OPINION: Bellingham or Foden? It's not the same as Gerrard and Lampard

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OPINION: Bellingham or Foden? It's not the same as Gerrard and Lampard

Jude Bellingham of Real Madrid embraces Phil Foden of Manchester City after the draw in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg
Jude Bellingham of Real Madrid embraces Phil Foden of Manchester City after the draw in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final first legAFP
England fans and pundits are caught in the grips of a selection quandary as Euro 2024 edges ever nearer in June: should Gareth Southgate be moulding his first XI around the mercurial talents of Jude Bellingham (20) or Phil Foden (23) as the first-choice number 10 in Germany in the summer?

Fans of the Three Lions love giving themselves something to worry about ahead of a major tournament, whether it's a broken metatarsal, group of death or a selection headache.

Often times it's a sudden national shortage of suitable left-wingers, dependable goalkeepers or even deserving captains.

In recent times things are a little different though, with England being relatively stacked for strength in depth - particularly in forward positions - and fans of the English national side are sitting quietly confident that Gareth Southgate has enough talent in his ranks to mount a serious challenge to lift the European Championship trophy for the first time ever in July.

Jude Bellingham and Gareth Southgate during Ukraine v England
Jude Bellingham and Gareth Southgate during Ukraine v EnglandAFP

So pundits and supporters, somewhat bereft of having too much to complain about (other than maybe a few ropey recent friendly displays against Brazil and Belgium) have given themselves a fresh line of debate to keep us on our toes: Bellingham versus Foden as England's number 10.

Two lions roaring

The two young stars are enjoying incredible moments for the clubs right now, with Bellingham in particular storming out of the blocks during the early part of the season in his maiden season with Real Madrid.

Bellingham has set tongues wagging in Spain this season, with Los Blanocs boss Carlo Ancelotti pushing the former Birmingham and Dortmund man further forward up the pitch and into an attacking midfielder-cum-false nine role.

It immediately paid dividends, with Bellingham - usually more of a traditional attacking midfielder or box-to-box enforcer - suddenly evolving into a dangerous goalscoring threat.

Jude Bellingham season stats
Jude Bellingham season statsAFP / Opta by Stats Perform

In 23 La Liga appearances so far this season, the 20-year-old has netted 16 goals and provided four more assists, comfortably his most productive attacking output of his young career so far - it's the first time he's reached double figures in a single season and already double his previous best: a tally of eight goals in his final season at Dortmund.

Undroppable and unstoppable Jude

More than just a goal threat though, Bellingham has immediately become a leader on and off the pitch in Madrid, directing and dictating games, swiftly learning the local lingo and speaking on behalf of his teammates in press conferences.

He's feared and highly expected to be a Ballon d'Or contender for years to come - arguably one of the three most valuable players on the planet.

His usual position in Southgate's set-up has been in his more traditional number eight role in a midfield three, a position he remains excellent at given his world-class all-round game and he has rarely - if ever - let his side down when playing there.

Jude Bellingham of Real Madrid celebrates a goal during the La Liga 2023/24 match between Real Madrid and Girona
Jude Bellingham of Real Madrid celebrates a goal during the La Liga 2023/24 match between Real Madrid and GironaAF{

Yet there are loudening calls for Southgate to utilise Bellingham in the same way Ancelotti has in Spain, further up the pitch, perhaps in more of a shadow striker role and closer to dead-cert first-choice striker Harry Kane, who himself is enjoying yet another fruitful season in front of goal.

The provides a bit of a pickle for ol' Gareth though, given that England aren't short in depth for the front three positions (with Ollie Watkins and Ivan Toney waiting in the wings should the worst happen to Kane).

There's also another issue: Phil Foden's consistent evolution as a top, top player under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

Foden's frightening form

While his teammate Jack Grealish has struggled for form, fitness and subsequent inclusion through large parts of this season - potentially putting him at risk of missing the Euros squad altogether - Foden has become nothing short of a phenom for the Cityzens.

The 23-year-old has made the most of Kevin De Bruyne's injury issues this season to make himself a key cog in the City machine, notching up 14 goals and seven assists in 30 Premier League appearances, plus a further two goals in this season's FA Cup and five in the Champions League.

Phil Foden season stats
Phil Foden season statsAFP / Opta by Stats Perform

It's not just the numbers either; his performances have more often than not been spectacular, with the young local lad stepping up when needed with huge performances to guide his team to victory, often by way of some genuinely world-class finishes.

This was particularly evident in his side's recent renewal of pleasantries against Bellingham and Real Madrid in their Champions League quarter-final first-leg encounter.

Phil Foden (2nd R) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League quarter final first leg football match between Real Madrid CF and Manchester City
Phil Foden (2nd R) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League quarter final first leg football match between Real Madrid CF and Manchester CityAFP

A topsy-turvy, thoroughly entertaining affair caught fire early in the second half when Foden scored a stunning top bins effort to draw his side level shortly after half-time, after what had been an otherwise quiet first half for the little man.

Bellingham, in contrast, had a fairly quiet night but still looked a threat latching onto balls over the top - and his influence amongst his teammates was clear through all of Real's attacking play.

Southgate's building blocks

The question stands for Southgate come England's Euros opener against Serbia in June: which does he start, can they both start, and who do you build around?

It bears a little bit of resemblance to a famous issue faced by a few England managers of old, surrounding another two incredible English midfielders of the era when the likes of Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve Mclaren and Fabio Capello had to figure out how best to incorporate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard - two of England's best-ever attacking midfielders - into the same side.

Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard of England look on during the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualifier match between Moldova and England
Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard of England look on during the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualifier match between Moldova and EnglandAFP

It was a constant debate for everyone who was interested, with both managers usually opting to include both, sometimes one of the left, usually both in the middle of a 4-4-2, with mixed results at best. It always felt like neither were able to replicate their club form at the same time and on the same pitch for their country.

But are we in the same situation with Foden and Bellingham? Not quite.

Foden and Bellingham UCL H2H
Foden and Bellingham UCL H2HAFP / Opta by Stats Perform

While it's hard to deny the attacking gifts of Lampard and Gerrard, they were different players entirely to what Foden and especially Bellingham can offer.

As mentioned, Bellingham has mainly plied his trade as a connecting number eight but also has strong defensive capabilities and electric pace, while Foden has a first touch second to none in all of world football and an ability to beat a man on the left or right wing.

The middle men

While it's apparent that both seem to prefer playing in - and also excel in - finding themselves in the middle of the final third, both are such intelligent and versatile players that they can fit into systems in other ways whilst being given the freedom to roam into the middle when the situation arises.

It's likely that Foden could well be playing on the left for the Euros, while Bellingham will be pushed forward in a midfield three with Declan Rice and perhaps Jordan Henderson, Conor Gallagher or even Kobbie Mainoo, but he could continue to dictate from further back in the middle and sit behind a James Maddison or the in-form Cole Palmer.

Or, should Grealish (or someone else) still get the nod on the left, a midfield three of Rice sitting while Foden and Bellingham split number eight and 10 roles between them looks rather devastating on paper, if a little top-heavy. That said, England's strengths seemingly lie in being a little bloated on the attacking side.

Foden and Bellingham in action for England
Foden and Bellingham in action for EnglandAFP

It's a problem with far more practical solutions than the issues posed by the old Gerrard/Lampard conundrum, and one that no doubt Southgate, while a stickler for trying to find the right balance, is probably happy to have.

What remains absolutely vital is that both players are on the pitch as often as possible come June and that England shouldn't be choosing which one to build around, but rather building around the pair of them. 

It's not very often the Three Lions have not one but two generational talents hitting these sorts of heights in unison, and both have played in enough big games for big clubs already in their careers - with other big players - to know how to work well together.

Brad Ferguson
Brad FergusonFlashscore

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