Jude Bellingham instantly displays why he can dominate this World Cup for England

The all-action midfielder played a massive part in breaking Iran’s resistance and helping the Three Lions to victory in their Group B opener

Mark Critchley
In Doha
Monday 21 November 2022 17:10 GMT
England team kneel before first World Cup game

Do you remember the release of Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love”? What about Wayne Rooney’s England debut in a friendly defeat to Australia at Upton Park? Or when sensational pop duo Jemini, representing the United Kingdom, scored nul points and finished in last place in the Eurovision Song Contest?

I guess what we’re actually asking is: do you want to feel old? Because if you remember one or all of those things, Jude Bellingham doesn’t.

The great new hope of England’s midfield is not old enough to buy a pint in the rooftop bar of one of Doha’s luxury hotels, even if he wanted to pay the prohibitively expensive prices – his 21st birthday still being more than a good 18 months away – but he is finally of an age where Gareth Southgate feels comfortable starting him in the opening game of a World Cup campaign, and of the maturity to own such an occasion.

Bellingham’s first England goal is England’s first goal of this World Cup, his 35th-minute header breaking Iran’s resistance and breaking the back of an awkward, attritional game up until that point.

The third-youngest starter at a World Cup finals in England’s history did not need to do much to convert an immaculate cross from the second-youngest Luke Shaw. His off-the-ball movement had already allowed him to drift into the penalty area undetected. All that was left was to guide the ball over Iran’s helpless second-choice goalkeeper.

It was the high point of Bellingham’s night but this was a performance of more than simply scoring your first international goal. It was one of substance too.

The Borussia Dortmund midfielder’s first half was literally perfect – he ended it with a 100 per cent pass completion rate, despite Iran’s best efforts to disrupt England’s long spells of possession.

Bellingham maintained that perfect record until nine minutes after the re-start, when a driving run to the byline almost saw him produce a clear-cut chance.

He had by that point already played a key part in England’s third, as another burst through traffic in the middle of the park provided space to slip in Kane, a cute, toe-poked pass opening a new avenue of attack, just as he seemed to be getting crowded out.

It was moments like that where Bellingham reminded the Khalifa International Stadium that, despite still being an adolescent, he is England’s closest thing to a complete midfielder. His shirt number tells you that much.

No 22 may come a long way down Southgate’s 26-man squad list but it is the number Bellingham wears at club level and was the only one that Bellingham was ever going to wear at this tournament. As a teenager coming up through Birmingham City’s academy, a disgruntled young tyro wanted more opportunities playing as a No 10. His coaches had other ideas. They thought he was doing himself a disservice. He was a No 4, a No 8 and a No 10 all in one. He was, in other words, a No 22.

It is an idea that followed Bellingham throughout his career, all the way to Westphalia. Last season at Dortmund, he was deployed in several different midfield roles – as one of the double pivots in a 3-4-3, as the shuttling player on the outside of a diamond, or as one of the No 8s in a 4-3-3.

Bellingham looked the closest thing to England’s complete midfielder (AFP/Getty)

Southgate is known to flit between systems himself, took note of this tactical versatility and it is perhaps no coincidence that since displaying such tactical flexibility, he seems to have moved ahead of Kalvin Phillips in the pecking order to partner Declan Rice.

And with all respect to the midfield pairing that led England to a first major tournament final in 55 years, Bellingham’s ascension to starting status offers something different, something that Southgate’s England had perhaps needed.

At the turn of the year, the 19-year-old’s only competitive 90 minutes had come against San Marino. He has now started six of England’s last seven. He could still be there a decade from now. Welcome to the age of Jude Bellingham, est 2003.

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