England’s second goal just before half-time, the goal that killed this World Cup last-16 tie, was a pure Jude Bellingham moment.

Watching from high in the gods of Al Bayt Stadium as three white England shirts surged and veered like an aerial display team across that lozenge of wide‑open green space, it almost felt like a moment of show-Bellingham, a glossy set piece to go with all the close‑quarter stuff in between, the moments of graft that had kept England in this game in its early stages.

England had been flat at times in the first half against Senegal, had seemed to be playing with a tension headache. But they were 1-0 up when England’s outstanding midfielder picked the ball up 40 yards from his own goal, shrugged his way into space, and looked up.

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And this part was pure cinema. You could almost hear the whirr of maths being crunched, lanes and distances overlaid, prelude to a moment of calculated abandon as Bellingham surged for the open ground, sensing the tender point in front of him. This was a cold decision, a calculated moment of attack. But it also just looked like fun, the pure pleasure of finding no resistance, of being able to move through all that lighted space.

And Bellingham can move. He has that easy, lengthening stride, a man who always seems to be running downhill. He veered away from one green shirt, then another, then funnelled the ball into Phil Foden’s path, haring away down the left.

Foden knew what to do. The pass inside was perfect to Harry Kane, who, frankly, just wasn’t capable of missing this. It wasn’t really a finish from Kane, more a kind of release, a goal‑vomit, the ball smashed past Édouard Mendy close to the centre of the net with a sense of joy and rage.

It was fitting that Bellingham should provide the key part of the key moment of a game that might have run away from England, but which ended in a disarmingly routine 3-0 victory. Because he was magnificent in those difficult moments, when England were flat, with no shared patterns, no idea of how they hoped to move the ball among themselves.

Bellingham gets a pat on the back from Gareth Southgate.
Bellingham gets a pat on the back from Gareth Southgate. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Bellingham ran and ratted, won headers, made four tackles when England were out of the game. It was that graft, the boiler-room stuff that gave England the platform to surge. And this is a player who can basically do anything in that role, who has the full quiver of midfield skills, able to set the tempo or disrupt it. That newly installed mobility in the centre is perhaps the single most exciting thing about this late Gareth Southgate team, the part that makes you start to wonder, soberly, where this all may end. Things get tired. Energy dissipates. It has been almost seven years now. But England now have this.

The idea of the box-to-box player, the run-shoot-tackle creature, a kind of midfield wildebeest, is baked into English footballing lore. The surging midfielder seems to occupy the same mental space as heavy cavalry, as the Lancaster bomber. We think of Bryan Robson, shoulder in a sling, head bandaged, pounding through a pre-modern quagmire, or Steven Gerrard in full gallop-mode, ears whirring, knees pumping.

But there haven’t actually been many of them. In reality this thing, like so many others in the same area, has often been a chimera, a puzzle of uneven capacities. Bellingham is something else, a high-spec modern upgrade, a player with deeper gears. Has there been a more rounded, more compelling central midfielder on Qatar’s lighted stages in the opening four games of this World Cup?

Southgate had picked what is surely his strongest team for this knockout game. And that three-man midfield is a genuine strength. It has been a slightly haphazard process to get here. But Bellingham‑Rice‑Henderson is the most balanced midfield England have had in the Southgate era, or indeed any era you care to mention going right back through the strangled and weirdly four-square attempts to make the years of plenty work under Sven-Göran Eriksson.

It was the midfield that made and also scored the opening goal. And of course it was Bellingham again, running ahead of Kane, taking a lovely pass into his stride, waiting, waiting some more, then cutting a lovely pass inside the pursuing defender. Henderson was already there, the finish a lovely, easy action.

The celebration between the two was just as engrossing, a combination of forehead‑to‑forehead man‑shouting, followed by a genuinely tender hug.

Bellingham had spoken about Henderson in the week leading up to the game. There are 13 years between them, but also a clear bond.

And Henderson is also a vital player in that newly minted three, in ways that extend beyond his basic ability to run and pass and cover. Henderson is basically England’s grown-up in there, less elegant and watchable than Bellingham and Declan Rice, who was also excellent. But Henderson is also willing to snipe at the ref, to be horrible, to stamp on the penalty spot, to run the weaselly parts of a game. Henderson is that guy. You need that guy.

There is a strong chance England’s 4-3-3 may be sacrificed in the next game if Southgate feels alarmed enough by the idea of Harry Maguire being exposed to France’s speed. It is to be hoped he retains this bolder shape in some form.

In that midfield three England have found a rare balance. It deserves to be tested.