Can England win anything with Rice and Phillips?

Tom Reed

Rightly praised for its defensive solidity, England’s central midfield of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips could be its weakest link as Southgate pushes his peas around his plate for a meal that hasn’t quite come together at the top table.

It seems harsh – given England were only a couple of feet away from penalties kissing the net and their players smooching the Euro 2020 trophy – to double-down on Southgate’s side’s shortcomings, but in the context of having ambitions to actually win a tournament, we do have to talk.

England’s defensive centre-midfield pairing of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, like Jack Russells overdosed on Schmackos escaping onto a Sunday league pitch, were able to get under people’s feet but could only guard the ball 34% of the time.

Southgate’s bench, said by the commanding Giorgio Chiellini to have the strength to make the Euro 2020 final “on their own”, was overrated and measly in central midfield, with just Jude Bellingham and a barely fit Jordan Henderson covering for two defensive central midfielders in a contact-injury position.

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Italy’s bench helped win the game, with the likes of Manuel Locatelli (from Sassuolo not Juventus) carefully introduced for retention rather than reputation, seamlessly able to keep the ball rolling for the Azzurri.

Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the two beautifully balanced English centre-mids from the golden generation turned golden oldies – said to be unable to play with each other – watched on. Nobody with their all-round passing, link-up and shooting ability resides in the current Three Lions crop. You’d kill for either of them.

Is Southgate’s penchant for the wing-back system born out of necessity rather than footballing philosophy? Drop Kalvin Phillips for a little more all-round technique and tactical flexibility and who do you choose from? The U-21s were dumped out of their own Euros by footballing pains-in-the-arses Croatia and promising young Spurs central midfielder Oliver Skipp and his ilk are unlikely to be pushed on by Southgate. The ‘next Pogba’ Carney Chukwuemeka will likely be lost in the St George’s Park development system for a good few years yet while beginning to push the agenda at Aston Villa.

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Of course, the game has moved on and you only have to look at Mason Mount for that – technical, lithe but ultimately too spindly for the dirty final 30 in tournament finals. England are fine with a bit of time on the ball but, as a unit, are lacking a little in that top-level ability to control, dominate and distribute under extreme pressure.

Federico Chiesa showed it when out-battling and out-playing Declan Rice to spin away and ping a left-footed shot from distance while showing Harry Kane the mobility required of a top-drawer modern attacker.

Southgate’s back three system presents problems for England’s DNA and a dedication to encouraging a uniformity through the age ranks (see Aidy Boothroyd flicking between a back three and four) but also for whoever plays alongside Raheem Sterling. We have Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and a myriad of dynamic attackers vying for one or two spaces in a Southgate system where Rice and Phillips are always staples. Right now, an awful lot is riding on Bellingham.

Due to the millions being pumped into the Elite Player Performance Plan, England do have a general spread of talent, but are like a dinner out at Zizzi – reliable, crowd-pleasing and Italian-influenced but in no danger of attracting a Michelin star.