GLASGOW -- It says everything about Jude Bellingham's performance here that the same Scotland fans who spent the entire evening making Hampden Park as hostile as possible ended up applauding the England midfielder from the field towards the end of Tuesday's 3-1 win. They weren't huge in number, more a smattering dotted around this famous old ground, but the fact there were any at all was testament to the sort of display worthy of gracing the world's oldest international fixture and perhaps one that could come to redefine this England team.
Real Madrid appear to have unlocked a new dimension to Bellingham's game by playing him further forward at the top of a midfield diamond, akin to a number ten, but Carlo Ancelotti instigated that change to offset the lack of a reliable goalscorer.
Yet, England have one of the best strikers around in Harry Kane and so if Bellingham can deliver the same attacking threat on the international stage, Gareth Southgate may just have solved his midfield conundrum ahead of Euro 2024. The combination of Bellingham, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and Kane was simply too much for Scotland, a team that had won their last five matches -- including a home victory over Spain -- by a combined aggregate score of 12-1.
It became a common theme during the last Euros that Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips embodied Southgate's inherent caution: a central midfield pairing providing additional protection to a vulnerable defence at the expense of greater attacking intent.
Jude Bellingham has 8 goal contributions in his first 6 matches this season ✨— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 12, 2023
Doing all of this at only 20 years old 🤯 pic.twitter.com/buwqXRQuER
Bellingham is potentially transformative in this respect. Euro 2020 came too soon for him to play anything more than a bit-part role in three substitute appearances but now, still only 20 years old, he appears ready to take centre stage to create ahead of Rice and Phillips. England's now customary 4-3-3 shape looked closer to 4-2-3-1 at times as Bellingham drifted into a central position to devastating effect.
He had a key role in England's opening goal scored by Foden, netted the second himself after a mistake by Andy Robertson and encapsulated his all-round quality with a smart turn and pass for Kane to score a late third, settling nerves after Harry Maguire's 67th-minute own goal.
Bellingham now has nine goals in his last nine games for club and country. Such prolific form is surely unsustainable but England's hopes of ending a 58-year wait for a tournament next summer are driven to a great extent by daring to dream how good Bellingham could become.
"He was excellent," said Southgate. "We thought that position might cause a problem. We knew we needed athleticism there to press Scotland because their midfield players can dictate games. We knew in the way we play, it might create a bit of an overload but there was a nice balance to the team with Kalvin and Dec doing a brilliant job of mopping up, destroying things and keeping the ball ticking over well."
Bellingham described it afterwards as a "freedom role." "He doesn't want to think its complete freedom," said Southgate in response.
"To be fair, he did a really good job out of possession for us. We want all our players to have all that freedom and contrary to what people seem to think most of the time, I think they do have that. What was key for Jude was the timing of his forwards runs. He's got that ability to slip through challenges and he's just a brilliant competitor."
How Southgate must wish Phillips played regularly at club level. Lost amid the furore over including Jordan Henderson and Maguire was the loyalty to Phillips, who has played just six minutes at Manchester City this season.
With Rodri playing more often than any other City player in the Premier League last season and the club's effort to sign Rice from West Ham this summer, Phillips' prospects of regular action with City look bleak. However, Southgate has kept faith to this point and the 27-year-old produced the sort of display here that will extend that line of credit into October and beyond.
46' - Harry Maguire comes on for England (🏴 2-0 🏴)— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 12, 2023
67' - Harry Maguire own goal (🏴 2-1 🏴)
Tough 😰 pic.twitter.com/R9kMiLRAB2
Whether the same can be said of Henderson remains to be seen given how much more fluid England's midfield was in his absence, but the more urgent question is surely whether Maguire can reverse the alarming downturn in fortunes. After being cheered on by Arsenal fans when playing for Manchester United at Emirates Stadium prior to this international break, his mere presence threatened for a time to turn this entire occasion into a farce.
Introduced at half-time for Marc Guehi due to injury, Maguire was again cheered by the majority of the 49,129 crowd and his every touch jeered thereafter. The 30-year-old turning Robertson's cross into his own net was a moment of high jinks beyond their wildest dreams.
England fans responded by chanting Maguire's name and Southgate took the opportunity to launch an unusually aggravated response of his own. "From a Scotland fan's point of view, I get it and I have absolutely no complaints with what they did," he said.
"It is a consequence of ridiculous treatment of him for a long period of time, frankly. I think our fans recognised 'OK, there might be a bit of heat from our own supporters but we're not going to have it from others getting into him.'
"But it's a joke. I've never known a player treated like he is, not by the Scottish fans but by our own commentators, pundits whatever it is. They've created something beyond anything I've ever seen. He's been an absolute stalwart in the second most successful England team in decades. He's been an absolutely key part of that. I've talked about the importance of our senior players, he's been crucial amongst that.
"Every time he goes on the field, the resilience he shows, the balls he shows is absolutely incredible."
Maguire has indeed been a mainstay in the Southgate era but he is currently losing the battle of keeping his place in England's first team. The progressive passing of Guehi, also impressive against Ukraine, and Lewis Dunk offer intriguing alternatives Southgate should pursue, particularly if Maguire continues to struggles for minutes at United.
England wobbled after Maguire's error -- described by Southgate as "just unfortunate" -- as Scotland sensed an opportunity but after Eberechi Eze missed when clean through, Bellingham affected play again to release Kane for his record-extending 59th international goal.
The fans finished the night singing: "Harry Maguire, he's winning 3-1." He primarily had Bellingham to thank for that.