Whenever England exit a major competition, you often find newspapers and websites – just for a bit of fun – trying to guess what the next tournament squad might look like. Leafing back through the predictions from three years ago, offers a pretty decent snapshot of which players were expected to kick on: those whose ascent was foreseen and those who came largely out of nowhere.
Most correspondents correctly expected England’s Euro 2020 squad to be based around the core who went to Russia. The near‑unanimous inclusion of Dele Alli is an indication of just how far his stock has fallen. There were high hopes for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Joe Gomez, Ryan Sessegnon. Quite a few took a punt on Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho. But there is one name absent; largely because he had just turned 15 years old.
Probably not even Jude Bellingham would have predicted then he would be in line to start England’s next tournament game, at Wembley against Croatia next Sunday. At the time he was still making his way through Birmingham’s academy system: certainly on many clubs’ scouting radar, but still a flicker of a twinkle of a ghost of a talent. Yet it is a measure of Bellingham’s remarkable rise that his promotion now feels imminent, inevitable, perhaps even forced.
The injury to Jordan Henderson, who has not started since February, remains a concern. Even if he can prove his fitness in the next week, it feels increasingly unwise to throw him straight into the fondue pot of tournament football. Bellingham deputised superbly against Austria on Wednesday. And even if he is unlikely to play 90 minutes in England’s final warm-up against Romania on Sunday afternoon, the Borussia Dortmund midfielder may already have established himself as the frontrunner for a starting berth. At which point, for all the popular clamour to throw him in, it is probably worth thinking this through just a bit.
Because replacing Henderson with Bellingham, as simple as it sounds, is about as far from a like-for-like swap as it is possible to imagine. It is a decision with implications for how England move the ball, how they defend, the sort of tactics they can pursue and their likelihood of success. It could, in short, be a change that defines England’s tournament.
It is not simply in terms of age that Henderson and Bellingham are polar opposites. For all Bellingham’s remarkable maturity that meant he embedded himself at the heart of one of Europe’s best teams at the age of 17, they are fundamentally different types of midfielder, in fundamentally different sorts of teams. Henderson’s role with Liverpool and England over the past few years has essentially been one of retention, containment and discipline: shielding the back four, deterring counterattacks and, above all, keeping possession at all costs.
Bellingham’s game is wired a little differently. His passing and positional sense are extremely good. But at Dortmund, he has the responsibility not simply to sit and screen but to get forward and create: carrying the ball, breaking the lines, playing through balls, offering an aerial threat at set pieces.
Of the four central midfielders in England’s squad – Henderson, Bellingham, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips – he takes, by far, the most shots, attempts the most dribbles, makes the most incursions into the penalty area.
This makes him an ideal fit for Dortmund’s relentless high-tempo game. “He’s always there when we need him,” says his manager, Edin Terzic. Bellingham says he likes to “get stuck in” and it is this intrepid, combative, all-action style that has endeared him to coaches and fans alike. But – and there is a but – Bellingham’s all-round excellence comes with drawbacks.
He tackles a lot. This sounds like a good thing and often his ball-winning ability generates attacking openings, as with England’s winning goal against Austria. But it also means he fouls a lot – as much as Henderson, Phillips and Rice combined, which is not necessarily what you want in a tournament scenario with unfamiliar referees.
His bravery on the ball means he loses it more frequently and occasionally plays teammates into trouble. His eagerness to get forward – often via quick one-twos in the centre of midfield – can leave him vulnerable to opposition counters. Southgate observed he “runs more than he needs to at times”, which is why he got cramp towards the end of Wednesday’s game.
None of this is a problem in itself. But it is a significant trade-off, particularly if England are going to play Bellingham in a midfield two behind a four-man attack, as they did against Austria. Bellingham/Rice is by definition a more dynamic and vertical midfield than Henderson/Rice, a more aggressive and ambitious and exciting midfield too. But it comes with its own vector of risk, one Southgate will have to weigh up carefully according to the opponent and the situation.
We may not discover all the answers against Romania. After missing out on Euro 2020 in the play-offs, Mirel Radoi’s team are now on a run of three successive defeats, and most recently lost at home to Georgia. They have a smattering of talent – the craft of Nicolae Stanciu in midfield, the enterprise of Ianis Hagi (son of Gheorghe) further forward, their captain and former Tottenham defender Vlad Chiriches. But let’s not mince words here. They’re pretty bad.
The moment of truth may have to wait until next weekend. Do you plump for the more experienced Phillips? Do you take a punt on Henderson’s fitness? Do you play Bellingham but encourage him to rein it in? Do you keep him back as a gamechanging substitute? Or, in England’s biggest home game in a generation, against a midfield of Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, do you staff the most congested area of the pitch with two players who have a combined age of 39?
Whatever Southgate decides will tell us plenty: not just about how he wants England to play, but how lucky he feels.