne Rooney in 2004 or Michael Owen in 1998. As the fantastically-gifted Gianfranco Zola remarked afterwards, he “was still drinking milk from my mum” at that age, although when Bellingham burst out laughing he did add, red-faced: “not directly”.
It was Bellingham who won the penalty Kane was presented with to cancel out Gianluca Scamacca's sloppily-conceded opener and we all know how Harry Kane penalties pan out when he is wearing the Three Lions. First ones, anyway.
It was Bellingham's tackle, run and pass that released Rashford – possibly England's last wunderkind – to score the second.
It was by no means Bellingham's first good game for England, nor his first big game. This one felt significant, though, albeit not as significant as if he plays like that in a knockout game in Germany, by which time Madrid may well have got him some experience of playing at the sharp end of the Champions League.
“It’s all about delivering,” said the Midlander, and it applies as much to him as it does the master qualifiers yet to win a major tournament since 1966 and all that. “It’s all about when the time comes, being there, being present, being ready to take on the challenge.”
Suddenly, with Maddison growing in confidence at Tottenham Hotspur, Bukayo Saka blossoming into one of the best right wingers there is, Declan Rice getting new experiences alongside him at Arsenal, Alexander-Arnold's development as a midfielder giving more scope to his great passing ability and fewer headaches about how to shoehorn him into the side, and Stones an option to step out of defence, Southgate has more cards to play. Kane, Kyle Walker and Jordan Pickford remain bankers.
“There’s a great mix of experience who guide us throughout the game and throughout the camps and there is a belief that we could do something special,” commented Bellingham who, with 27 caps already, is hardly as callow as his birth certificate says he ought to be.
A little more competition in central defence, goal, holding midfield and for Luke Shaw when he gets fit would be lovely but maybe we should not get too greedy. Every international squad has holes.
It will mean nothing if England fall short again at the sharp end of what could be Southgate's farewell tournament, but he has done the hard yards creating a framework and a squad of players who seem to regard playing for their country as a privilege, not a favour to the nation and the people managing their brands as it sometimes felt during the Golden Generation.
There have been times during Southgate's seven-year reign – in the games where quality really counts – that England have once more not quite looked the sum of their parts. Bellingham in particular has the potential to change that.
Please God let his metatarsals stay in one piece until July 15.