When it comes to analysing the loss to Italy in the final of Euro 2020, it is hard to get past the way England were forced to retreat as the game wore on and the battle for midfield supremacy began to tilt in the direction of Jorginho and Marco Verratti.
It is a familiar tale of woe. Ten years ago it was Andrea Pirlo completing more passes than the England midfield when Italy knocked them out of Euro 2012. The flaws were clear but little changed.
This is a tournament tradition – a thread that runs from Pirlo’s masterclass in Kyiv to Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric taking back control for Croatia in the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup – and it could trip up England again if they reach the later stages in Qatar.
The challenge is not lost on the players. There was no attempt from Declan Rice to hide away from the topic on Thursday. He remembers England losing their Nations League semi-final to the Netherlands three years ago. It was Rice’s third cap and he has not forgotten Frenkie de Jong dominating midfield for the Dutch, who fought back from a goal down to win in extra time.
“My time against De Jong, I was really young,” Rice said. “I was only 19. I said at the time he was a really special player. If I want to be one of the best I need to test myself against the best. And as a central midfield group in England, if we want to be one of the best we need to win midfield battles.”
Rice has developed since facing De Jong. West Ham’s captain is one of the most commanding midfielders in the Premier League and has become an automatic starter for England, who meet Senegal in the last 16 on Sunday. It is not a surprise Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United will battle to sign him next summer.
Even so, it was tough for Rice and Kalvin Phillips when they took on Jorginho and Verratti last year. Are England geared to take on that kind of deep-lying playmaker? They made a fast start in that final, taking an early lead through Luke Shaw, but Roberto Mancini’s tactical tweaks changed the game.
“When you play against the better nations they are always going to have top midfield players,” Rice said. “They are going to have players that control games and it’s about how we can counteract that.
“Italy had an extra man in midfield because we set up with a back five, so it was hard to get pressure on the ball. It was hard to get up to the ball because they would pop it off and get you out of your slot. It’s about learning and being that coach on the pitch yourself.”
The hope is that England will be more prepared if they face Adrien Rabiot and Aurélien Tchouaméni of France in the last eight, or the Spanish midfield of Gavi, Pedri and Sergio Busquets later down the line. The quality is there. Rice offers power and poise in front of the back four. He was excellent when England drew with Germany in September – Joshua Kimmich and Ilkay Gündogan were second-best that night – and has developed a solid understanding with Jude Bellingham, who has made the midfield less predictable.
“We’re learning really well together,” Rice said of his partnership with Bellingham. “There’s been a lot of goals he’s scored this year where he’s made that late run into the box. He’s really added that to his game. [Frank] Lampard was the best at it, arriving really late. He’s really starting to show that now.”
Listening to Rice, it was clear why he is regarded as a leader. No question fazed him. He raved about Marcus Rashford – “his speed, his eye for goal, the way he hits the ball, it’s really special” – and took on Mason Mount’s social media critics.
“I don’t need to talk too much about Mase,” he said. “He just doesn’t fit the agenda of what people want an attacking midfield player to look like. He is one of the best players I’ve played with. He is such a team player, such a hard-working, honest guy.
“Sometimes people online just don’t like him. For what reason, I honestly don’t know. His numbers for Chelsea are incredible.”
The spirit in the camp is good. Rice spoke about the camaraderie in the squad and laughed about adopting Chesney Hawkes as a lucky mascot after the singer’s half-time performance during England’s win over Wales.
But it was not all fun and games. This is a big moment for Rice. He pushes forward for West Ham but he is England’s anchorman. It is on him to win the ball, set the tempo and plug the gaps when Harry Maguire steps out of defence; to perform the kind of job Busquets still does so well for Spain. Above all, it is on Rice to learn from past failures. England cannot afford to lose another midfield battle.