The pain of England’s penalty defeat by Italy in the Euro 2020 final may still linger but there is a sense this could be the beginning of something special for the Three Lions. Exhibit A is Jude Bellingham.
The midfielder made three appearances during the tournament and did not feature in the final at Wembley but continues to flourish at a club renowned for nurturing young talent.
The 18-year-old’s consistent performances for Borussia Dortmund have earned playing comparisons with Steven Gerrard, while he has been likened to Cesc Fabregas and Vincent Kompany for his maturity.
England boss Gareth Southgate may have left the teenager out of his most recent squad to give him a rest, but the decision was a sign Bellingham has already convinced his coach he is a huge part of the national team’s future.
In Italy, there was surprise Bellingham was not already a key man for the Three Lions when the sides met during the summer.
“Bellingham was talked about in Italy during the Euros, as was [Phil] Foden in Manchester City’s Champions League run,” Italian football expert James Horncastle told the BBC’s Euro Leagues Football Show.
“There is a feeling that England wasted a hell of a lot of talent in that final and that more players should have got on the pitch and been integrated into the team earlier.
“Jadon Sancho was mentioned as well – and that England had more potential to show. That was the talk in the Italian press, there is a feeling it is not the end of something, it is the beginning of something for England, with Bellingham at the forefront of that.”
The suggestion Bellingham needed a rest during the international break may feel justified when you learn he played 53 times for club and country last season and has been a regular in both the Bundesliga and Champions League this term.
His performances have not been any less energetic of late, though, with team-mates praising his full-throttle approach.
Bellingham has been handed a greater licence to get forward recently and a wonderful left-footed strike in a Bundesliga victory over Hoffenheim in August, plus a goal and assist in the Champions League against Besiktas in September, show the midfielder has plenty in his armoury.
“He just has this very infectious energy, off the pitch and on it,” said Bundesliga reporter Archie Rhind-Tutt.
“Senior figures in the Dortmund dressing room have been complimenting him – Mats Hummels saying he has declared his love for him 25 times, Marco Reus saying he reminds him a bit of Steven Gerrard in the way he plays the game and his willingness to run.
“He just enjoys the battle so much and involves himself in the darker arts of the game. It is things like he gives away a free-kick in his own half, he will stand on the ball, he will give his opponents a nudge in the back – against Leverkusen, with 10 minutes to go, he committed a foul and just sat on the ball.”
Bellingham has his mum living with him in Germany, which Rhind-Tutt says “helps keep him grounded”, but on the pitch he boasts a tenacious edge.
Proof of that could be seen in the celebration that followed his opener at Besiktas, silencing the hostile home crowd, and the moment where he caught and sipped a beer thrown towards the pitch after Erling Braut Haaland’s winner against Bayer Leverkusen.
“Sometimes his emotions run away with him, but the Dortmund bench recognise it and let him cool off,” added Rhind-Tutt. “He just has so much to his game – his judgement is so good and his willingness to learn is so big.
“It is just very exciting. In Germany, there is the talk: ‘Is there anything he can’t do?'”
Bellingham has come a long way since August 2019, when he made history as Birmingham City’s youngest debutant, aged 16 years 38 days.
By the end of that season, he was being linked with Europe’s top clubs. He turned down a move to Manchester United to head to Germany, believing he would get more first-team opportunities.
“He is just so mature,” explained European football expert Julien Laurens.
“I interviewed him for the first time after [they played in the Champions League against] Manchester City last season and I was just gobsmacked, for a 17-year-old, the way he was talking. He is a very, very intelligent guy.
“He reminds me of Fabregas – not how he plays – but in that incredible maturity you need to have to go an impose yourself at such a young age and boss your team. You don’t see that very often.”
Belgian journalist Kristof Terreur makes the comparison to former Manchester City captain Kompany, who broke through at Anderlecht aged 17.
“He talks like a 30-year-old – some guys have it,” said Terreur. “Bellingham really has some cool over him and it is that mentality that will get him far.”
A £100m midfielder at 18?
Now there is talk of Premier League clubs circling, hoping to bring back to England a player who could be the focal point of his country’s midfield for the next 15 years.
“There is that space for him to grow at Dortmund,” said Rhind-Tutt, who says the player has a contract until 2025 and no release clause.
“If he keeps performing like he does, I don’t expect him to be there much longer. The standards and heights he is reaching are really remarkable.
“He is a good fit for any club. It wouldn’t damage him to stay because he will continue to grow, but he would make a great future captain of any club.”
Laurens suggests either Manchester United or City could be the teenager’s next destination, should he decide to leave Dortmund.
“If United look for a Paul Pogba replacement, Bellingham is your guy,” he added. “He is already a £100m player – even at 18.
“The longer you wait, the higher the price goes. If you wait too long, the price goes to £120-£130m.”
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