Serbia 0 England 1 – Bellingham inevitable but did Alexander-Arnold midfield role work? – The Briefing

Euro 2024 began with a narrow win for England on Sunday evening as they defeated Serbia 1-0.

It’s been a tournament of early goals so far and it only took Gareth Southgate’s side 13 minutes to open their account, via a brave header from Jude Bellingham — 20 years old but already playing in his third tournament.

Friendly defeat to Iceland was forgotten as England’s short sharp passing restricted Serbia to only two shots from distance in the opening 45 minutes. But Dragan Stojkovic’s side improved markedly after the break and made England work particularly hard for the three points. Harry Kane saw a header pushed onto the bar brilliantly by Predrag Rajkovic late on, but in the words of former England manager Sven Goran-Eriksson, ‘first half good, second half not so good.’

Here, our writers break down some of the main talking points from a nervous evening in Gelsenkirchen.

Is Jude Bellingham inevitable?

Serbia’s national team manager, Dragan Stojkovic, spoke on Saturday night about not letting Bellingham control the ball, play a pass and then run into empty space. Stojkovic said his players had been working on stopping that all week.

Well, it took all of 13 minutes for Bellingham to take possession on the halfway line, pass sideways to Kyle Walker, who then slipped it into Bukayo Saka running in behind.

Bellingham, off the ball, continued his run past several sleeping Serbia players and met Saka’s cross with a perfectly timed header to give England the lead.

Aged only 20, it may be too soon to say Bellingham’s greatness is inevitable, but he was flawless in England’s Euro 2024 opener. Whether it was a delicious, nonchalant half-volley pass to Walker or starting a bit of needle with Filip Kostic off the ball, the Real Madrid star was everywhere.

(Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

He is going to be crucial if England are to have a chance of winning the European Championship and his performance in the first Group C fixture showed why. It was a great start for Bellingham, who isn’t fazed by anything.

Dan Sheldon

How did Alexander-Arnold get on in midfield?

People were questioning Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion in midfield ahead of the opening game, but we need to acknowledge his role in the context of international football — where individual qualities and moments are more likely to be the valued than a player’s impact on out of possession structure.

Judging Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion through the lens of a club team is probably not the best thing to do. England’s No 8 showed he is up to the task this summer, with a mature display in a fluid midfield against Serbia. At times he was pulling into an orthodox right-back role. On other occasions he was tucking inside to get involved in the build-up, much like his role this season for Liverpool. It was also not uncommon to see him pushing on the last line to pin Serbia’s centre-backs further back.

Where Alexander-Arnold will be particularly valuable at international level is finding those gaps in the opposition defence from long range. At times, the ball needed to be switched quickly to move Serbia’s stubborn defensive block, and there is no England player who can zip a ball with the accuracy that Alexander-Arnold can.

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(Matt McNulty – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Sure, he had one or two shaky moments in possession — one being a key turnover on the edge of England’s box that led to a lucrative Serbia effort on goal — but his positive contribution far outweighs the lazy narrative about his defensive capabilities. If anything, he positioning in the middle of the park was key in intercepting a Serbia pass to set England on a dangerous counter-attack. Gareth Southgate has worked hard for months to ensure that this Alexander-Arnold “project” works well. In that regard, it is so far, so good.

Mark Carey

How did Marc Guehi do on his tournament debut?

It took over 50 minutes for Dusan Vlahovic to get the better of Marc Guehi. He managed to get on the outside of the centre-back from a Serbia ball in behind, but Kieran Trippier got to the cutback. Guehi has the hardest task of any England player at this tournament, stepping in for Harry Maguire who has been an ever-present in tournaments under Gareth Southgate — and missed Euro 2024 through injury.

It was the exact game where Southgate would want Maguire too: up against a cross-heavy wing-back system, with a front two, needing aerial threats in both boxes to deny Serbia chances and create from set pieces. Guehi completed all 32 passes in the first-half and won all three duels, going touch-tight to Vlahovic when he dropped in to receive and holding his own in the air.

As a right-footer off the left his build-up angles can be awkward, but he consistently pushed forward in the Serbia half to support the left-sided rotations between Trippier, Bellingham and Foden. It was not quite a baptism of fire but against a particularly awkward opponent, Guehi stood firm.

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(Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Liam Tharme

A typically slow start at a tournament from Harry Kane?

It always used to be said of Harry Kane that he started seasons slowly, struggling August before clicking into gear. Could it maybe be said now that he starts tournaments slowly? Tonight he was barely involved in England’s best moments of the first half, although he did see more of the ball after the break, almost scoring a late header. And the way that England play, with other attackers running beyond Kane, means that he does not need to score all of the goals himself.

But if anyone is worried about Kane’s start, just look back at his last two tournaments. In Qatar he started the World Cup slowly, not scoring in the group stage, before scoring in knock-out games against Senegal and France.. In the last Euros in 2021, he looked far from his normal self in the group stage, not scoring, leading to some bizarre calls he should be dropped for Callum Wilson. But he was brilliant in the knock-out rounds, scoring four goals.

There is no reason to worry yet.

Jack Pitt-Brooke

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(Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

How concerned should England fans be after that second half?

For the first 30 minutes or so it felt like this was a newly expansive confident England team, playing a more advanced brand of football than we had ever seen from them before. And then over time it became something slightly more familiar, as England sat back and dug in, conceded chances, and what initially looked like a breeze became something different.

What does this tell us? That England lack the confidence or sharpness to play at full tilt for a full 90 minutes? That Southgate lacks the courage of his convictions and will always fall back on the comfort blanket of ‘Gazball’? Maybe. You would struggle to argue that this 90 minutes was a complete or ‘statement’ performance. But we should all know what tournament football is like now, that starting slowly is no disaster, and that ultimately there are no prizes for playing the best football in the first week.

Whatever you think about Southgate’s tactics he knows how to navigate his way through these early phases. Big conclusions can wait.

Jack Pitt-Brooke

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(James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

How much praise do Serbia deserve?

It took Serbia almost six minutes to complete a pass. They were not really in the game for the first 30 minutes, fairly stretched by England’s rotation-heavy build-up, dropping a No 9 down to turn the 5-3-2 into a 5-4-1 and try to control the midfield battle.

Clearly head coach Dragan Stojkovic was scarred by the World Cup, where Serbia scored five times and led in two games but a poor defence meant they went out in the groups. Slightly disappointingly, he dropped No 10 Dusan Tadic, their chief creator, and went for a more physical, defensive-minded midfield trio of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Nemanja Gudelj and Sasa Lukic.

Their defensive scheme showed whenever England tried to play into Bellingham or Kane. Bellingham was frequently met with contact and fouls, while Kane grappled with Nikola Malenkovic all game as Jordan Pickford kicked long.

At their best, Serbia are immensely threatening from wide areas, can devastate in transition and carve teams apart when they play direct into the forwards and set midfielders. A first-half injury to left wing-back Filip Kostic did not help, forcing Strahinja Pavlovic out wide. Serbia are not tactically unpredictable but more unstoppable under Stojkovic, and they almost always score — 25 goals in 15 games post-World Cup, only failing to score in two matches.

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(Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

England got bodies in their own box to defend Serbia’s crosses — they only completed two out of 15 — and exploited their lackadaisical marking to score the winner from a cross themselves. Serbia having their hardest game first will leave them optimistic, especially with four points likely enough to qualify. Slovenia next up is the ideal game.

Liam Tharme

Jude Bellingham was England’s hero, but Declan Rice’s contribution shouldn’t go unheralded. So often when England were living dangerously, it was the Arsenal player who got a foot in or closed down a space.

There was one particular early in the second half that summed up Rice’s evening, making a last-ditch challenge to deny Andrija Zivkovic after the Serbia forward got goal-side of Kieran Trippier and then tidying up after Trent Alexander-Arnold was dispossessed challenge in a dangerous area.

Rice seemed to tire as the game went on, like several of his team-mates, but he continued to make important interventions like that right to the end.

Oliver Kay

What did Dragan Stojkovic say?

We will bring you this after he has spoken at the post-match press conference.

What did Gareth Southgate say?

We will bring you this after he has spoken at the post-match press conference.

What next for Serbia?

Thursday, June 20: Slovenia, Group C (Munich), 2pm BST, 9am ET

What next for England?

Thursday, June 20: Denmark, Group C (Frankfurt), 5pm BST, noon ET

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(Top photo: Getty Images)

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