Jude Bellingham’s England (just) beat Serbia: 16 Conclusions on an unnecessarily nervy opener

Sarah Winterburn

England won but they were sloppy in a second half when control went out of the window. Thankfully, England have Jude Bellingham and he is mint.


1) On a night when a TV tribute to Sven-Goran Eriksson left an unexpected lump in the throat, ‘first half good, second half not so good’ feels like an appropriate first conclusion.

England were controlled, dominant and entirely at ease with their status as one of the tournament favourites before the break, but were panicked, open, sloppy and unnecessarily vulnerable as Serbia massively improved after what we can only presume was a half-time bollocking. As they grew, England shrunk before our eyes.

We were worried about the defence and buoyed by a wealth of attacking talent before the game, but in the end England won by the narrowest of margins after managing only three shots on target to Serbia’s one. Defensively they were largely sound but they struggled to carve out clear-cut chances. This was not in the script.

But what was thankfully in the script was an opening-game win and that is – we are legally bound to say – all that matters at this stage. If England are to lose in the semi-finals as we expect, they must first get there. They are absolutely on track.

READ: England player ratings v Serbia: Bellingham runs the show, Kane quiet, Saka shows positive signs


2) There has been churn throughout this England squad – roughly half the World Cup 26 has not survived little over 18 months later – but the team-sheet proved that the churn has been on the fringes. The XI that started against Serbia contained eight who started v France in Qatar and two of those three changes were forced by injury; the other was forced by Jordan Henderson.

Cole Palmer has emerged. Kobbie Mainoo has emerged. But this is not a new England team; this is the same England team with Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield, replacing the heart of Henderson with dynamism and delivery. And just like at the World Cup, it works well enough. Whether it works when and if England face France again is another matter. We suspect we know the rather depressing answer.


3) There were questions asked of Marc Guehi as the relative newcomer in that England defence but he was exemplary, winning one big header as Serbia threatened to force an equaliser as well as looking after the ball like his first-born, reaching half-time with a 100% pass completion rate.

It’s sometimes easier to impress as a centre-half when there’s a true aerial assault and you make header after header, but if you only have three or four key decisions to make in a match – and you make them all perfectly – then that is the mark of an excellent defender at ease in elite football. Guehi will not be operating outside of elite football at club level for long beyond this summer if he keeps up this calibre of performance in Germany.


4) Defensive mistakes were initially rare for England – John Stones was grateful to Guehi when he was easily turned by Aleksandar Mitrović – with Trent Alexander-Arnold at fault for the only real moment of danger in that first half.

It was one sloppy touch in a position where he still counts as a relative novice, and it ultimately did no harm. You would hope that a lesson was learned about concentration and over-confidence. Mistakes in front of the back four can be incredibly costly, perhaps more so than mistakes made high up the pitch as an attacking full-back.


5) Any wavering confidence was given a boost five minutes later as Alexander-Arnold’s athletic anticipation saw him regain possession for a rare counter-attack at a time when England were dominating the ball. Kyle Walker galloped away with his trademark ludicrous pace and really should have lashed it goal-wards. By the time he tried to find Harry Kane, he was off-balance.

But that little snapshot showcased the way Alexander-Arnold is learning on the job. He might be in that midfield for his distribution, but he will also have to defend. To recycle. To regenerate. As excellent as Declan Rice is in that role in front of the defence, he cannot be expected to get through the work of two men.


6) By this juncture England were leading 1-0. We waited to mention that because we didn’t want to make it 16 Conclusions on the ridiculous brilliance of Jude Bellingham. That is coming on another day. And we might struggle to keep it down to 16.

We suspect he could play in any position on the pitch barring goalkeeper and still be England’s best player. Deep, wide, as the focal point of the attack, Bellingham is extraordinary. A petrified Serbia midfield had already fouled him twice by the time he scored in the 13th minute with a header that was 50% about the run from deep and 50% about the desire to get there first.

It was a simple goal from a player who makes breath-taking brilliance look ordinary.

After years of being Harry Kane’s England, this is now Jude Bellingham’s England. Hopefully for the next 12 years at least.


7) It took 18 minutes for Kane to touch the ball and that really is no slight on Kane. With Bellingham as the N0. 10, there is no need for Kane to go hunting high and low for the ball, spraying passes out wide to a near-decade of decent wingers.

He is in this England team because he is one of the finest No.9s in the world, and his role is to occupy centre-halves high up the pitch and be ready to convert any half-chance. One half of that brief – the one that gets you no headlines – has a tick, but he failed to convert the one chance created for him by Jarrod Bowen that would have made the final 10 minutes of the game more comfortable for all of us.

His only real celebration of the night came after a defensive header. We didn’t miss the other Harry after all.

MAILBOX: Harry Kane was ‘static and lumbering’ as he faces calls to be dropped by England


8) Bukayo Saka will not get the assist for Bellingham’s goal because his cross was deflected, but he deserves his flowers for that first-half performance. He wastes nothing on nonsense, Saka. He always makes the right decision – be that taking on his man, cutting back, crossing the ball – and every single decision seemed to baffle Serbia in that first half.

There has been so much talk of Bellingham and Phil Foden – who was relatively anonymous – in the build-up to this tournament, and it seems like everybody was sleeping on Saka. His influence waned in the second half as Serbia gave up on their controversial tactic of being scared of their own shadows, but if this was a half-fit Saka, we look forward to seeing him in full flow.


9) We did worry that England reached half-time having managed only one shot on target despite the ease with which they had passed the ball around Serbia. There was fluidity and there was flow, but there was so very little punch.

As Cesc Fabregas warned at half-time amid much self-congratulation from the English pundits, this is a team that needs to learn how to go and then go again. There is none of that devastating ruthlessness that you see from champions. And he should know. This is still an England side that is still only nearly, almost, maybe very good, despite pre-tournament bluster about having some of the best attacking players in the world.


10) Did they think the game was won? It was almost like Serbia being so much better after the break came as a massive shock. And they never quite regained the level of composure that saw us almost relax in that first half. They allowed Serbia to make it a chaotic game and neither side produced many moments of quality in a ragged second half. England would surely have been punished by a better team.

Alexander-Arnold stung the hands of the keeper and created a fine chance for Bellingham, but as England ceded more and more control, he began to look a little lost in that midfield. It was no surprise to see him hauled off for Conor Gallagher, though we remain slightly depressed that Chelsea’s buzzing bundle of energy is the go-to option when England need more rather than less control.


11) There was a Kieran Trippier error that almost created a whole world of pain, while a slightly rusty Stones was passed too easily a couple of times, but England largely defended very well. We worried for them against a sizeable (literally) Serbia side but they stood up incredibly well to the task.

It probably helped that these Premier League defenders were given a very Premier League job to do, with Serbia lacking any real trickery to cause them serious problems. Jordan Pickford was forced into only one save that could be filed under ‘decent but you’d be pointing fingers if he didn’t save that’.

There was no bombardment, there was no flurry of chances, but nor was there any real control. That’s the worry.


12) It’s telling that Gareth Southgate’s second substitution saw Jarrod Bowen enter the fray rather than Cole Palmer. And Bowen’s no-nonsense directness almost brought the second goal of the match but the Serbia goalkeeper was equal to Kane’s header.

We don’t mind admitting that we got this wrong, failing to see where Bowen would figure in this England squad. But it’s clear that the complement to Foden’s prodding and drifting is some good old-fashioned wing play from the right. Saka is that player for England but Bowen is his closest replacement; once again, England’s most effective attacks were coming down the right.


13) Do we need to talk about Phil Foden? There are those who think he is wasted on the left, but he really does only nominally play on the left. And he played centrally against Iceland last week and was poor.

He’s scored one goal and claimed no assists for England since the World Cup and although he is one of the eight survivors from that defeat to France, the truth is that he is in this England team more for what he has done for Manchester City this season than England.

He is perhaps lucky that Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and James Maddison all fell by the wayside to leave him as the only man standing on the left. Ish. For a bit. Before he wanders into the middle.


14) Bellingham’s race was eventually won and he was replaced by Kobbie Mainoo, who as a teenager is already thrust into the ‘see the game out’ role. Jesus. We kind of miss Henderson in moments like these. Mainoo is barely hold enough to point.


15) England did finally get over the line but once again, we have been left with rather more questions than answers. This is the best available England team – barring Luke Shaw at left-back – and yet the next cab off the rank was Conor Gallagher. When England needed more control, Southgate opted for the buzzing flies of Gallagher and Bowen.

Declan Rice will be lauded for his performance but he is still part of a midfield that began to cede control as soon as Serbia realised that this England team has vulnerabilities. We have been preaching for weeks that the rampant ‘this England team should win a tournament’ narrative was not grounded in reality and we take no pleasure in feeling initially proved right. We would very much like to be wrong,


16) Jude Bellingham really is f***ing brilliant though so maybe he can do it on his own.