England beat Senegal 3-0 at the Al Bayt Stadium to claim their place in the World Cup quarter-finals; Kylian Mbappe’s France are a significant obstacle in the last eight but Gareth Southgate’s side are showing once again they are a formidable tournament team
Tuesday 6 December 2022 15:42, UK
Jude Bellingham started running and kept on going. From the edge of his own six-yard box, he was soon sprinting over the halfway line, only now with the ball at his feet, Senegal players trailing in his wake, and possibilities unfurling before him.
The passage of play that led to the second goal, scored by Harry Kane after Bellingham had released Phil Foden, was exhilarating and the same could be said of those that led to the first and third. This England side can play. Maybe it's France who should be worried.
They have Kylian Mbappe, of course. He will take some stopping on Saturday. But then so will England. Gareth Southgate's side have rattled in 12 goals at this tournament - three more than any other side. So much for the manager holding them back.
Criticism of Southgate's approach has of course been valid at times during his tenure. Even at the last World Cup, when England reached the last four, they were functional rather than thrilling, reliant on set-pieces when it came to unpicking opponents.
Four years on, however, this performance was just the latest reminder of how much they have evolved - and all while strengthening the team spirit and togetherness they already had.
England have had eight different scorers in four games so far at the tournament. Ten of their goals have come from open play, including all three in this latest victory over Senegal.
They have already scored more than they did on their run to the final of last summer's Euros. The bigger tests are still to come, of course, but the breadth of their attacking threat is reason for optimism. Even their assists have come from eight different players.
At the centre of it all is a teenager, who, in the words of Roy Keane, "plays like he has played 100 times for England." Bellingham, Gary Neville added, "looks like he can do absolutely everything."
He is certainly proving a catalyst for England at this World Cup - Bellingham provided the cut-back for Jordan Henderson's opener as well starting the move that led to Kane's second - but the true strength of this side lies in the collective.
They look like a proper team and that's more than can be said for many of the other big sides at this World Cup.
Germany and Belgium fell at the first hurdle looking like groups of individuals. Argentina and France are strong, but reliant on their stars. The same can be said of Brazil, who have only scored once in two games since Neymar was injured.
There has been complacency elsewhere too.
England's goalless draw with USA was a turgid watch but at least it was not a defeat. Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal and France have all lost to lesser sides, their vulnerabilities exposed. Those results may have been inconsequential in terms of qualification, but it is worth noting only one of the last 10 World Cup-winning sides have lost in the group stage.
Momentum matters at tournaments and England have it, Southgate's side unbeaten in four games, their belief enhanced.
Even their perceived weaknesses look suspiciously like strengths.
Senegal gave Harry Maguire some awkward moments in the opening half hour of the game, but he emerged from it having played a crucial role in a third consecutive clean sheet.
Southgate has been vindicated for resisting calls to drop him - just as he has every other big call at this tournament. Together with John Stones, Maguire has formed a formidable barrier in front of Jordan Pickford's goal and the numbers prove it.
England have only given up six shots on target in four games so far. The 23rd-minute effort fired over the bar by Ismaila Sarr was the first they have conceded from inside their six-yard box.
Opponents have been kept at arm's length and perhaps that should come as no surprise given England have only lost one of the last 17 games in which Maguire and Stones have started. Even that solitary loss, in the Euro 2020 final, was decided on penalties.
Their chemistry is vitally important and elsewhere in the side there is the right balance of familiarity and freshness. Luke Shaw, like Maguire and Stones, continues to perform at a consistently high level in an England shirt. Pickford and Kieran Trippier too.
Bellingham has of course been a game-changer in midfield, but it helps that he is surrounded by experience. Declan Rice and Henderson have been playing together for years. Harry Kane knows exactly what to expect for Bukayo Saka, Foden and the rest.
Then there is the man in the dugout. Southgate's popularity had waned in the lead-up to this World Cup. Many England supporters were calling for his head as recently as a few months ago.
But his tournament record cannot be questioned. This was his eighth knockout game in charge and he is yet to lose a single one in 90 minutes. If any other side had reached the semi-final and final of the last World Cup and Euros, they would be viewed as serious contenders, so why not England?
Their exploits in Qatar so far only serve to underline those credentials. Mbappe will make France favourites. They have recent tournament success behind them too. But England should not be discounted. In fact, they should be feared.