Jude Bellingham has shone for England at the World Cup, with a goal and an assist in four games; Gareth Southgate's side face France in the quarter-finals on Saturday; England have played a back-four in Qatar but the manager has often favoured a back-three against stronger sides
Wednesday 7 December 2022 12:20, UK
There was an England pre-Jude Bellingham and there is this England - with Jude Bellingham.
The Borussia Dortmund player's form and ability could lead to a totally different strategy for Gareth Southgate as he plans to counter the world champions, France.
In most pundits' opinions, Bellingham has been England's best player in Qatar. It is so easy to forget he is just 19-years-old and this is his first World Cup.
He has more international caps now - 21 - than years on the planet.
He was 12-years-old when England last beat France, in 2015. England's last competitive victory against Les Bleus came at La Tournoi in 1997 - six years before Bellingham was born.
It's not an exaggeration to say that young Jude's joyous explosion onto the international scene could well change Southgate's pre-tournament plans for how to approach this World Cup quarter-final.
The England boss has always been cautious in knockout games, with an emphasis on defensive strength - especially against better opposition. He likes using three central-defenders - protected by two holding midfielders - to make it very difficult for the opposition to break England down.
It's a tactic that has been heavily criticised but one that served England very well in Russia four years ago and in the Euros 19 months ago. Southgate has been vindicated historically.
However, England did not win either game - they lost 1-0 to Italy and drew 3-3 with Germany.
Against the same two teams in June, Southgate opted for a back four, and England drew both matches.
In the Euros two summers ago, again the England boss opted for a back-three when they beat Germany in the last 16 and when they drew (but ultimately lost on penalties) to Italy in the final.
In all seven matches at the last World Cup, Southgate lined up with England adopting a back-three.
To sum that all up: if you analyse the matches from the start of the last World Cup in Russia up until the start of this World Cup in Qatar, England have played 23 matches against teams ranked in FIFA's top 15. Southgate has used three central-defenders in 14 of those games - that's 61 per cent.
So it's clear which formation Southgate has favoured to counteract the best teams in the world. With it looking very likely before the World Cup that England would face France in the quarter-final, I suspect he planned to do the same against Didier Deschamps' team.
But, as we said at the very start, that plan did not account for the emerging brilliance of Bellingham. This fact is crucial to the debate - of those 23 matches against top opposition, the teenager started in just two of them.
Had he been playing this well - and available for more of those games - maybe Southgate would have more often opted for a 4-3-3.
Were Southgate to revert to a 3-4-3 or 5-2-3 formation at the Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday night, he would have to sacrifice a midfield player.
So, with only two in midfield, that would mean dropping Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson or Bellingham.
Even if we assume Bellingham kept his place in the midfield two, his expansive, dominant style would have to be curtailed.
When he made his debut two years ago against the Republic of Ireland - and in the matches that followed - Southgate told Bellingham he needed to sit a little deeper and be more disciplined positionally.
But the England manager, like the watching public, has now realised that does not play to Bellingham's strengths.
He is a traditional box-to-box No 8, with great energy and an ability to affect attacks and score goals, just as effectively as he breaks up opponents' moves and wins back possession.
You need three midfielders to get the best out of Bellingham. Southgate admitted as much when he said after the Senegal victory: "We thought Jordan….(is) giving Jude a bit more freedom. He does not need to be quite as positionally disciplined."
Whichever formation Southgate chooses against the world champions will be a big call from the manager. Either he will revert to the tried-and-tested, the line-up that helped get England to a World Cup semi-final and a Euros final but one which doesn't prioritise the 'Bellingham-factor' and what has worked so well for England in Qatar.
Or he sticks with the 4-3-3 and abandons the set-up that was ever-present in Russia and used to great effect against the best teams in the finals of the European Championships, when England went all the way to the final.
A tough call either way but it's pretty clear most pundits and England fans alike hope he opts for the latter.