I can’t wait to watch Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final between France and England because I think they have two young players at the top of their game: Kylian Mbappe and Jude Bellingham.
For me, Bellingham has been the star of every game in England. Sometimes he’s scoring, sometimes he’s passing, and the timing of his box-to-box runs is perfect. He’s in fine form and is coming into this tournament with the right confidence from a Borussia Dortmund side. You can tell he sees himself as a potential top player in the world and wants to show that at the World Cup.
I hope the media will be cautious with him, because we saw something similar with Dele Alli a few years ago, who is sometimes difficult to describe as a leader for club and country. For his development, it is important for everyone to protect Bellingham as it is clear he has a bright future in England.
His mentality — his focus, his determination to win — was out of whack at 19. In my career I’ve seen it mostly with South American players, Javier Mascherano (Argentina) is a good example, but I’ve also seen it with Spain’s Garvey in this tournament at this point. More young England players need what Bellingham has.
My favorite image against Senegal was him waiting to celebrate with Jordan Henderson after the first goal pass. That’s great.
Bellingham’s game intelligence and passing are also unbelievable. You could see that clearly in the way he created England’s second goal against Senegal. He first showed his desire to get the ball and then showed his strength when another defender tried to stop him in poor fashion while he was running at high speed.
When you see the counter-attack develop, Bellingham uses Harry Kane as protection to get the ball into the pitch. It wasn’t clear at first, but as the action progressed, he began to see it right in front of him.
Everything You Need to Know About Jude Bellingham
When you overtake in this situation, you’re always looking for where the overload is.
Bellingham is a very intelligent player, he knows that Phil Foden runs on his left and Kane runs from left to right. You could see two Senegalese defenders approaching from his right, and in that moment the clever player did what he did: he turned and passed the ball where his team dominated.
Maybe 50% of players would simply pass to Kane, but passing to Foden is the right way to open the game. Bellingham tried to move his left foot because he knew the overload would be there. Kane changed his running because of Foden, and he allowed Bellingham two runs:
If Bellingham stays on his right foot, the last defender can try to anticipate the pass to Kane. But on his left, defenders cannot ignore Foden. That’s untenable. I played at centre-back at Barcelona, we were always on the front foot, but when we gave up on the counter-attack, it was harder to control the midfield with two feet than with one.
You have to give Bellingham and the movement around him a lot of credit. Foden didn’t get inside and Kane tried to divert the defender’s attention. He showed Foden with his left foot that he would have the ball, and Kane knew he could keep running because he was not on the same level as the last defender:
Foden, with one touch on the ball, saw the space and gave Kane the chance to control and shoot instead of passing the ball in front of him, giving goalkeeper Edouard Mendy the chance to cut the ball away.
I can watch that move over and over again because it’s an example of the perfect counter.
An England midfield of Bellingham, Henderson and Rice suddenly makes sense
Not only is Bellingham dangerous with the ball at his feet. He understands that running without the ball is more important than running with the ball. When you have the ball, everyone’s looking at you, but running behind you, running unselfishly, can deflect defenders and create space for teammates in the right positions.
A lot of people never knew about my Barcelona team. They’re always talking about tiki-taka, but not just tiki-taka. It’s about the movement behind it. The action is imposing, the timing is just right, and there is no selfishness at all. Every run creates a gap – that’s how it is in football.
Bellingham scored against Iran, showing his ability to create space with unselfish runs.
Early in the move, he made a very dangerous run. You look at the space – Iran’s defense has stopped and the running is brilliant. If the ball passes, he is not offside.
But he doesn’t stop there. He is back. Harry Maguire can play a direct pass to Mason Mount and England have three players against two Iranian defenders:
The ball went to the left, which was the reason for the lack of communication from the Iranian defense, but Bellingham got himself into the right position at the right moment. Even with lower crosses, defenders are in trouble:
The goal reminded me of Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes; maybe more of Scholes – the big man who smells an opportunity, sees a hole in the defense and goes right in. These types of players force opponents to worry about more than strikers. They’ll have to worry about Bellingham, too, because he’s such a good run in the second line.
In the past we have seen England have midfielders like Lampard or Gerrard who can shoot from distance. Now we see players like Bellingham with different characteristics in terms of physical and technical ability, approaching the big names in other top countries. His eyesight was clear and he was intelligent. At the speed of the game, it is not easy to have such a vision.
He doesn’t look like a 19-year-old when I see him run and let his teammates open up the game, or when he has the ball. He looks like a long-term high-level player. His development is entirely due to Birmingham and Dortmund – Dortmund have been developing players brilliantly.
France will be a big test for England. They are a top team, 2018 World Cup winners, they are very well organized. It’s hard to break their openings in their 4-4-2. Individually they have quality, collectively they are very powerful. They’ve been playing together for six or seven years, and they’ve been consistent.
Mbappe is on fire, but so is Bellingham. That’s going head-to-head because those are the two players that can open up the game. His running will be crucial and England will need their other special talents, the emergence of Foden and Bukayo Saka, as well as more experienced players to guide them.
This game will determine whether they are confident of winning the World Cup. I hope Bellingham goes a long way in this game because he impressed me a lot. He’s going to be one of the best midfielders in the world and he’s already showing his talent.
We can see more from him, I’m 100% sure of that.
Bellingham is changing games and minds, a prodigy who can handle the hype
(Main image – Photo: Getty Images/Design: Eamonn Dalton)