February 3, 2023

AL WAKRAH, Qatar — When England returned to their Al Wakrah base in the early hours of Monday morning after beating Senegal 3-0 in the World Cup round of 16, they were greeted by what is a customary dance hotel welcome party become. staff and loud music. Jack Grealish shuffled with delight; Mason Mount’s beaming smile lit up the room. Somewhere in the fight, Jude Bellingham politely but emphatically just walked on and said, “I can’t move.”

The rest of the world would disagree. In fact, it’s pretty much the only time Bellingham has not central since arrival in Qatar. Ahead of a quarter-final meeting with defending champions France on Saturday, the 19-year-old threatens to become the breakout star of the tournament and revolutionize England’s midfield with a series of dynamic displays, while appearing delightfully oblivious to the size of the opportunity.

Bellingham was hardly a stranger prior to this World Cup as he has made rapid progress at Borussia Dortmund over the past 2½ years. His maturity was recognized in October by being named multi-match captain and becoming the youngest-ever skipper to score in the Champions League against Sevilla.

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Former club Birmingham City retired his number 22 shirt when he left in the summer of 2020, choosing Dortmund over Manchester United. Birmingham were ridiculed at the time for teenage Bellingham having only been in the first team for one season, but it’s starting to look like recognition is coming for the unique talent they had unearthed.

It is always a sign of the impression a player makes on a global scale when journalists from all over the world arrive at English press conferences asking questions about one person. Time and time again the focus in Qatar was on Bellingham and so the people in the camp tried to downplay it.

Phil Foden was a prime example of trying and failing to follow the party line in trying to avoid the kind of exaggeration that could put pressure on a teenager still making his way in the game. “I don’t want to make him too big because he’s still young,” Foden began after another Bellingham masterclass against Senegal, before adding: “But he’s one of the most gifted players I’ve ever seen. He has no weakness in his game. I think he will be the best midfielder in the world.”

Foden isn’t the only one who can’t help but get carried away. “I always say he is the future, but he is the present,” winger Bukayo Saka said, as England captain Harry Kane described Bellingham’s game as one without weaknesses.

Even Steve Holland, Gareth Southgate’s gentle and thoughtful assistant, was amazed at Bellingham’s versatile contribution to this tournament. “There are only three things you can do in football: stop goals, score goals, score goals,” he said on Monday. “That’s how you contribute. Jude can do all those things. And recently he’s been scoring goals, which makes the biggest players great. It’s a match-winning ability that he brings to his game.”

Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic labeled Bellingham as “the oldest 19-year-old I’ve ever seen”, and the maturity he’s shown in Qatar is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his development.

Little has fazed him. Only the United States flashed Bellingham in their 0-0 Group B clash, having identified him as the main threat in midfield. Gregg Berhalter’s own tireless trio – Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah – managed to nullify him to the point where he was drafted for Jordan Henderson.

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But in the other three games, Bellingham made groundbreaking contributions. He scored England’s opening goal of the tournament in a 6–2 win against Iran, and set up England’s first goal in the 3–0 win against Wales. Against Senegal, the way he drove forward, riding tackles before pulling off a perfectly timed pass in a counterattack that ended with Kane’s first goal in this final, felt like a career turning point. (He also assisted on Henderson’s goal, which opened the scoring.)

Bellingham threatens to dissolve a position England has struggled with for years. Central midfield has been England’s weakness, even in times of recent strength. They usually don’t keep the ball well enough against the best teams, and the familiar pattern of both their 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia and last summer’s Euro 2020 final to Italy underlined one of the few areas under development. Southgate still need improvement.

It has long been felt that England do not possess a Luka Modric or Marco Verratti player, someone with the intelligence to control a game, who almost acts like a metronome when necessary. Bellingham isn’t quite that type either, but he’s fast becoming the complete midfielder.

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Steve Nicol and Alejandro Moreno discuss how England will look to take on Kylian Mbappé when they face France.

From England’s first four matches, Bellingham has amassed one goal, one assist, a 93% strike rate (better only by John Stones and Declan Rice among England’s regulars), and 23 recoveries, more than any other England player. The composition of the English midfield is designed to get the best out of him. Southgate placed Henderson alongside Rice in a 4-3-3 form against Senegal as it gave Bellingham a little more safety to influence play in attacking areas.

France’s midfield has been weakened by pre-tournament injuries to N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, so Southgate has to weigh up how expansive he thinks England can be against the defending champions, but giving Bellingham as much room as possible to influence the game will be a play major role. in his thinking.

And it’s not just the French who are taking notice. The future of the Bellingham club has been the subject of much speculation, with talk of a transfer fee of €150 million. ESPN has previously reported that Liverpool are leading the race for his signature, but Real Madrid and Manchester City are among the clubs that have yet to give up hope.

The sight of Bellingham forming such a close bond with Liverpool’s Henderson on this trip is a positive for Southgate, but it could also be the same for Reds boss Jurgen Klopp, who has made the teenager his main midfield transfer target.

All European top clubs want him. Bellingham really has more moves than he thinks.

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