Bellingham is a New England talisman, but Southgate fears savior syndrome

<span>Gareth Southgate has <a href=England‘s system to have Jude Bellingham play the role of number 10.Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ b22006c2e309a6″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 06c2e309a6″/>

The big man is back, or at least he’s coming back. It is a situation we have experienced before with England, on the eve of a major tournament in Germany. For Wayne Rooney’s post-metatarsal injury at the 2006 World Cup, see Jude Bellingham, for different reasons, and Euro 2024.

It has been an exhausting week for Gareth Southgate. The dark clouds were gathering as the manager prepared to make the final cuts to his squad and the fear was inevitable. It’s football. But they are also people. The tough decisions, especially those to leave out Harry Maguire, Jack Grealish and James Maddison, the first of the trio for fitness reasons, were felt by all.

Related: Gareth Southgate’s new England looks worryingly free of energy and resistance | Barney Ronay

The idea was that the broadcast at Wembley against Iceland on Friday would mean a reset, but it went quickly in the other direction. The result was poor, a surprising 1-0 defeat; performance was worse. As Arsène Wenger used to say, momentum builds slowly and can move quickly. Southgate was unhappy in the dressing room and made it clear that everything had to be improved – especially the mentality.

Maybe the players were nervous at the end because they suffered an injury; England will kick off the final against Serbia next Sunday. John Stones almost did, trapping his foot under Iceland striker Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson as they went to ground in the opening minute. Stones was able to continue, although he was withdrawn at half-time and left Wembley with a ligament on his right foot. Perhaps there were concerns in the back of his mind. That’s why the intensity wasn’t there.

Southgate has been concerned about a number of issues, but after Iceland they seemed to have entered the public domain, with the story involving the search for someone to come to the rescue. That’s where Bellingham – who was given extra leave following his involvement in Real Madrid’s Champions League final victory over Borussia Dortmund last Saturday – comes into the picture.

It is not difficult to present him as a talisman, given the spectacular season he has had for Madrid; how Southgate has adapted his system from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 to give him the number 10 role, the most advanced platform possible. To fall into the trap of needing an individual savior would be a grave mistake.

“We’re not putting everything on Jude,” Southgate said. “We have a lot of good players and it is a collective thing to try to win this tournament. If we rely on one person, it won’t be a team that wins. I’m sure he’ll give the team a lift, but it’s not his responsibility to do that. It is up to all of us to get the right focus, to ensure that our mentality is correct individually.”

Southgate was asked if he had as many questions about his team before a tournament. “There are physical uncertainties,” he said, saying this was why he ruled out Maguire and Jordan Henderson before that; straight to what bothers him most.

If we rely on one person, it won’t be a team that wins. I’m sure Jude will give the team a lift, but it’s not his responsibility to do so

Gareth Southgate

A summary. Luke Shaw is the most obvious fitness problem; the hope is that the lone specialist left-back will return to play a role in England’s second group match against Denmark on Thursday. Like Maguire, he suffered a serious setback while rehabbing his injury while training at Manchester United – not a good prospect for the club’s medical department.

Kieran Trippier and Marc Guéhi returned at the end of the Premier League season after long spells with injuries and had to be carefully managed. Ditto Bukayo Saka and Anthony Gordon, who suffered blows in the final week and returned against Iceland, the former as a substitute.

Harry Kane suffered back problems and had to sit out Bayern Munich’s last two Bundesliga matches. He saw action in both friendly warm-up matches. Southgate has also had to keep an eye on the many Stones, Kyle Walker, Phil Foden and Kobbie Mainoo after giving them time off following their appearance in the FA Cup final two weeks ago.

Is Bellingham 100% fit? It’s probably a stupid question at this stage of the season. Footballers are rarely pain free, there is normally something that is hurting them, and especially now after the accumulation of so many matches. But it’s easy to reflect on how Bellingham leaned against one of the goalposts to stretch his calf in the 70th minute of the Champions League final, possibly suffering some cramp.

On the evening before the showpiece, he was pictured with a band around his shoulder; he had suffered a shoulder problem in November which ruled him out of a match for Madrid. Does the strapping indicate a problem? Bellingham was not at his best against Dortmund.

England’s difficulties against Iceland showed how open and vulnerable they were; the physical balance in the setup was wrong. When Iceland had the ball, they had more time to make their moves than they could have imagined. The question of who will play with Declan Rice in midfield persists. It wasn’t Mainoo’s night in this position, while it was interesting to see Trent Alexander-Arnold introduced as a right-back in the 64th minute and not alongside Rice.

“Sometimes a performance like that can really sharpen the focus, sharpen the attention to the fundamentals of the game that need to be right,” Southgate said. “Maybe we’ve talked a little too much in recent weeks about what we want to be with the ball and if you’re not smart without the ball, which we weren’t, then you can have problems against any team.

“When you’re one match away from a tournament, there’s a bit of a desire not to get injured and a slightly different focus. I played in those games myself.

“In the games we had in Middlesbrough [before the previous Euros in 2021] We won [against Austria and Romania] but they were not fluid performances with great intensity.

“I understand some of the reasons for it, but it is also a shock at a good time for us because we have to get the preparation right next week. It means we’re ahead of the curve on the things we need.”

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