In any conversation about England right now, it seems impossible to avoid a mention of Jude Bellingham. Jordan Henderson, a player who has seen and done just about everything in the game, is no different.
“How can you be so strong mentally at that age?” asked the 32-year-old, marvelling at the mentality of the teenager who drove England forward to such stunning effect against Senegal last Sunday.
“When I was 19, I was such an idiot. Yeah, I think the special part about him is his mentality. We all know how good he is as a footballer. He’s certainly shown that again this tournament. The mentality side is something unique, and something I knew was very special the first time I met him.”
If Bellingham offers one good reason to believe in England’s chances of knocking France off their perch on Saturday night, then Henderson’s presence alongside him and 23-year-old Declan Rice at the heart of the Three Lions’ midfield is another.
After coming off the bench against USA in England’s second group game, the Liverpool captain has begun the subsequent wins over Wales and Senegal and blended impressively with the two younger men. His chemistry with Bellingham in particular has been much discussed in the days since the round of 16.
Henderson told FIFA: “Well, it’s only been a couple of games that we’ve played together so it’s still quite new, but at the same time, it feels as though we’ve been playing together for a long time when we’re out there [with] the relationship that we have, both on and off the field, and so far, it’s worked well.
“I love his personality, and how brave he is, to get on the ball and to affect games. Obviously, without the ball, he works extremely hard to get the ball back for us, which is another huge asset.
“He’s just an all-round top midfielder really, with great hunger and desire, a great mentality and I’ve really enjoyed playing in there when I’ve played with him, alongside Dec. I’ve felt really comfortable and [it’s] really good to go out and express ourselves.”
Of Rice, the holding midfielder, Henderson added: “ Declan’s a really good protector, especially for the two eights that play ahead of him, and for the back four. He’s a real protector. In defence and in terms of when we lose the ball high up the pitch, he’s always there to protect, and help the defenders cover the ground.
“He’s a great athlete, gets all over the pitch really well. Really good on the ball, starts the play off, starts the build-up, can pick passes out, so in that position he’s a top, top, top midfielder, and still so young. You know, he plays with a lot of experience and maturity. He’s played in big games, and he’s been a big, big player for us.”
Together they form a well-balanced trio, as Henderson acknowledged: “You know there’s a lot of legs in there to cover ground. We’re complementing each other in different ways and we give each other different ways of freedom, being able to use our strengths.”
Few people would consider goalscoring one of Henderson’s strengths but Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff appreciate the way that a player conditioned to a front-foot approach under Jurgen Klopp helps to move England up the pitch.
It even brought him his third international goal against Senegal – and a memorable goal celebration.
“It was off the cuff, you know? I’m pretty intense when I’m playing, anyway. I thought it was one of my better celebrations. Normally I’m just shouting and screaming so, I’ll take that. I just saw Jude when I finished, and he followed my run. He was there, and it was a pretty good celebration, I think, in the end.
“I’ve had a lot of people texting us, putting their heads together with different people, on social media and stuff, so it’s been quite funny to be fair. They put speech bubbles on them and all that. Yeah, different ones.
“And then after the game, we did a picture – me and Trent, we were just taking the mick a little bit afterwards about it. But in the heat of the moment, you know, it was very emotional.”
For another perspective on Henderson’s connection with Bellingham, FIFA asked Mason Mount, who said: “It’s like old and young. He is learning off him. But Jordan is such an experienced pro he helps everyone, and you can really take a lot off him, if that’s off the pitch or on the pitch.
“He’s brilliant for the team and a lot of us speak to him and ask him questions and try to get as much info and make yourself better as well in that process.”
Mount also gave a sense of the force-of-nature presence that Bellingham brings – even on the training pitch. “He is tough to play against in training. He’s so big for his age so it’s sometimes hard to get the ball off him.”
Bellingham is not the only youngster who has caught the eye in England’s campaign, with Bukayo Saka, 21, and Phil Foden, 22, excelling in the wide attacking positions. Mount, only 23 himself, noted the contrast between the youthful energy of England and the knowhow of Didier Deschamps‘ France.
“They know what they need to do to win and they have experienced that before,” he said. “I think with us being fearless and going out there, giving everything, it’s going to be fireworks.”
As for Henderson, he does not hide the size of the challenge facing Southgate’s side at Al Bayt Stadium. “All sorts of challenges everywhere, all over the pitch,” he reflected. “World-class players, world-class team. Current champions of the world, so a huge, huge challenge for us.
“And we need to be at 100 per cent to even have a change of winning, so, a really tough test, I suppose, but one that we’ve got to look forward to, and believe we can go and put a top performance in and get the result we need.
“There are areas that I feel as though we can get at, and try and hurt them. But, you know, in transition, they’re really good. On the counter-attack, they can be devastating. They’ve got some really quick players. So you need to be ready everywhere, at all times.
“You can’t switch off. You need to be focused 100 per cent for the whole game. And the one moment that you switch off, they’ll punish you, so, yeah, we need to be right at it from the first second until the last.”