Perhaps the pre-match booing of Harry Maguire was in Gareth Southgate’s mind as he attempted to keep a lid on the excitement about Jude Bellingham’s latest classy cap for England.
The bizarre abuse for Maguire – a player central to England’s runs to the semi-finals of a World Cup and final of a European Championship – was a reminder of how quickly some supporters can turn on a former favourite.
And at 18, there’s no doubt Bellingham will have plenty of challenging experiences of his own to deal with during the course of his career.
But unfortunately for Southgate, the clamour for a more important role for Bellingham looks set only to get louder as the Qatar World Cup approaches.
A place on the plane? The real debate about Bellingham now is whether he should be in the starting XI.
“There’s a long way to go,” said Southgate when he was asked about Bellingham after Tuesday’s win over Ivory Coast. “We’re good at building our players up.
“There’s great competition for places and when we’re developing players we have to do it carefully. We shouldn’t put a load of hype around them because the rewards in our country are different to any other country. The spotlight is different and all the other countries have really good players as well.”
All of that is true and we’ve seen at Manchester City how Pep Guardiola’s stubborn determination to ease Phil Foden into the first-team frame at a slower pace than many outsiders were calling for has benefitted another young English talent.
But when Bellingham plays as brilliantly as he did at Wembley the plaudits are inevitable and irresistible.
Within five minutes he’d shown the attacking No 8 role in England’s 4-3-3 would give him license to display his eye-catching attributes, winning the ball in midfield and swiftly releasing Ollie Watkins with a well-weighted pass before an offside flag scuppered the move.
A flick then set up a slick one-two with Raheem Sterling, which led to Bellingham’s shot being deflected onto a post by Ivory Coast goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare.
That combination play with his team-mates was a feature throughout the night, with Bellingham also linking up smartly with Luke Shaw and Jack Grealish down the left side.
“It’s scary how talented he is at 18 years of age,” Grealish said afterwards. “He’s so mature. I was nowhere near as good as him when I was 18. I was on loan at Notts County.”
I was nowhere near as good as him when I was 18. I was on loan at Notts County.
Bellingham already has a full Championship season and almost three Bundesliga campaigns under his belt, not to mention his 16 Champions League appearances. He’s not 19 until the summer but he’ll be closing in on 150 professional appearances by then.
Grealish went on to praise his “fellow Brummie’s” adaptability. “He’s so versatile, he can play so many different positions – a No 6, a No 8, a No 10.”
That has been a feature of Bellingham’s performances for Borussia Dortmund this season, where he has been able to switch between a variety of central midfield roles for the German side but still retain the skills of a “foraging No 8”, as Southgate memorably described him this week.
But whatever position he plays, Bellingham is already a trusted figure at the second-best club in the Bundesliga – and proving to be a real handful for opposition sides.
He has made the most starts among outfielders for Dortmund this season and is, by some distance, the most fouled player in the division. Only six players have recorded more than his seven assists.
While his high numbers for unsuccessful touches and times he’s been dispossessed hint at the development he has to do, they are also a result of the raw, youthful adventure he plays with, which should surely be harnessed rather than restrained.
That style gives Southgate an interesting challenge in terms of where best to place Bellingham in his team.
“He pressed as a No 10 but he didn’t play as a No 10,” Southgate said of Bellingham’s role in the Ivory Coast game, before speculating on how the teenager will progress.
“He won’t be a No 10. He will be a really powerful attacking No 8, with his ability to get forward and link.
“He might end up being able to play deeper as well but at the moment he wants to go and press and that takes him out of the defensive positions a little bit too early.
“You have to give him his head. It’s a bit like Conor Gallagher. If they want to go and press, they’re not at the moment going to have the stability to play deeper, maybe as a double pivot.
“He could do it in a 3-4-3 but the likes of Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson have got that tactical awareness that’s so important for those positions.
“We’ve been talking to him about moments to go and not to go. At times he goes too early when he’s never going to get there. As he gets older he’ll run about 1.5km less and be a lot more effective and efficient with his defending. But that’s part of the learning.”
That nod from Southgate to the tactical discipline of Rice, Phillips and Henderson is perhaps a warning that the England boss, who has a reputation for erring on the side of caution, may prefer to go into the World Cup with more predictable partnerships in central midfield.
Like Maguire, Rice and Phillips proved at the Euros they can deliver on the big stage for Southgate and the England boss has made no secret he values that trust he can place in their performances.
But Bellingham – described as “a great prospect” by former captain Paul Ince on Tuesday – may be a great option to start for England come November.
He’s rising rapidly and containing the excitement and calls for a greater role in this team won’t be easy to do.
England podcast special: Maguire boos, the best and worst case World Cup draws and our 23-man squad selections for Qatar
It’s an England special of the Essential Football Podcast after the Three Lions’ wins over Switzerland and Ivory Coast during the international break. Charlotte Marsh is joined by senior football journalist Pete Smith and football writer Ben Grounds to have a look back – and forwards – on England’s 2022.
Part 1 | What did we learn from the two friendlies? How much can we read into Gareth Southgate’s squad selection, and who did the guys pick in their 23 for Qatar?
Part 2 | What was the thinking behind the Maguire boos and did Southgate nail his response? Who could England face in Qatar, and who would be the best and worst-case scenario? Finally, how is England’s 2022 shaping up?