Pre-tournament warm-up games are supposed to answer more questions than they ask – England’s clash with Austria at the Riverside Stadium didn’t.
Granted, Gareth Southgate was forced to field a significantly weaker side than the one that’ll kick off the Three Lions’ Euro 2020 campaign against Croatia in less than two weeks’ time, but with so many players vying for a place in the starting XI the England boss would have been expecting much more from his side.
There was a fair bit of experimenting present on Teesside throughout the clash – not least on the bench with Southgate opting for an unusual ensemble of knitwear under a light grey suit – yet successes on the night were few and far between.
Except in the midfield.
Much has been made of the players included in the England squad who likely wouldn’t have made the cut if Euro 2020 had taken place on the originally scheduled date, and Jude Bellingham undoubtedly falls into that category.
The Borussia Dortmund man was plying his trade in England’s second tier last year, yet following his £25m move to the Bundesliga – subsequently becoming the most expensive teenager ever – he goes into this summer’s delayed tournament with a season of top-flight football under his belt.
Anyone who doesn’t pay too much attention to the German top flight probably thinks of Bellingham as something of a joke figure given the endless tweets and memes following Birmingham City’s decision to retire the number 22 shirt in his honour following his departure. However, his displays for England in recent months – when given the chance to showcase his ability – have been absolutely superb.
The Dortmund man started alongside Jack Grealish and Declan Rice in England’s 1-0 win over Austria, playing the deepest of the three and thus allowing the aforementioned pair to add drive and creativity to the midfield.
Bellingham sat back and did everything you would want from a holding midfielder; mopping up play and acting like a brick wall whenever Austria attempted to surge towards the England backline.
Not only did he prove himself to be physically up to the task, whenever he had the ball at his feet it looked like it was attached to his boot with a piece of string and, in truth, it looked like boys against men in the midfield at times.
The opposition he was faced with at the Riverside were hardly the best in Europe, sure, but his displays in an England shirt so far – and a Dortmund shirt for that matter – have done nothing to suggest he’s not up to the challenge this summer.
Having good individual players and having a good team are often two very different things, yet Bellingham offered balance in the midfield and if Southgate does opt to play Grealish as part of a three-man midfield then Bellingham is a must.
This time last year the majority of England fans had probably never ever heard the name Jude Bellingham, yet now he looks like he genuinely could be one of the country’s key men going into the summer.