England finds a sweet spot to walk with France toward the quarter-final.
On this night in the desert at Al Bayt, Jude Bellingham had a revelation all over again. He ran the game, particularly the first half, as well as any of England’s great midfielders in the past. However, a player with this level of responsibility has never before been on the national team. So young and half-vibrant, capable of making difficult tasks appear easy.
France awaits in the World Cup quarter-final on Saturday. The defending champions are armed with the tournament’s most potent player, Kylian Mbappé – or at least he is for now. There is a teenager from Birmingham with some skin in that game.
In each of Southgate’s tournaments, there has been a knockout game in which his players have found a sweet spot and struck gold. At Euro 2016, it was the four-goal demolition of Ukraine in the quarterfinals in Rome. Three years earlier, in Russia, it had been a 2-0 coast past Sweden in Samara at the same stage. Perhaps the nation has come to expect it, and yet here it was again—the knockout game that England never looked like losing.
Senegal, winners of the Africa Cup of Nations in February, were beaten by halftime. Two late goals came from Bellingham and then Phil Foden, who finished with two assists for the side’s old guard, Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane. That pair might not see another World Cup, but the vagaries of form and fitness seem to have delivered them perfectly to this moment.
Foden assisted again before the hour to make the third for Bukayo Saka, his third of the tournament. Southgate chose to leave out his group stage top-scorer, Marcus Rashford, in favour of Saka. He did so in spite of a robbery at the home of Raheem Sterling that required him to return home on the evening of the game. Sterling might be back, and who knows what side Southgate selects for that France quarterfinal? It is safe to say that the England manager, who was jeered out of Molineux in the summer, is calling it right now that the pressure of the tournament is on.
A pattern is emerging now to these Southgate wins. Get ready for a slow start. A patient build-up and then something approximating an iron grip. Then comes the strike. For England, in this game, it was the five minutes around the end of the first half when they galloped into the spaces that Senegal left and killed the game. Southgate’s players seem capable now of picking their moments and this was it.
Senegal’s passing out from the back, in particular Kalidou Koulibaly, had been erratic and now it was simply desperate. Senegal had lost the midfield and in the spaces that opened up Bellingham, in particular, could smell blood.
The teenager was a sensation in the opening win over Iran and now he seemed to be back in that groove all over again. He read every opening three seconds ahead of the rest. When he intercepted he did so on the move immediately, striding up the pitch like a peak-era Steven Gerrard. He had the measure of the Senegal midfield.
With just seconds left in the half, England a goal up, and with an assist to his name already, Bellingham came gliding out of midfield. He slipped over one challenge, and then, as the Senegal defense was drawn towards him, he released Foden on the left. England were as fluent as they have been all tournament. A single touch from Foden to Kane and that sweetest of first Qatar World Cup goals for the captain was dispatched past Edouard Mendy.
A perfect goal to cap a shrewd first half. Though they had lost a few opportunities, Southgate’s team had also greatly increased theirs. The team had built on the good judgment of John Stones in defense. They had been patient in possession. Southgate would be critical later in those early stages in terms of the incisiveness of the passing, but he admitted the possession had an effect. “They were tired,” he said of Senegal, “because of the way we moved them with the ball.”
Out of possession, his players squeezed Senegal effectively. England had targeted left-back Ismail Jakobs, who was shaky on the ball. They let Koulibaly pass it whenever they could. They then broke from midfield, which significantly influenced the turnover.
The first goal, from Henderson, was another example of how effectively they could step up the pace in midfield when a flick from Foden gave Kane the space to pick out Bellingham in the left channel. The 19-year-old carried the ball just far enough and for just long enough to clip it back from the byline behind the defender who was pursuing him. Bellingham had spotted in his peripheral vision the unlikely figure of Henderson moving into the pocket of space. He took his goal – his third for England in 73 caps—for the first time with his left foot.
Senegal had moments. Most notably, Jordan Pickford made a strong save with his right arm, when Boulaye Dia slipped in down the left channel. But that was only possible because Saka made a possession error. At halftime, Aliou Cissé made three substitutions, and his team actually got worse as a result. They appeared to have lost faith in their formation. Nothing worked. Bellingham and Declan Rice controlled the midfield and pressed ever higher. As the No. 10, Kane controlled the action and started the third goal.