Jude Bellingham is Gareth Southgate’s cheat code but other issues stifle England

Jude Bellingham is Gareth Southgate’s cheat code but other issues stifle England

A flawless record continues, with some blemishes. Gareth Southgate’s England again won a tournament opening game, on the fourth of four such occasions. This occasionally awkward 1-0 win over Serbia certainly wasn’t to the level of Germany’s 5-1 thrashing of Scotland, and will raise new questions over what England need to do to get to that level. Jude Bellingham, naturally the match-winner, is one of the few parts of this team where there is absolutely no doubt. His early headed goal was the perfect illustration of that. Beyond that, though, Southgate has a bit to think about.

He knew that himself, of course. The England manager warned on the eve of the game that not every team would start like Germany, and made a point of stating the number of issues he has inherited going into Euro 2024.

Any tournament is a voyage of discovery in that regard, but Southgate still has a lot to figure out.

The Trent Alexander-Arnold experiment didn’t work, and he was inevitably taken off. Harry Kane barely touched the ball outside one admittedly brilliant striker’s header. Phil Foden was a shadow of the player we’ve seen in the Premier League. Much of this is, of course, a response to other issues, not least in defence.

There, Marc Guehi was one of England’s brighter positives. He handled a difficult task flawlessly, while quelling some doubts about him with a fine aerial display. Serbia’s physical forwards didn’t get much out of him at all.

That should offer that touch more security, as Southgate seeks to build on this. That shouldn’t be forgotten either, of course.

England have won. They’re already more than halfway to qualifying in this 24-team system. While that should be taken as a given, it still helps the progress of a side. It also allows that bit more space to figure out more of this team.

Jude Bellingham was sublime in England’s win (EPA)
Jude Bellingham was sublime in England’s win (EPA)

Bellingham also looks like he’s going to offer solutions to a number of issues.

What is so striking about the Real Madrid midfielder is that total absence of hesitation or doubt. It’s all assurance all the time. He knew exactly what he wanted from his 12th-minute surge and got it. As England worked around the edges, Saka coursed through in that quicksilver way to clip a cross over, there was Bellingham to power home a header. It’s not a new thing to say this had shades of Bryan Robson but it was really all Bellingham.

That was much the same with England’s performance and certainly their attacking. There was an extended period when Bellingham was everywhere, although that wasn’t completely down to his own impetuousness. Some of it was from gaps in the team. It was just as well they had such a player to fill them.

There were many moments when it looked like he was doing both Alexander-Arnold’s job as the player there to play perceptive passes and also Kane’s as the goalscorer. The latter offered another concern in how he had just two touches in the first half and was constantly a passenger.

All of this became more pronounced as the early energy began to level off. It was just as well England had Bellingham’s early goal. Serbia began to pick more holes, and began to force a few openings.

Harry Kane struggled against Serbia, although did hit the bar late on (AFP)
Harry Kane struggled against Serbia, although did hit the bar late on (AFP)

There were at least three players that weren’t in the right position. Foden was maybe another. There was no one on the left, as Bellingham constantly came inside and then pretty much went everywhere. The only other real threat was Saka. Alexander-Arnold did have one moment of excellence in moving the ball on for a Kyle Walker burst, but there was a sense the midfield was too loose.

For all that the instinctive response is just to criticise Southgate here, some of these were changes forced upon him through absences, as he attempts to figure out a new team. So much is conditioned by the absence of a left-footed defender right now.

What was maybe less understandable here was why he persisted with it as the danger grew that Serbia would score. The obviousness of the issue was illustrated when England immediately improved with some belated changes.

Alexander-Arnold was hauled off for Conor Gallagher. Despite Southgate insisting that the Liverpool right-back in midfield was “special”, it remains to be seen whether he will return to this. And, for all that Gallagher offered an energy that had been missing, there is increasing evidence that Bellingham is maybe the player to use as No 8.

England head coach Southgate has some puzzles to solve before the next match (PA)
England head coach Southgate has some puzzles to solve before the next match (PA)

Kane finally showed some of his threat at No 9 when Jarrod Bowen was introduced. The West Ham United forward offered a sublime cross with his first touch, for Kane to power a header off Predrag Rajkovic’s fingertips and onto the bar.

Bar a few nervous moments, England were never properly troubled, though. Southgate had another opening win, if also a few new issues. He also has a new stand-out figure. The build-up to this game saw some commotion about how Bellingham has become part of the squad’s “leadership group”. That was a status he assumes naturally, much like the way he dominates a pitch.

This was his goal, his game, and it may yet be his tournament. Bellingham looks in the mood for that. The question is about the make-up of the team around him.