Declan Rice celebrates as England advance to the semi-finals of Euro 2020
Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
With Jordan Henderson struggling for fitness at the start of the Euros, Declan Rice – already a key figure with West Ham – was called upon by Gareth Southgate to take the lead in midfield for the tournament. So far, the 22-year-old has more than answered the call, with a series of performances emphatically vindicating the manager’s trust in him, as shown again in the quarter-final against Ukraine.
Rice’s positional sense was exemplary in Rome and perhaps at no point was that better encapsulated than in the 11th minute when Harry Kane, attempting to flick the ball into the path of Raheem Sterling from John Stones’s pass, turned over possession just inside the Ukraine half.
Oleksandr Zinchenko, Roman Yaremchuk and Andriy Yarmolenjo were all ahead of the ball for Ukraine but England were never at particular risk of being overloaded 3 v 2 on the transition at this point because of Rice’s position effectively as a third centre-back. The West Ham midfielder was over quickly to apply pressure on Yaremchuk as he passed out wide to Yarmolenko, which bought Luke Shaw time to recover ground and meant neither Harry Maguire nor John Stones were dragged out of position attempting to press the ball.
Instead, Maguire was able to get across to patrol Yarmolenko and when the cross did come in from close to the right by-line, Rice – who had continued his run back into the penalty area – was there to collect the ball at the near post behind Maguire and clear.
No England player has made more tackles than Rice at the Euros and only Kyle Walker has made more recoveries but, as adept as Rice is at protecting big distances and for all the ground he covers, you seldom see him frantically scrambling around because he routinely takes up such good starting positions.
How Rice does the dirty work
Yarmolenko must have gone to bed on Saturday evening wondering if his West Ham team-mate was going to wake up next to him. Rice shadowed the space in and around Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk quite superbly, often positioning himself between the pair and rarely ever more than a couple of metres away. It helped to neuter Ukraine’s attacking threat and Denmark may feel they have to do a far better job at applying pressure on Rice through Mikkel Damsgaard and Martin Braithwaite or bypassing him if they are to disrupt England’s rhythm.
Declan Rice acted as Yarmolenko's shadow for almost the entire quarter-final
Rice was in quick to make crucial interceptions against Zinchenko and Yarmolenko in the penalty area in the first half and on three separate occasions in the space of four minutes in the lead up to his substitution, he nicked the ball away Yaremchuk and Yarmolenko. The look of dejection on Yarmolenko’s face spoke volumes.
The comfort Maguire and Stones, and the full-backs Walker and Shaw, take from having Rice sitting in is obvious and also allows Kalvin Phillips to take up a more advanced position. Walker and Stones have become accustomed to playing with a specialist in that position with Fernandinho and Rodri at Manchester City.
But Maguire and Shaw look much more reassured with Rice anchoring the midfield for England than they do with the erratic Fred for Manchester United. In that regard, United’s interest in Rice is understandable. But Rice is not all dirty work. David Moyes, his manager at West Ham, believes Rice could and should be scoring more given that he has a “kick like a horse” and there was a glimpse of that in the 33rd minute when he forced an anxious save from Heorhiy Buschcan with a swerving shot from outside the penalty area.
Yet it was the moments before that effort which reinforced Rice’s value. He had helped instigate the attack that led to the chance by sweeping up possession after Ukraine had frantically tried to clear their lines in the previous passage of play and it was Rice, after his shot was saved, who was out to smother Mykola Shaparenko and force him back to his own goal when Ukraine spotted a chance to counter.
Set piece threat
For all his diligence and intelligence with and without the ball and his leadership qualities – watch how much a vocal Rice instructs and directs team-mates on the pitch, impressive maturity for a 22-year-old – the 6ft 1in midfielder is also a handful at set-pieces.
Declan Rice (R) marks Ukraine's midfielder Serhiy Sydorchuk
Credit: ALBERTO LINGRIA
He made himself a nuisance when running across Ukraine’s defensive line, dragging his marker with him, when Kane headed over Shaw’s free-kick in the first half and there was a similarly disruptive run to the front for England’s second goal when Maguire headed home Shaw’s free-kick for England’s second goal.
Rice thinks about the game but he is unafraid to mix it physically, at one point enjoying a wrestling contest in the penalty area with Yaremchuk having earlier beaten the strapping 6ft 3in Ukraine striker in the air to win a defensive header.
A protective substitution
Often being the first substitute in a game may not reflect too kindly on the player being withdrawn but the exact opposite was true in England’s case against Ukraine. With England 3-0 in front and cruising early in the second half, Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland’s first thought was to take off Rice – who was a yellow card away from suspension – and guarantee his availability for the semi-final.
Fellow defensive midfielder Phillips was also on a booking but it was Rice whom they wanted to protect first and he will be one of the first names on the team-sheet against Denmark. The management staff clearly view him as one of the team’s “brains”. Graeme Jones, one of Southgate’s assistants, was busy passing on information to Rice during a break in play in the 35th minute to share with team-mates.