England could be about to embark on a new era with the inclusion of Declan Rice in Gareth Southgate’s latest squad.
The prodigiously talented West Ham midfielder has come of age under the auspices of Manuel Pellegrini this season, proving an exceptional talent and the latest star to emerge from the club’s esteemed production line.
Indeed, east London has proven a productive hotbed for young footballers over the years but Rice has truly seized the opportunity and showcased his worth at the London Stadium, cementing his name as one of the first on Pellegrini’s team sheet.
And so, after the 20-year-old switched allegiances from the Republic of Ireland to England last month, Southgate now has a very unique player on his hands, one who could transform the nation’s style of play, as well as approach in big games.
But how can the England manager truly utilise Rice and what does the player himself have to offer for the Three Lions?
Style of play
An archetypal defensive midfielder, Rice is blessed with an intelligent reading of the game, extreme composure and an innate ability to procure the ball so his more attack-minded teammates have the freedom to prosper further up the pitch.
Nominally a centre-back at youth level, Rice has developed into a midfielder of substance under Pellegrini, but having honed his craft in defence, it’s no surprise his tackling, aggression and positional play are at such a high level.
He adds significant bite to West Ham’s midfield but he is much more elegant than the typical, hurly-burly, midfield enforcer, proving at times a cruiserweight with a featherweight touch, which has ultimately drawn slight comparisons with Sergio Busquets.
That is certainly a tall order to follow, but there are some discernible similarities between the two players, mainly Rice’s ability to slow the game down and make a difficult pass look simple. He definitely has a long way to go before he can truly be considered a player of Busquets’ quality, but the early signs are promising.
Why Rice is unique for England
During the World Cup, Southgate’s three-at-the-back system proved a revelation but with the England tactician reverting to a more traditional four-man defence in recent outings, the importance of Rice enhances threefold.
Southgate’s three-at-the-back formation gave Jordan Pickford the requisite protection in Russia but often nullified the attacking potential of England’s potent strike force. Against more challenging opposition England fired consecutive blanks against Belgium, while also putting just one past Colombia and Croatia.
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However, during England’s last three matches – Croatia, USA and Spain respectively – the Three Lions have scored eight goals with a 4-3-3 formation, and this is where Rice steps into the equation.
West Ham teammate Manuel Lanzini recently backed Rice to emulate Argentinian compatriot and Barcelona legend Javier Mascherano, but the 20-year-old is much more than a mere midfield destroyer.
Pellegrini recently lauded him as a “complete player” after opening his account against Arsenal, while Tony Cascarino called him ‘better than Spurs’ Eric Dier’.
Why? Well, for West Ham this season, no player has completed more successful passes (1103) than Rice, who also boasts a passing accuracy of 85.64% – only one player to have played over 10 games for the club betters that statistic.
Rice is more of a deep-lying tempo-setter, able to recycle the ball, retain possession and dictate the tempo of West Ham’s play, which is why he has aptly earned himself the moniker the “Basmati Busquets”.
That said, Rice’s main strength is in breaking up play and anchoring the midfield, but he is seldom guilty of defensive aberrations. In the Premier League this season only Wilfred Ndidi (258) has made more recoveries than Rice (249), showing just how accomplished he is at winning the ball back when his teammates lose possession – taking that defensive burden simply gives his more attacking teammates license to operate freely.
England currently don’t have a midfielder in their ranks who combines that defensive tenacity with a refined passing range, Jordan Henderson offers the latter, while Eric Dier offers the former. Rice possesses that integral marriage between both and could add a resilience and creativity to Southgate’s midfield.
How Southgate could line-up with Rice
There are two possible line-ups Southgate could look to utilise: sticking with his current 4-3-3, or going for a two-man central midfield.
Rice has predominantly been used in a double pivot with Mark Noble this season, and to great effect; his defensive prowess and ball-playing ability allow Pellegrini to deploy just two central midfielders.
Southgate could follow suit. This formation would sit Rice alongside Henderson with the tactically astute pairing spraying passes to England’s more forward-thinking fulcrums, while also offering the necessary protection to the back four.
Rice and Henderson would look to collect the ball from deep and dominate the middle of the park, with the latter given freedom to make lung-busting runs from box-to-box, while the former meanly locks up the midfield in Henderson’s surging absence.
This second formation would see Rice play the same role that Fernandinho has made his own at Manchester City and would also bode well for Southgate’s current system.
His 4-3-3 formation has paid dividends in recent matches, but for his long-term aspirations, he will need to find the ideal blend between his central midfielders, creating cohesion between attack and defence.
Here, Rice would sit slightly deeper than Ross Barkley and Henderson, functioning as the side’s metronome; setting the tempo for play, retaining possession, but also recovering the ball when hit on the counter.
Southgate has his hands on a version of Fernandinho – which is why Man City have been linked with the West Ham man’s services – a player in the mould of Busquets, so it would make sense to continue deploying his 4-3-3 and to ultimately see whether Rice has what it takes to make the step up.