England’s Bellingham shows he can bend Euro 2024 to his will

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — The handful of players in each generation capable of defining major tournaments perform with a ruthless sense of purpose while maintaining freedom of expression.

Jude Bellingham is a long way from moulding Euro 2024 in his own image, but the opening 45 minutes of England‘s 1-0 win over Serbia was the most exciting evidence yet that, amid widespread hype, he may just be capable of it.

England manager Gareth Southgate summed it up best: “He writes his own script.” This was the all-action 20-year-old the Three Lions have been crying out for, the supercharged Real Madrid version who has just spent his debut year in Spain collecting the two biggest prizes available to him by winning LaLiga and the Champions League.

Comparisons like this are palpably premature given the formative nature of these finals, but there were shades of Wayne Rooney in 2004 here in Gelsenkirchen: the combative bulldog spirit, the willingness to take the ball, win tackles and even body check Serbia’s Filip Kostic in a physical manifestation of the way he had taken this game by the scruff of the neck.

England lost their opening game 20 years ago, but Rooney had left his mark on France and alerted the rest to his talent. He scored four goals in his first three games but was forced off injured as England lost in the quarterfinals on penalties. Their chance that summer went with him, and some will feel Bellingham holds a similar importance to their aspirations now.

Rooney would move from Everton to Manchester United that summer, and so Bellingham is already further advanced at club level, but the individual international achievements are already mounting. His 13th-minute header, which proved the winning moment, was a show of bravery and quality to meet Bukayo Saka‘s deflected cross and it meant Bellingham became only the second player to score at the World Cup and Euros before turning 21, along with Michael Owen.

England were composed, dominant and authoritative in that opening half. If that offered hope that they could justify pre-tournament favouritism, the second period raised familiar concerns about their ability to maintain that control and close out winning positions.

The 64th minute felt indicative. Bellingham went to press Serbia’s defenders but quickly found himself outmanoeuvred as no teammate joined him to hunt down the ball. He threw his arms out in frustration, desperate for England to regain the initiative. Southgate’s substitutions helped to an extent, Conor Gallagher replaced the fading Trent Alexander-Arnold while Jarrod Bowen came on and almost immediately crossed for Harry Kane, only for the England captain to be denied as Serbia goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic turned his 77th-minute header onto the crossbar.

Dusan Vlahovic forced Jordan Pickford into a save late on as Serbia threatened to snatch a point, but England held firm, Marc Guéhi excelling at centre-back and Declan Rice robust as ever in midfield.

Bellingham’s pugnacious attitude continued after the final whistle when the “game of two halves” argument was put to him in a news conference following his Player of the Match award.

“I don’t agree with that,” he said. “I think the first half shows why we can score against any team and the second half shows how we can keep a clean sheet against any team.

“I think commonly with the team there is a negative feeling around all our games, sometimes rightly so, but I think in this case you take the positives from maybe, OK, we had to hold on at times and suffer a little bit, but when you keep a clean sheet, all you have to do is score one goal to win a game.

“It’s three points, I think this team is still so new, gelling together with every game. Inside the changing room we’ll be happy with that.”

Of course, that defiance is what leaders do. Southgate revealed on the eve of this game that Bellingham had joined England’s new-look leadership group — also comprising Kane, Rice and Kyle Walker — and his force of personality is what could drive England to overcome the inhibitions that seemed to restrict them in the second half.

The Three Lions began to turn possession over cheaply, drop deeper and lose their composure. Southgate explained this in part by fatigue arising from a lack of 90 minutes in the legs of many players. Regardless, Alexander-Arnold, given the nod in a reshaped midfield, did not entirely convince and further work is needed.

“This team is still coming together,” Southgate said after the match. “Everyone is expecting us to waltz through but there is a lot of hard work ahead.

“We’re short of certain things. We’re finding best possible solutions. We’ve had a very complicated run-in to all of this but the spirit of the group was there for everybody to see tonight and we’ll definitely grow from that.”

The coming together that Southgate said England is still doing can now be done from a position of a strength, having won their first game at a Euros for only the second time in ten attempts. Both of those victories came under Southgate, and he has now won his first game at all four tournaments — a further reminder that amid the current debate over his suitability to continue in his role as manager, that he has overseen an extended period of progress that stands as an outlier in England’s history.

The manager appears to have settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation over a 4-3-3 to give Bellingham the best chance of impacting the game as a No. 10. Phil Foden seemingly suffered as a result, subdued off the left in a manner Saka was not on the right, the Arsenal winger extending his England record to a remarkable 27 goal involvements from 24 appearances.

It might all just be worth it if Bellingham can repeat — and extend — the opening half here. Nothing seems to faze him.

“I just enjoy playing football,” Bellingham said. “I feel like in every game I can make an impact. I feel like I can decide games.

“The truth is I really enjoy playing football, so when I go out there, I play with a fearlessness because I love doing it so much. It’s a release for me. It’s my favourite thing the world. It doesn’t feel like a job, it’s a pleasure.”

If it’s still a pleasure July 15, England will truly have a new hero on their hands.

First appeared on www.espn.com

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