Soccer

Jude Bellingham is ready to be the present and the future of England’s midfield

There is a story behind why Jude Bellingham normally wears the No 22 shirt and it illustrates why England should be excited about their teenage midfield prodigy. When coming up through Birmingham City’s academy, Bellingham was eager to be fashioned into a No 10, sitting off a striker and letting all the attacking play run through him. Mike Dodds, Birmingham’s head of development, disagreed.

“We sat down with him and we said: ‘We think you’re doing yourself a disservice, we think you can do all of it’,” Dodds told talkSPORT earlier this year. “We said we thought he could be a holding midfielder, or a four. We thought he could be a box-to-box, which is an eight. And we thought he could be a scorer and a creator, so a 10.” For those not particularly blessed when it comes to mental arithmetic, add the numbers up and you get 22.

Ever since those conversations with his mentors at St Andrews, Bellingham has taken on that vision of him developing into a complete, all-round central midfielder who does not easily fit into one category. And although he was sporting the No 7 at Wembley on Sunday, in the hour he spent on the pitch, he showed why his youth coaches had such faith in his precocious ability.

This was supposed to be an evening in which Gareth Southgate would began to solve one selection headache. Instead, it may have created another. Whereas Trent Alexander-Arnold understandably looked a little uncomfortable in his unfamiliar central role, which he will require more time in if he is to become a legitimate midfield option, Bellingham ran the first half of this World Cup qualifier on the opposite side.

Nobody should get carried away, of course, and the standard of the opposition has to be taken into account. Andorra has a smaller population than the suburb of Wembley itself and they are ranked 156th in the world. As with the 5-0 win over San Marino in March, there is a question mark over how much can really be gleaned from these routine walkovers against microstates.

Bellingham did not need to play well here to prove his ability to anyone. Those within the England camp are already fully aware of what a talent they have on their hands, and his display was merely a reminder to the Wembley crowd of performances they can look forward to. His role in the opening goal, delicately dragging the ball back under his foot to avoid pressure from Andorra’s Chus Rubio then laying off to Jesse Lingard to set up an attack, was not even his best moment.

That came earlier, after seven minutes, when he was knocked to the ground near the corner flag with his back to goal. Despite falling under the weight of Marc Vales’s challenge, he protected the ball and retained possession, rising to his feet to whip the ball away from Rubio, then nutmegged Ludovic Clemente to escape from out of the Andorran pressure. Again, the standard of opposition must be taken into account, but it had Wembley in raptures.

Bellingham in action for England against Andorra

That is nothing unusual, though. In fact, it was eerily similar to a piece of skill that Bellingham in the colour of Borussia Dortmund recently pulled while playing against Hoffenheim. He has started the Bundesliga campaign brilliantly, scoring and assisting in that 3-2 win. Southgate and his coaching staff are aware that they are working with an 18-year-old who is already a Champions League-level midfielder. There is no question about that. The only question, maybe, is how he will fit into this England side when his time eventually comes.

There are now just around 14 months until the World Cup in Qatar. This is the first of six international windows that Southgate will have with his players before then. Half of those will have been and gone by the end of the year. There is not as much time for new faces to force their way into his thinking. Should England qualify, it is likely that the line-up for their first group game will look a lot like those that reached the final of the European Championship.

Bellingham has stiff competition on his hands to break into Southgate’s trusted starting line-up before then. Declan Rice already feels like a mainstay in this side and part of a fixed spine, including Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and Harry Kane. Kalvin Phillips has established himself too, being named England’s player of the year this week. Both players have the defensive steel that Southgate has sought from his midfield, while Phillips will pass and create as well as press and harry opponents.

Yet ask those who have guided Bellingham’s development over the past few years and they will tell you that he can do all that and more. This may have only been Bellingham’s second international start, and as part of a decidedly second-string line-up, but it will be no surprise if by the time of Qatar, he is challenging to be first choice.

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