AL WAKRAH, Qatar — When England arrived back at their Al Wakrah base in the early hours of Monday morning after beating Senegal 3-0 in the World Cup round of 16, they were greeted by what has become a customary welcome party of dancing hotel staff and loud music. Jack Grealish shuffled in delight; Mason Mount‘s beaming smile lit up the room. Somewhere in the melee, Jude Bellingham politely, but pointedly just walked straight through, saying “I’ve got no moves.”
The rest of the world would disagree. In fact, it’s virtually the only time Bellingham has not taken centre stage since arriving in Qatar. Ahead of a quarterfinal meeting with defending champions France on Saturday, the 19-year-old is threatening to become the tournament’s breakout star, revolutionising England’s midfield with a series of dynamic displays, all while appearing delightfully oblivious to the magnitude of the occasion.
Bellingham was hardly an unknown prior to this World Cup, having progressed rapidly in the past 2½ years at Borussia Dortmund. His maturity was recognised in October by being named captain for multiple matches and becoming the youngest skipper ever to score in the Champions League against Sevilla.
Former club Birmingham City retired his No. 22 shirt when he departed in the summer of 2020, choosing Dortmund over Manchester United. Birmingham were ridiculed at the time because the teenage Bellingham had been in the first-team for just one season, but it’s starting to look like due recognition of the unique talent they had unearthed.
It is always a sign of the impression a player is making on a global scale when journalists from around the world arrive at England news conferences and ask about one individual. Time and again, the focus in Qatar has been on Bellingham and consequently, those within the camp have tried to play it down.
Phil Foden was a prime example of trying and failing to toe the party line in seeking to avoid the sort of hyperbole that could heap pressure on a teenager still making his way in the game. “I don’t want to big him up too much because he is still young,” Foden began after another Bellingham masterclass against Senegal, before adding: “But he’s one of the most gifted players I have ever seen. He has no weakness in his game. I think he will be the best midfielder in the world.”
Foden isn’t the only one who can’t help but get carried away. “I always say he’s the future, but he’s the present,” said winger Bukayo Saka, while England captain Harry Kane describes Bellingham’s game as one with “no weakness.”
Even Steve Holland, Gareth Southgate’s mild-mannered and considered assistant, marvelled at Bellingham’s all-round contribution at this tournament. “There’s only three things that you can do in football: stop goals, make goals, score goals,” he said on Monday. “That’s how you contribute. Jude can do all of those things. And recently, he has begun to score goals which is the bit that makes the biggest players big. It’s a match-winning ability that he is adding to his game.”
Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic labelled Bellingham as “the oldest 19-year-old I have ever seen,” and the maturity he’s shown in Qatar has been perhaps the most impressive aspect of his development.
Very little has fazed him. Only United States made Bellingham blink in their 0-0 Group B clash, as they’d identified him as the key midfield threat. Gregg Berhalter’s own tireless trio — Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah — managed to nullify him to the extent that he was withdrawn for Jordan Henderson.
But in the other three matches, Bellingham has delivered game-changing contributions. He scored England’s opening goal of the tournament in a 6-2 win against Iran, and set up England’s first goal in the 3-0 win against Wales. Against Senegal, the manner in which he drove forward, riding tackles before executing a perfectly timed pass in a counterattack that ended with Kane’s first goal at these finals, felt like a watershed moment in his career. (He also assisted on Henderson’s goal, which opened the scoring.)
Bellingham is threatening to solve a position England have struggled with for years. Central midfield has been England’s weakness even in times of recent strength. They habitually do not keep the ball well enough against the best sides, and the familiar pattern to both their 2018 World Cup semifinal defeat to Croatia and last summer’s Euro 2020 final loss to Italy underlined one of the few areas still needing improvement under Southgate.
It has long been felt that England do not possess a Luka Modric or Marco Verratti style of player, someone with the intelligence to control a game, almost acting like a metronome, if required. Bellingham is not quite that type either, but he is rapidly becoming the complete midfielder.
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From England’s first four matches, Bellingham has amassed one goal, one assist, a 93% pass completion rate (bettered only by John Stones and Declan Rice among England’s regulars) and 23 ball recoveries, more than any other England player. The composition of England’s midfield has been designed to get the best from him. Southgate included Henderson alongside Rice in a 4-3-3 shape against Senegal because it allowed Bellingham a little more safety to go and affect play in attacking areas.
The France midfield has been weakened by the pretournament injuries to N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, so Southgate must weigh up how expansive he feels England can be against the defending champions, but giving Bellingham as much scope to influence play as possible will factor highly into his thinking.
And it’s not just the French that have taken notice. Bellingham’s club future is the subject of considerable speculation, with talk of a €150 million transfer fee. ESPN has previously reported that Liverpool are leading the race for his signature, but Real Madrid and Manchester City are among the clubs yet to give up hope.
The sight of Bellingham forming such a close bond with Liverpool’s Henderson on this trip is a positive for Southgate, but it might also be the same for Reds boss Jurgen Klopp, who has made the teenager his top midfield transfer target.
Europe’s elite clubs all want him. Bellingham really does have more moves than he thinks.