Czech Republic vs England: the Declan Rice decision for Southgate
Declan Rice has quickly become a lock-in for Gareth Southgate but is he helping or hindering a team that looks short of inspiration?
Should Jack Grealish be starting? Should Harry Kane be in the penalty area more often? Does Jadon Sancho still exist?
All these questions and more are whipping around the usual major tournament maelstrom for England, as Gareth Southgate's under-pressure side prepare for their final Group D game against the Czech Republic.
A dour 0-0 draw against Scotland means the feelgood factor that followed the Three Lions' opening 1-0 win over Croatia has largely dissipated, with ample debate surrounding multiple positions in the line-up – particularly the understudies to a talent-stacked forward line after three shots on target over the course of 180 minutes.
Further back, things feel more settled and Southgate would surely be loath to make unnecessary changes in midfield if self-isolation rules out Chelsea playmaker Mason Mount.
Declan Rice has become a mainstay for the England boss and feels like a virtually certain starter against the Czechs, but is the West Ham favourite making enough of a positive impact to merit that status?
Dropping anchor in the England midfield
Since Rice was persuaded to switch allegiance from the Republic of Ireland, who he represented in three international friendlies in 2018, Southgate has made the 22-year-old a key pillar of his side.
Of his 19 England appearances, 17 have been starts. Since making his debut from the bench in the opening Euro 2020 qualifier – when the Czech Republic were dispatched 5-0 at Wembley – two of the four competitive games in which Rice has not featured were the third-place match against Switzerland in the Nations League Finals and the formality of a World Cup qualifier versus San Marino.
The other two, perhaps tellingly in the eyes of some critics, were back-to-back European Championship qualifiers against Bulgaria and Montenegro that England won 6-0 and 7-0 in an expansive 4-3-3 setup.
There is a sense that a midfield axis of Rice and Kalvin Phillips represents undue caution on Southgate's behalf, leaving the team arguably light in the attacking-midfield positions where there is such a depth of options.
Phillips laid on Raheem Sterling's winner against Croatia and won deserved plaudits for an all-action display but the influence of Rice, whose performances at club level have impressed to the extent he has reportedly caught the attention of Chelsea and Manchester United, has been harder to spot.
Creator? Destroyer? Neither?
Of course, it is the lot of the defensive midfielder that plenty of their best work goes unnoticed, in both attack and defence. So, has Rice been quietly compiling impressive displays under the radar?
The numbers from England's first two Euro 2020 matches would suggest not. Across both of those games, he has made one tackle, no interceptions and recovered possession seven times.
Examining some players performing similar roles for teams with comparable pre-tournament hopes of success to England, Spain's Rodri and the Netherlands' Marten de Roon also made a tackle apiece across the first two match days. However, De Roon boasted three interceptions and 12 recoveries – the latter the same as Phillips, incidentally – and Rodri has two and 11 on those metrics.
Jorginho, whose club status at Chelsea would come into question were those Rice rumours to come to fruition, has been the conductor for Italy. After starting all three group victories for Roberto Mancini's side, the former Napoli player – not noted as an overly combative presence – made three tackles, seven interceptions and 16 recoveries.
Within a free-flowing Azzurri, Jorginho has also created five chances, which feels like an over-performance for a player in his role considering the numbers for De Roon (two), Rodri (one) and Rice (zero).
Nevertheless, even if holding players do not always contribute directly to goal attempts, their creative influence can be vital at the fulcrum of the side.
Rice and De Roon have each been involved in five open-play sequences leading to shots, with Rodri on seven and Jorginho way out in front on 18.
The Italy man's average carry progress - the distance he moves vertically upfield when in possession of the ball - is 5.6 metres, ahead of De Roon's 3.2m.
There is little argument Italy and the Netherlands have provided far more entertainment value than Spain and England, with Rodri and Rice's progressive carry averages clocking a far more conservative 1.9m and 1.6m respectively.
This is despite Rice's average carry distance overall being 10.8m, more than his three counterparts, meaning he is moving a lot with the ball at his feet but not often forwards.
Shackled by Southgate?
Those figures create an unhelpful picture of a player not being particularly prolific in terms of snuffing out opposition attacks or launching them for his own team.
If Rice had been making comparable contributions at West Ham it is unlikely he would be anywhere near the England side and the drop-off from his club productivity for the opening two games of the Euros is stark.
During an impressive 2020-21 for David Moyes' side, Rice's averaged 6.1m for progressive carries and 12m overall.
His club v country disparity is comparable to Rodri, who clocked a 5m average for progressive carries for Premier League winners Manchester City. In this sense, Mancini's achievement with Jorginho is providing a structure where he can reach similar levels of effectiveness to those he does at Chelsea (4.7m per progressive carry).
Rice's carries led to four shots for the player himself during West Ham games last term (one goal) and five assists. Rodri fired five shots and created as many chances in this manner, with Jorginho and Atalanta's De Roon creating three and one chances respectively without attempting a shot between them.
For the Hammers, Rice averaged 7.28 recoveries per game and 1.84 for both tackles and interceptions, once again suggesting far more active and impactful displays than he has produced – or been allowed to produce - for England.
Much of the discussion around the England team has concerned whether Southgate should loosen the shackles on his full-backs and in central areas to give his attacking players a more progressive platform. Perhaps, in the case of his first-choice holding midfielder, part of the answer is already in the XI.
If Rice can bring his West Ham levels of influence to bear on the international stage, it could help England to be a more assertive presence overall. If his low-output efforts remain, then the likes of Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham should be asked to supply the midfield thrust he has failed to provide so far at Euro 2020.
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