There was an England before Jude Bellingham and there is this England – with Jude Bellingham.
The form and ability of the Borussia Dortmund player could lead to a completely different strategy for Gareth Southgate as he plans to go against world champions France.
According to most experts, Bellingham has been England’s best player in Qatar. It is so easy to forget that he is only 19 years old and this is his first World Cup.
He now has more international caps – 21 – than years on the planet.
He was 12 years old when England last beat France, in 2015. England’s last competitive win against Les Blues came to La Tournoi in 1997 – six years before Bellingham was born.
It’s no exaggeration to say that young Jude’s joyous explosion onto the international scene could well change Southgate’s pre-tournament plans for tackling this World Cup quarter-final.
The England boss has always been cautious in knockout matches, with an emphasis on defensive strength – especially against better opponents. He likes to use three central defenders – protected by two defensive midfielders – to make it very difficult for the opponent to break England down.
It’s a tactic that has been much criticized, but which served England very well in Russia four years ago and at the European Championship nineteen months ago. Southgate is historically justified.
On the most recent occasions, England played ‘top spot’ – Italy and Germany in the Nations League in September – Southgate opted for three centre-backs.
However, England did not win either match – they lost 1–0 to Italy and drew 3–3 against Germany.
Against the same two teams in June, Southgate opted for a back-four and England drew both games.
At the European Championships two summers ago, the England boss again opted for a back-three as they beat Germany in the last 16 and then drew (but ultimately lost on penalties) to Italy in the final.
In all seven games of the last World Cup, Southgate lined up with England and adopted a back-three.
To sum it all up, if you analyze the matches from the start of the last World Cup in Russia to the start of this World Cup in Qatar, England have played 23 games against teams from the top 15 in FIFA. Southgate has three centre-backs in 14 of those matches – that’s 61 per cent.
So it’s clear which formation Southgate has chosen to go against the best teams in the world. As it looks very likely before the World Cup that England will take on France in the quarter-finals, I suspect he intended to do the same against Didier Deschamps’ team.
But, as we said at the beginning, that plan did not account for Bellingham’s emerging brilliance. This fact is crucial to the debate – of those 23 games against top opposition, the teenager started in only two of them.
Had he played so well – and been available for more of those games – Southgate might have opted for a 4-3-3 more often.
If Southgate returned to a 3-4-3 or 5-2-3 formation at Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday night, he would have to sacrifice a midfielder.
So, with only two in midfield, that would mean Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson or Bellingham have to fall.
Even assuming that Bellingham kept his place in midfield two, his expansive, dominant style would have to be curtailed.
When he made his debut against the Republic of Ireland two years ago – and in the games that followed – Southgate told Bellingham he needed to get a little deeper and be more positionally disciplined.
But the England manager, like the watching public, has now realized that this does not work in Bellingham’s favour.
He is a traditional box-to-box No. 8, with great energy and the ability to influence attacks and score goals, just as effective as he interrupts opponents’ moves and wins back possession.
You need three midfielders to get the best out of Bellingham. Southgate also admitted that when he said after the win in Senegal: “We thought Jordan… (is) gives Jude a little bit more freedom. He doesn’t have to be so positionally disciplined.”
Whatever formation Southgate choose against the world champions, it will be a big decision for the manager. Or he will return to the tried and true line-up that took England to a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final, but which does not prioritize the ‘Bellingham factor’ and which has worked so well. for England in Qatar.
Or he sticks to the 4-3-3 and abandons the set-up that was always present in Russia and was used with great success against the best teams in the final of the European Championship, when England went all the way to the final.
A tough choice either way, but it’s pretty clear most England pundits and fans hope he chooses the latter.