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Unlocking Jude Bellingham’s Potential: Gareth Southgate’s Key to England’s Midfield Success.

Unlocking Jude Bellingham's Potential: Gareth Southgate's Key to England's Midfield Success.

After the era of greats such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes passed them by, England could never have expected to once again be blessed with such a wealth of midfield quality so soon. But with the dark days of the early to mid-2010s behind them, the Three Lions find themselves with another group capable of something special.

The list of names is headlined by Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice – generational talents who have blossomed into masters of their respective trades in the middle of the park, and on whom so much expectation is pinned. But others have emerged to shoulder the burden, too.

The responsibility of finding the right formula in the midfield is clearly weighing on head coach Gareth Southgate. Asked which area of the pitch was hardest to balance, he said recently: “Midfield. You’re always wondering what is the right balance. It’s different for different opponents. But it’s also the area where we don’t have a midfield organiser with the ball, like Jorginho, [Sergio] Busquets, [Toni] Kroos or [Luka] Modric. In my lifetime, we’ve rarely produced that type of player in England, so we’ve got different profiles of six. So is it a six and eights or a double six and a 10?”

With Euro 2024 fast approaching, Southgate must find the right solution to set the foundations for a potentially dominant future, or else he risks wasting another golden midfield generation.

Two of the best in the business

Southgate’s comments about lacking a “midfield organiser” arguably do a disservice to his anchor, Rice. Granted, he may not be known for his tempo-setting and passing, but he has developed into arguably the best defensive-minded midfielder on the planet amid a meteoric rise, beginning at West Ham and continuing apace at Arsenal.

His game is developing in front of our very eyes; at the Emirates he has added more goals and creativity and even finds himself on set-piece duty, while he is adroit at progressing play with forward passes and marauding runs. It would be little surprise to see him add the leadership qualities and press-resistance required to become that midfield metronome in the not-too-distant future as he continues to learn at the very highest level.

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Ahead of him, Bellingham is poised to spearhead the England midfield for at least the next decade. It should come as no surprise that wily old Carlo Ancelotti has unlocked the 20-year-old’s best position at Real Madrid, choosing to deploy him as a No.10 from the outset despite him spending the whole of the previous campaign at Borussia Dortmund in a deeper role.

The Italian has been richly, richly rewarded, with Bellingham emerging as an all-action, goal-scoring, creative-midfield machine, and as arguably the best player on the planet in 2023-24, let alone in his position. The future of England’s midfield should already be secure with the balance and pure quality that Rice and Bellingham provide.

Questions to answer

Who joins Bellingham and Rice in an anticipated midfield triumvirate – at Euro 2024 and in the years to come – is the big question for Southgate and England followers at the moment. His recent comments suggest it likely won’t be Phil Foden – who would form part of this golden midfield generation in normal circumstances, but has still largely been playing as a winger at Man City.

“That’s about getting the players in the position on the pitch they can perform at their very best,” Southgate said. “We don’t want their roles to be markedly different from what they do with their club every week because that gives them the best chance of succeeding.”

That would seemingly also rule out the possibility of Bellingham dropping deeper to play as a No.8, if that is considered “markedly different” enough from the position he’s thrived in at Real Madrid. Cole Palmer, meanwhile, may also be deployed on the wing having predominantly started on the right for Chelsea – and that could leave him out of the starting line-up, with Foden and Bukayo Saka surely locked in in the wide areas at Euro 2024.

Southgate favourite Jordan Henderson, who turns 34 the day after the tournament begins and whose fortunes have not changed despite him leaving Saudi Arabia for Ajax, should be nowhere near the starting line-up.

Perfect solution?

Southgate, then, must be infinitely grateful for the sudden emergence of a potentially perfect solution to his problems. The latest member of this budding golden generation, 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo is beginning to look every bit the man to play alongside Rice and Bellingham this summer and beyond, especially while Southgate is the man at the helm.

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His performances this season have belied his tender years, with the teenager dominant against the likes of Everton and Liverpool at the base of the Manchester United midfield. An adept ball-winner, he has the technical ability to progress play and combine with his more advanced team-mates through his dribbling ability and progressive passing.

As a more defensive-minded player by nature, Mainoo will have Southgate’s tongue waggling. He can be the perfect foil to both Rice and Bellingham, as either a double-pivot alongside the former or as a No.8 who mucks in at both ends of the pitch.

However, the England boss has shown plenty of pragmatism in the past, with Bellingham only really becoming a key player in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup despite demonstrating his potential long before that. In search of a solution, a major tournament could be the perfect time to throw that caution to the wind.

Supporting cast

Rice, Bellingham and Mainoo are just the tip of the iceberg, though, with this generation’s chances of success bolstered by some significant strength in depth and youthfulness.

In a more attacking set-up, Southgate could just as easily turn to Trent Alexander-Arnold (25) as a No.8, having bought into his reinvention as a central midfielder at Liverpool and deployed him there in recent internationals. Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher (24) offers another alternative to Mainoo, as does Mason Mount (25) if he can fight his way back to form and fitness at Manchester United. Henderson, as mentioned, will also likely be in the manager’s thoughts.

England are blessed with plenty of options for the No.10 role, too, with James Maddison (27), Palmer (21) and Eberechi Eze (25) all capable of stepping into Bellingham’s rather large shoes, although replacing him is no mean feat.

There are fewer alternatives to Rice as the anchor, although Mainoo could assume the responsibility, while out-of-form and out-of-favour Kalvin Phillips (28) is one of Southgate’s trusted lieutenants, if he can work his way back into the group.

Lessons from the past

As Southgate is evidently acutely aware, finding the balance in midfield could well be the difference between success and failure in Germany and beyond. The respective demises of his predecessors Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson were all attributed – at least in part – to an inability to get the best out of a raft of midfielders who were considered among the best in the world at club level – namely Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.

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Southgate is fortunate that his quest for midfield synergy is not hindered by his star players playing in exactly the same position – Rice is very clearly the anchor, and Bellingham the advanced playmaker. However, getting the choice of the third man right will be crucial to the way his side play, and as the manager says, “It’s different for different opponents”.

Perhaps, then, we should expect to see some rotation between defensive-minded Mainoo and front-footed Alexander-Arnold, but managing some big egos and keeping everyone happy presents another challenge altogether, as Southgate will have learnt from the Ben White furore.

Acknowledging that he has the tools at his disposal to kickstart this special generation is also vital, with Henderson surplus to requirements. Previous coaches have needlessly kept fading stars such as Wayne Rooney and David Beckham around the group for too long, blocking pathways for younger players and leading to questions over whether the squad was a meritocracy.

Incredible potential

Those who thought England’s chances of major silverware had passed them by for another era after the heartbreak of 2018 and 2021 may well be mistaken, with the Three Lions standing on the cusp of a new golden generation.

The future is bright, too, with plenty of talent waiting patiently in line; Liverpool pair Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones are still awaiting senior call-ups; Leeds’ Archie Gray is showing exceptional potential in the Championship; versatile Man City product Rico Lewis has already been involved in the senior set-up at 19.

Whether everything will fall in place in time for Euro 2024 remains to be seen, but Southgate is the man responsible for harnessing the talent at his disposal and piecing together the beating heart of a side that could dominate for years to come, whether or not he is at the helm.

Tournaments are where heroes rise and fall, and the summer provides a platform for the head coach to shake his notorious pragmatism and kickstart what could be a special period. England cannot afford to let another golden generation slip through its fingertips.

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