Bellingham is new England talisman but Southgate fears saviour syndrome

Estimated read time 6 min read

The big man is back or at least he is coming back. It is a situation we have lived before with England on the eve of a major tournament in Germany. For Wayne Rooney post-metatarsal at the 2006 World Cup, see Jude Bellingham, for different reasons, and Euro 2024.

It has been a draining week for Gareth Southgate, the dark clouds gathering as the manager prepared to make the final cuts to his squad, the anxiety unavoidable. It is football. But it is also people. The difficult decisions, especially the ones to omit Harry Maguire, Jack Grealish and James Maddison, the first of the trio for fitness reasons, were felt by everyone.

The idea was that the Wembley send-off against Iceland on Friday would represent a reset, but it went hard in the other direction. The result was bad, a surprise 1-0 defeat; the performance was worse. As Arsène Wenger used to say, the momentum builds slowly and can go quickly. Southgate was unhappy in the dressing room, making it clear that everything had to be better – particularly the mentality.

Perhaps the players were nervous about picking up an injury at the last; England kick off the finals against Serbia next Sunday. John Stones almost did, getting his foot trapped underneath the Iceland striker Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson as they went to ground in the first minute. Stones was able to continue, although he was withdrawn at half-time and left Wembley with a strapping on his right foot. Maybe there was worry in the back of minds. It was why the intensity was not there.

Southgate has fretted about a number of problems but after Iceland they seemed to be flushed into the public domain, the narrative taking in the search for someone to ride to the rescue. Which is where Bellingham – who was given additional leave after his involvement for Real Madrid in their Champions League final victory over Borussia Dortmund on last Saturday – comes in.

It is not difficult to present him as a talisman, given the spectacular season he has had for Madrid; how Southgate has regeared his system from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 to give him the No 10 role, as advanced a platform as possible. To fall into the trap of needing an individual saviour would be a grave mistake.

“We are not putting everything on Jude,” Southgate said. “We’ve got a lot of good players and it is a collective thing to go and try to win this tournament. If we are relying on one person that isn’t going to be a team that wins. I’m sure he will give the squad a lift but it is not his responsibility to do that. It is for all of us to get the focus right, to make sure individually our mentality is right.”

Southgate was asked whether he had as many questions about his squad before a tournament. “There are uncertainties, physically,” he said, mentioning that was why he had excluded Maguire and Jordan Henderson before that; getting straight to what is most bothering him.

A recap. Luke Shaw is the most obvious fitness concern; the hope is that the only specialist left-back will return to play some part in England’s second group game against Denmark on Thursday week. Like Maguire, he suffered a serious setback in his injury rehabilitation in training at Manchester United – not a good look for the club’s medical department.

Kieran Trippier and Marc Guéhi came back at the end of the Premier League season from long injury lay‑offs and have had to be managed carefully. Ditto Bukayo Saka and Anthony Gordon, who picked up knocks in the final week and returned against Iceland, the former as a substitute.

Harry Kane had a problem with his back and sat out Bayern Munich’s final two Bundesliga matches. He saw action in both warm-up friendlies. Southgate has also had to watch the loads of Stones, Kyle Walker, Phil Foden and Kobbie Mainoo after giving them time off after they played in the FA Cup final two weeks ago.

Is Bellingham 100% fit? It is probably a silly question at this stage of the season. Footballers are rarely pain-free, there is normally something hurting them and especially now after the accumulation of so many games. But it is easy to linger on how Bellingham leant against one of the goalposts in the 70th minute of the Champions League final to stretch out his calf, possibly feeling some cramp.

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On the night before the showpiece, he was pictured with a strapping on his shoulder; he had suffered a shoulder problem in November that ruled him out of a match for Madrid. Does the strapping indicate a problem? Bellingham was not at his best against Dortmund.

Jude Bellingham spends time with his parents in the stands before the Champions League final.View image in fullscreen

England’s difficulties against Iceland took in how open and vulnerable they were; the physical balance in the lineup was not right. When Iceland had the ball, they had more time to make their moves than they could have imagined. The question as to who plays with Declan Rice in midfield continues to pound. It was not Mainoo’s night in the position while it was interesting to see Trent Alexander-Arnold introduced at right-back in the 64th minute and not alongside Rice.

“Sometimes a performance like that can really sharpen the focus, sharpen the attention to the fundamentals of the game that have to be right,” Southgate said. “Maybe in the last few weeks we’ve talked a little bit too much about what we want to be with the ball and if you are not bright without the ball, which we weren’t, then you can have problems against any side.

“When you’re one game away from a tournament there is a little bit of not wanting to get injured and slightly different focus. I’ve played in those games myself.

“In the games we had at Middlesbrough [before the previous Euros in 2021] we won [against Austria and Romania] but they weren’t flowing performances with great intensity.

“I understand some of the reasons for it but equally it is a jolt at a good time for us because we’ll have to get that preparation next week spot on. It means we’ll have an edge to things, which we need.”


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