This is not England. Those goals were not English goals. That calm, assured, comfortable victory against Senegal was not the work of Englishmen. And that run, that kid, that bizarre freak of nature could not possibly be wearing a Three Lions jersey.
Who the hell is Jude Bellingham? He hasn’t arrived from the Bundesliga. He was part of a swap deal, surely, at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The aliens took one of ours. We took the toddler with a ball at his feet, outrunning the mothership.
And when I say, “we”, it’s not a royal “we”, or the “we” of England. In this instance, we are the world. We are the ones watching Bellingham make a brighter day for all of us. The 19-year-old has swaggered into Qatar like Al Pacino’s Scarface on Miami Beach. He wants the world and everything in it.
There is nothing remotely English about any of this incongruous behaviour. Normally, the Three Lions treat the World Cup trophy like the cast of Downton Abbey arguing over the last teacake. Oh, they couldn’t possibly take it. Yes, it’s right there, on a plate, but good heavens, no, that would be a most vulgar gesture. Please, help yourself Brazil, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Uruguay and Croatia. We had a slice in 1966. We’re fine. Knock yourselves out.
Of course, England knocked themselves out, defeated by one internal crisis of confidence after another as they settled snugly into their roles as nearly men.
So again, who on earth was that aberration in central midfield? For England’s second goal, he collected possession just outside his own box and listened to them all: Pele, Cruyff, Maradona and all those other demented geniuses who insisted that football was a simple game. Its beauty derives from its simplicity.
Bellingham just started running. And didn’t stop. He turned into a kid dashing along a travelator for the first time, giddy at the sudden realisation that he’s moving faster than everyone else. He was both maverick and mathematician, calculating angles and distance, in real time, before releasing Phil Foden.
Foden found Harry Kane. One touch. Kane found the net. Two touches. England have found the Midas touch. Too many times. It’s too much to take in. This is not England.
For the first half an hour, there were sightings of England. There were wobbles and fluffed passes, which served as a familiar security blanket. This was the England that we know and love to hate.
John Stones conceded possession. He also toiled to find his passing range as Gareth Southgate’s insistence on building patiently from the back led only to impatience around the stadium.
Harry Maguire also found a green shirt with a wayward pass, which led to a decent opportunity for Ismaila Sarr. Such incidents will be feasted upon by French coaches in the coming days. Kylian Mbappe is waiting for this England to show up.
Based on the law of averages, they usually do. Whether it’s the "golden generation" of the 2000s or Southgate’s Euro 2020 finalists, they inevitably revert to type. They withdraw. They hold back. They lose. They wallow in post-tournament martyrdom and release an updated version of “It’s Coming Home” to include the latest near miss. This is England.
But Bellingham doesn’t appear to know this England. He certainly didn’t get the memo in the Bundesliga. Maybe it’s a Germany thing, a nation programmed to win as a matter of routine and Bellingham absorbed the positive mindset by osmosis. Or maybe that’s rubbish – as Germany were against Japan – and the Three Lions are simply blessed with the best young midfielder of his generation, if not all time.
Will Southgate be emboldened to take the game to France?
Hang on, is hyperbole taking hold here? Not really. Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson, Paul Gascogine, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes would be the usual suspects in Bellingham’s sphere of influence, but he appears to have a full set of midfield skills. At 19.
That’s the difference. He won headers and tackles when England were poor in the first half, eviscerated the opposition when the contest was in the balance and dictated the tempo when the Three Lions were in control. It was a complete performance. At 19.
The French will fear this kid because he’s unrestrained and unpredictable, rare qualities not typically associated with Southgate’s selections and formations in the latter stages of these tournaments. Perhaps rightly, Southgate feels that the odd mistake from Stones or Maguire may not go unpunished by France.
The England manager’s safety-first approach makes him the most successful Three Lions manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, the obvious difference being that Bobby Charlton was always unrestrained and unpredictable in Ramsey’s line-ups. The Manchester United great had protection in Nobby Stiles. Their balance brought back the trophy.
But Bellingham has Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice, a fascinating midfield trio of gritty, annoying intelligence (Henderson) and tireless defensive cover (Rice), along with the most exciting teenager in world football since Mbappe. But a 4-3-3 formation will always gnaw away at Southgate’s conversative tendencies. A 4-3-3 leaves him a man down in midfield against the world champions. This is not England, not under Southgate.
And they are obvious underdogs against the French, increasing the dilemma, the uncertainty, for a fastidious manager who leaves nothing to chance.
But Bellingham is not a gamble. He’s a gift, a once-in-a-generation antidote for England’s years of austerity. He’s also the most consistent midfielder at Qatar 2022, a compelling reason, surely, to go big with the freak from the Bundesliga in the quarter-final.
Playing safe suits France. Playing safe panders to the stubborn mythology of England's mental fragility, tactical caution and too many years of hurt.
Building a 4-3-3 around Bellingham, on the other hand, allows Southgate to pick his best attacking line-up, based on form and talent, and put the objective of winning before not losing, just as they did against Senegal, so brilliantly.
This is not England, not typically anyway. But England always falter against elite opposition in the knockout stages so they might as well follow Bellingham’s lead.
And play like they’ve got nothing to lose.
England always falter against elite opposition in the knockout stages so they might as well follow Bellingham’s lead. And play like they’ve got nothing to lose.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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