England’s second goal just before half-time at Al Bayt Stadium, the goal that killed this World Cup last-16 tie, was a pure Jude Bellingham moment. Watching the three white England shirts surge and veer like an aerial display team across that wide-open lozenge of green, it almost felt like a moment of show-Bellingham, a gloss to go with all the close-quarter moments in between, the moments of graft that had kept England in this game in its early stages.
This, though, was pure cinema. England had been flat at times in the first half against Senegal, had seemed to be playing with a tension headache. But they were 1-0 up when Bellingham picked the ball up forty yards from his own goal, shrugged his way into space, and looked up. You could almost hear the whirr of maths being crunched, lanes and distances overlaid, prelude to a moment of calculated abandon as Bellingham surged for the open space, sensing the tender point in front of him.
This was a cold decision, a calculated piece of timing. But it also just looked like fun, the pure pleasure in finding no resistance, of being able to move through all that lighted space. And Bellingham can move.
He has that easy, lengthening stride, a man who always seems to be running downhill. He veered away from one green shirt, bumped another off, then funnelled the perfect pass into Phil Foden’s path, haring away down the left. Foden knew what to do. The pass inside was perfect to Harry Kane, who, frankly, just wasn’t capable of missing this.
It wasn’t really a finish, more a release of anger, a goal-vomit, the ball smashed into a spot close to the centre of the net with an audible shout. And it was fitting that Bellingham should make it, should have provided the key part in the key moment of a game that might have run away from England early on, but which ended in a disarmingly routine 3-0 victory. Because he was magnificent in those difficult moments, a source of control when it felt like this thing was close to the edge.
This is a player who can basically do anything, who has the full quiver of midfield skills, who can pass and score and dribble, who can set the tempo or disrupt it.
And of course, as we know, he can surge. And that newly installed mobility in the centre is perhaps the single most exciting thing about this late-stage Southgate team, the part that makes you start to wonder, soberly, where this thing might end. The idea of the surging box-to-box player the rampaging run-shoot-tackle creature, a kind of midfield wildebeest, is baked into English football lore.
The surge-midfielder seems to occupy the same mental space as heavy cavalry, as the Lancaster bomber. We think of Bryan Robson, shoulder in a sling, head bandaged, pounding through some pre-modern quagmire, or Steven Gerrard in full gallop-mode, ears whirring, knees pumping.
There haven’t actually been many of them. In reality this thing, like so many others in the same area, has often been a puzzle of uneven capacities.
Bellingham is not this, he is more like a supercharged, high-spec modern upgrade. Has there been there a more rounded, more compelling central midfielder on Qatar’s lighted stages in the opening four games of this World Cup?
Bar Bukayo Saka in for Marcus Rashford, Gareth Southgate picked the same team as last time for this knockout game. And that is now just the right team. No drama, no fudge no gambles, no need to tinker. The three-man midfield is a genuine strength for England. It has been a slightly haphazard process to get here.
But Bellingham-Rice-Henderson is the most balanced midfield England have had in the Southgate era, in the age of Hodgson, or indeed any era you care to mention going right back through the strangled and weirdly four-square attempts to make the years of plenty work under Sven-Göran Eriksson. It was the midfield that made and also scored the opening goal. And of course it was Bellingham again, running ahead of Kane, taking a lovely, pass into his stride, waiting, waiting some more, then glancing up to register the shape in his peripheral vision. The cut back was perfect too, snaked inside the full back as he kept running. Henderson was already there, the finish a lovely soft, easy action.
The celebration between the two was just as engrossing, a combination of forehead-to-forehead man-shouting, followed by a genuinely tender hug.
Bellingham had spoken about Henderson in the week. There are 13 years between them, but they clearly have a bond. And Henderson is a vital player in that newly-minted three in ways that extend beyond his basic ability to run and pass and cover. Essentially, Henderson is England’s grown-up in there, willing and able to be horrible, to be less elegant and less technical than Bellingham and Declan Rice, but also willing to snipe at the referee, to waste time and step on the penalty spot, to run the weaselly parts of a game. Henderson is that guy. You need that guy.
There is a chance England’s 4-3-3 may be sacrificed in the next game if Southgate feels alarmed enough by the idea of Harry Maguire exposed to France’s speed in attack.
It is to be hoped he retains this bolder shape. England have looked a weary team at times during this World Cup. In that midfield three they have found a rare balance, and a rare point of strength. It deserves to be tested.