England’s hard-earned 2-1 win over Switzerland was not an international friendly of two halves but three thirds. The opening hour was all about a blend of the old and the new. It was the wing-back and three-man midfield system of the last Fifa World Cup campaign but, at the same time, with only three players who were part of it four years ago. Others were making their debuts and first international starts of their career.
The last half-hour, though, was a return to what we have come to expect from Gareth Southgate more recently. There was a back four rather than a back three. There were two holding midfielders rather than just one. There were fewer open spaces for Switzerland to probe, more control over proceedings for England. It was an improvement, to be frank, and a lot of it was down to Declan Rice.
Rice was brought on as one of four changes on the hour mark and took charge of a contest that England had been second-best in for spells. “I think he had a huge impact tonight on the game when he came on,” Southgate said after the final whistle. “A really mature performance: strong, breaks the game up so well, but now has more confidence to drive with the ball and bring it forward as well.”
It is both easy to forget how young Rice still is given his seniority in the England set-up and how senior he is given his age. Only six players in this current squad are younger than him, while only six other players have more caps. His international debut came three years ago now, when he was among the first players to be integrated into Southgate’s England to build upon the semi-final in Russia.
Though he is younger than one of Saturday’s debutants, Kyle Walker-Peters, his starting place is already non-negotiable and Southgate is now talking him up as a future captain too, one of several in the squad. “It is noticeable that we were looking at two possible teams for these games and we now have more and more club captains actually involved in the fray,” the England manager said.
Rice is only West Ham’s de facto skipper but the armband will surely be his to keep upon Mark Noble’s retirement. It could easily be followed, one day, with the same distinction at international level. “He is right amongst that despite his age,” Southgate said of Rice. “What I have seen this season is the confidence that he has gained from his experience last summer … Without a doubt he has all the attributes to be a captain.”
All of which is vindication of England’s treatment and development of Rice, which essentially saw him thrown into the deep end. “We are gaining the rewards of the opportunities we had to blood him so young,” Southgate said.
“The initial Nations League campaign and playing against the Dutch in the semi-final of that, they were the biggest games of his life at that time.” That 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands was only his third cap, second start and first real taste of elite European opposition. “He is now getting European experience with his club as well,” Southgate pointed out, “and all of those things are starting to come together.”
Rice was a 20-year-old at the time and far from a fully formed talent. His passing – a fairly integral part of the game for a player in his position – could be wayward without the excuse of being ambitious. It still does not perhaps have the range of some teammates and rivals but it has vastly improved to make the whole package only more impressive.
Despite those areas which needed attention, after Rice’s debut against the Czech Republic in March 2019, Southgate started him in six of England’s following nine games. Since the beginning of last season, Rice has started every truly competitive game possible, only sitting out against minnows such as San Marino and Andorra, and missing the Albania qualifier in November through injury.
He is now indisputably a key figure in this England set-up. Only captain Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling can be as certain of their starting place. Those early opportunities are part of that progress and Southgate’s appraisal of Rice’s rise came with a promise. “There will be others,” he said. Connor Gallagher was typically busy on his first appearance in an England starting line-up. Marc Guéhi did not look out of place either.
While England improved when Rice was introduced on Saturday, his rise over the past three years is a reminder that experimenting with youth and blooding talent early is not one of Southgate’s weaknesses but one of his strengths. Even if there may be a short-term cost in performances or results, Rice’s importance demonstrates that there can be great long-term benefits.
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