Saka’s secret, Southgate’s handbrake and Bellingham could be the greatest player ever

England midfielder Jude Bellingham Credit: Alamy
England midfielder Jude Bellingham Credit: Alamy

It’s no wonder Bukayo Saka is so brilliant. Gareth Southgate released the handbrake by doing his usual thing. And Jude Bellingham is built up.

 

Fat chance
To whomever it was at The Sun who put Neil Custis down for Netherlands duty, thus forcing him to cover Louis van Gaal for old times’ sake: well played.

 

Bell pepper
Jude Bellingham was excellent against Iran. He is a wonderful player. There can be no arguments to the contrary. But it does rather feel as though he is being built up for a possible future fall in some quarters.

‘Potentially, he could become the greatest midfielder this country has ever produced’ – Charlie Wyett, The Sun.

Well he could. But it will take some doing to surpass Bobby Charlton, Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham, Glenn Hoddle, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Bobby Robson and many others. They were all really rather good.

But why just stop at possibly ‘the greatest midfielder this country has ever produced’?

‘Twenty years from now, when we deliberate over the identity of England’s greatest ever player – there’s every chance we’ll conclude that it’s Jude Bellingham’ – Sami Mokbel, Daily Mail.

And then we bring Bobby Moore, Wayne Rooney, Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greaves and the rest into the equation.

Bellingham is 19. He’s a phenomenal player but is it really necessary to do the ‘greatest ever’ shtick now?

 

Buk the trend
He wasn’t even the official man of the match against Iran. That accolade went to Bukayo Saka, who might not be impressed with The Sun website uncovering the real reason behind his brilliance:

‘Secret to Bukayo Saka’s stunning form revealed as he scores twice in England’s 6-2 World Cup thrashing of Iran’

Not sure the simple act of wearing Arsenal shinpads is the ‘secret’ to a superb footballer being superb at football.

 

Brake dance
Mediawatch expected a great deal of handbrake chat after the ‘gung-ho’ nonsense that followed the announcement of England’s starting line-up to face Iran. And the usual suspects did not disappoint.

‘This was not a perfect performance – there were moments of raggedness in midfield and defence which would be punished by stronger opponents – but it was mightily impressive and it felt as if Southgate had taken the handbrake off,’ writes Dave Kidd after watching England use a variation of the same formation he has picked far more often than not since the start of 2021.

In 28 England games since March 2021, Southgate has played a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 19 times, including in all but two matches at Euro 2020. This was very much more of the same.

‘Southgate’s starting line-up was an attacking one,’ Kidd adds in The Sun of a sensible XI featuring a holding midfielder, a diligent and hard-working 8 and four industrious forward players.

Over in the Daily Mirror, Andy Dunn goes full sarcasm.

‘That Gareth Southgate? He is way too conservative, too scared to take the handbrake off.

‘That Gareth Southgate? He really only knows one system to play.

‘It was not only radio phone-in types, loving the sound of their own voice, who trotted out these lines during England’s tough six-match run-up to Qatar 2022, it was a more common thread of thought than you might believe.’

Except he didn’t really ‘take the handbrake off’ and no-one whose opinion is worth airing thought that ‘he really only knows one system to play’ – particularly when that system isn’t the one he’s favoured for the last two years.

‘Too conservative? Selecting Bukayo Saka and not selecting Phil Foden was something of a gamble and the Manchester City man’s absence did not seem to go down well on social media. But Saka, who struck a wonderful second and fourth for England, gave England width and directness that was invaluable in dismantling Iran.’

Saka is the reigning England Men’s Player of the Year and the current two-time Player of the Year for the Premier League leaders. This isn’t Euro 2020; picking Saka is no ‘gamble’.

Then there’s Felix Keith of the Daily Mirror website, who writes:

‘Despite lots of evidence to the contrary, Southgate has often been criticised for an apparent lack of adventure during his six-year tenure as manager. Here he recognised that England needed invention and ambition to break down a defensive-minded Iran side. It worked.’

Nine of the players who started against Iran also did so in the drab 1-1 draw with Germany in June. Picking Bellingham and Luke Shaw over Kalvin Phillips and Kyle Walker does not automatically make that an adventurous, inventive and ambitious line-up. It certainly made it a more effective one but it was hardly all-out attack.

‘Southgate may be tempted to switch things around as the tournament progresses. Yet, after six successive matches without a win, he would be wise to stick with his new-found tactical set-up after hitting the FIFA-ranked 20th-best side for six.’

That ‘new-found tactical set-up’ he has used about two-thirds of the time since England’s last major tournament? Yeah, reckon he’d be wise to stick with that.

 

Scare ground
‘ENGLAND have suffered an injury scare after Harry Kane limped out of the Khalifa Stadium with his ankle strapped’ – the first paragraph of The Sun‘s story.

‘SunSport understands that he will be assessed over the next 48 hours, but England have no serious fears over his fitness’ – the eighth, and weirdly far less hyperbolic, paragraph of The Sun’s story.

 

Beer pressure
‘Booze-free England fans throw victory party in Doha despite stadium beer ban’ – The Sun website.

‘People somehow manage to celebrate without consuming alcohol’ – Mediawatch.

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