IAN LADYMAN: Gareth Southgate’s Jude Bellingham tactical tweak is the most impressive of his tenure
Gareth Southgate has made many tactical decisions during England’s steady rise to respectability in international football and beyond. Some were obvious, others more subtle.
But few have made such a dramatic and immediate impact as the one that changed Jude Bellingham’s role in his team in the wake of England’s only low point in the World Cup, the scoreless draw with the USA in the second leg of Group B.
It seems like a distant memory, but England were outplayed that night and outrun in midfield. Gregg Berhalter’s athletic young team could have won that game.
Jude Bellingham put in another superb performance in England’s victory over Senegal on Sunday
Gareth Southgate’s decision to push Bellingham further forward has had such a dramatic and immediate impact on England’s World Cup hopes.
And it was after that experience that Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland opted to move Bellingham further up the field and free him from defensive midfield responsibilities by selecting Jordan Henderson alongside Declan Rice for the game against Wales.
Two games, two wins and six goals later, Bellingham is now established as the rising star of this World Cup. The 19-year-old struck Senegal on Sunday night with the power of his running and the intelligence of his game.
All that remains to be seen now is whether Southgate – so often pigeonholed as conservative and pragmatic – has the courage to play in exactly the same way against world champions France on Saturday back at the Al Bayt Stadium.
When Southgate was asked about this yesterday, he was unusually candid. “Well, we always have to find the balance of the team,” he said. “We want to be positive and we feel like we’ve done that so far in this tournament.
We have energy in the team, we have legs in the team, we have depth in the team. So I don’t think we should drift too far from what we’ve been.’
Such frontal rhetoric will be music to the ears of those who came to this tournament, fearing that Southgate would stifle his team’s attacking capabilities with a three-man defense and a blanket in midfield.
The England midfielder, 19, has excelled and is now the rising star of this World Cup
The England coach certainly has some thinking to do. Despite his side eventually tearing Senegal to pieces on Sunday, England were poor for a first half hour in which centre-back Harry Maguire looked particularly unsure.
Southgate will be considering a return to three central defenders as he tries to deal with France’s attacking threat under superstar Kylian Mbappé. But it is clear to him that he does not want to do anything that could disrupt the rhythm that his team has suddenly found.
One of the many intriguing things about this World Cup is that we are now looking at a completely different version of England than anyone expected, and that includes the manager.
What hasn’t changed is Southgate’s belief in his players and his enthusiasm for the task. France may be nominally the best team in the world and Didier Deschamps’ side may prove that this new England is made of straw.
Southgate’s adjustment came after England’s sour draw with the US when the midfield struggled
Asked about Mbappé, Southgate said: “Look, he’s a world-class player who always produces the moments when they’re needed and that’s what those top players do. That is the challenge we face.’
But for now, Southgate is happy to enjoy the anticipation of what lies ahead and also look back on a childhood spent under the spell of a sport he has always loved.
One of his earliest football memories is of watching Bryan Robson score in just 27 seconds against France in the opening game of the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
“Bryan was my hero and I remember both goals he scored in that game,” said Southgate. ‘It was my first World Cup watching England. I was a midfielder who was not Bryan’s class, but I helped myself with a few goals.’
The 1982 England World Cup ended in the second group stage as key players Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking struggled with injuries and could not find the goal Ron Greenwood’s team needed to beat Spain and progress.
“I had the sticker albums and while I didn’t actually buy the World Cup singles, of course I know the songs,” he smiled. “I don’t know how Ron was perceived at the time, but they went out of that tournament without losing a game and you look back at the quality of the opponents they played against.
“I have that image in my head of Kevin and Trevor coming to the end when they weren’t quite fit and they were very, very close.”
If England is to progress in this competition, it will in all likelihood require a performance beyond what Southgate’s players have delivered to date. France is not perfect, but they are formidable.
“They have incredible talent,” said Southgate. “Of course they lost quite a few players before this tournament, but you look at the team and you look at the team. It’s still remarkably strong.
They are full of speed, they are compact and difficult to play against. You know the style of play you’re going to get and it’s a brilliant challenge for us now.’
England have never beaten a team of France’s caliber away from home in a major tournament, so – not for the first time in recent years – Southgate is trying to break new ground.
“We’ve made quite a bit of history in the last four or five years,” he smiled.
Southgate promised his exciting England side would stay on the front foot against France
The England boss also stressed the challenge of facing the ‘world class’ Kylian Mbappé
‘Not all good! But that’s the big challenge. If you look back at those tournaments, you’ll see the teams that knocked out England. We haven’t been able to do that, so that’s the next test for this team.
“There have been many times when playing with England has been difficult. It’s a different kind of challenge for your club. It’s much more control. So you have to be able to handle that. When we select players, we also look at their ability to cope mentally.
“Those young guys who came in show that. The team now has good experience with these big competitions. We had a lot of caps on the field, even the younger ones because we bleed them early on. And we have given them experiences.
“It means that the depth of the team, but also the experience on the field is better than it has been for a while.”
Only England’s reserve players were seen at their training camp south of Doha yesterday. Bellingham and the rest were inside, using the pool to take the stress off their legs from another demanding night of football.
The manager, however, was out on the grass in the sun. It’s starting to cool down here a bit as December approaches, but not much.
The heat of the World Cup, meanwhile, is intensifying and England is no longer a team in the shadows. Again they are exactly where they want to be.