It was April 2021 when I first wrote about Jude Bellingham on these pages. I had seen him in action a few days earlier, for Borussia Dortmund against Manchester City in a Champions League quarter-final first leg, and had been blown away.
The argument I made about Bellingham was the need for time. He was 17, clearly going places quickly, but I was concerned about expectation being thrust on his young shoulders and I didn’t want a clamour to start about him being central to England’s ambitions at the European Championship.
‘If it was me, I would leave him out of the squad,’ I stated. ‘This lad has his whole career in front of him and taking things slowly now could have spectacular results. Let him blossom and, in the end, something special could happen.’
Bellingham ended up making the Euro 2020 squad but he was conservatively and sensibly handled by Gareth Southgate, who gave him three substitute appearances along the way to the final — eight minutes against Croatia and 22 minutes against the Czech Republic in the group stage, and 25 minutes against Ukraine in the last eight.
Young star Jude Bellingham must play for England, after being used sporadically so far
Here we are 18 months later from that column and, again, I have just seen Bellingham play for Borussia Dortmund against Manchester City in the Champions League.
This time my argument is a lot more straightforward: play him.
I still have to do a double-take when I look at his age. He is 19 and running midfields in games of the highest standards.
When I was 19 in the England squad, I was trying to find my feet and not look like a startled rabbit but this kid is just unbelievable.
It wasn’t just his goal — the way he arrived to instinctively head in — against City that made him stand out. It was the manner in which he was shouting at people, ordering them about and demanding the best from them, with his intelligence and fearlessness.
Despite his young age, he’s proven himself to be an unbelievable player for Borussia Dortmund
No longer are the words ‘could be’ appropriate when discussing him. There is no ‘could be’ about it — Jude Bellingham is already unbelievable and he is going to be at the heart of this England team for years to come, and I can’t wait to see his progress.
This is his time. I have no doubts at all that he will be central to Southgate’s plans in Qatar — not just in his squad but his starting line-up for the opening match against Iran — and these two Nations League ties against Italy and Germany are the perfect opportunity to see him flourish.
I can understand why Liverpool were so heavily linked with him this summer and why Jurgen Klopp reportedly is a huge admirer — there will no doubt be huge interest in every transfer window from now on.
He is special and you could see him playing for any team — whether it is Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid or whoever.
Let’s all hope that his progress for club and country is as outstanding as we believe it can be.
Bellingham has been heavily linked with a move to the Premier League, particularly Liverpool
Gareth missing trick with Maddison snub
James Maddison’s England career amounts to just 34 minutes in a 7-0 win over Montenegro in November 2019.
It has been almost three years since he last represented his country but there is no sign that his exile will end any time soon.
That is such a shame. I would have loved to have seen him in this latest squad, for the games against Italy and Germany, and I believe the Leicester midfielder has been playing well enough to be included in the group Gareth Southgate selected.
Leicester were defeated 6-2 by Tottenham last Saturday but Maddison could not have done any more to turn things Leicester’s way — scoring the goal just before half-time that drew them level.
He played as he always does, with fearlessness and invention, and that’s hard to do in a struggling team.
James Maddison has played just 34 minutes for England, but should have been in this squad
Maddison has three goals so far this season. He scored 18 in 53 games last year and I have seen enough of him to feel certain when I say there is so much more maturity in his game. He can pick a pass and take an excellent set-piece; he works hard, runs miles and is always enthusiastic. But for England, he still gets overlooked.
Southgate has been bang on about so many things during his time in charge of England and this is not a view that is intended to cause any kind of diversion. But I just feel a trick is being missed in not giving him an opportunity to see if he can transfer his talents to the highest level.
Admittedly, Maddison didn’t do himself any favours when he was photographed in a casino in October 2019, the night England were playing in the Czech Republic. Maddison had pulled out of the squad for that game, having said he was unwell, and it was not a good look — even though he was handed his sole England cap a month later.
At the time, Southgate said Maddison would have ‘learned a lesson a hard way’ but as things stand, I wonder if the England manager is going to see whether there has been any change from a player who has so many different attributes.
In this squad for the games against Italy and Germany, England have 12 defenders. When you consider that Declan Rice can play as a central defender too, it implies that caution and keeping things tight is their priority. For what other reason would there be 13 defensive players?
Maddison’s work-rate at Leicester has been evident, even when the Foxes have struggled
Even when Kalvin Phillips withdrew over the weekend, there wasn’t even a slight possibility that Maddison would be drafted in as a wildcard to fill the void.
Gareth’s argument would certainly reference the four Nations League games in June. He played 4-3-3 against Hungary, in the last fixture at Molineux, and ended up seeing England get picked off on the counter-attack and lose 4-0.
He has studied the results of tournaments over a number of years and the most successful teams are the ones who keep clean sheets and, of course, I respect that view — how could you not respect a man who has taken England to a World Cup semi-final and European Championship final?
Taking the last step, however, requires players who have the courage to take risks and play passes that have a bit of imagination. In the final of Euro 2020, for instance, I never thought England were going to win once Leonardo Bonucci had equalised for Italy.
Maddison could have changed the Euro 2020 final late on, alongside England’s Harry Kane
At the point in a game when things are tight, Maddison would be a fantastic option to introduce, say, in the 70th minute. He has the tools to change the direction of the match and provide the ingenuity that makes the difference.
Of course, I understand the value of clean sheets but to concentrate on the defensive side takes so much else away.
It would be understandable to prioritise the back four if we had the best back four or five in the world but we haven’t got that.
I have sympathy for Maddison because it must be hard knowing he is playing this well in a World Cup year but, for all that he pushes, the door back into the England squad won’t open. He has the qualities to offer this England team so much. It’s a shame, I feel, that we will not get to see them in Qatar.
It’s a shame that Maddison’s qualities look like they have missed the plane to Qatar this year
Alexander-Arnold can be England’s weapon
When I back someone, I do it wholeheartedly and I never give them anything other than 100 per cent. I’ve done this with Trent Alexander-Arnold, I’m one of his biggest cheerleaders and I’m looking for him to raise his standards again.
In this crucial two-month period leading into Qatar, Trent has to ensure he gives his critics no reason at all to question him.
His attacking prowess has never been in doubt and his output speaks for itself.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s output speaks for itself, and he will be vital to England’s next decade
But the microscope has often been at the other end of the pitch and now more than ever, he has to be 100 per cent focused on the defensive side of his game.
I’ve always believed Trent would be an England player for 10 years and more. He’s got outstanding ability and he sees the game differently to other right backs.
A fully focused Trent playing at the peak of his abilities would be an outstanding weapon for England in the coming months.
The Liverpool man must be 100% focused on his defensive game as England face crucial ties