It comes back to balance. While much is made of the possibilities offered by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s emergence as an option in midfield for England, a development that raises the prospect of the Liverpool player running games with his imaginative passing, it must not be forgotten that successful international teams usually prioritise stability in the middle.
That was clearly on Gareth Southgate’s mind after England’s scratchy win over Malta last Friday. He experimented with qualification for Euro 2024 secured, starting Alexander-Arnold, Conor Gallagher and Jordan Henderson in midfield, but the plan faltered. Southgate, who removed Gallagher at half-time, will have been alarmed by how much space Malta found in front of England’s defence.
The manager is demanding an improvement when England’s qualification campaign ends in North Macedonia on Monday. Southgate is often accused of unnecessary caution but there is a reason why he craves balance. The worry is that England’s midfield does not function properly without Declan Rice. Malta stopped causing problems only when Rice came on.
There were similar issues when the former West Ham captain sat out England’s win over Australia last month. No other holding midfielder can match Rice’s physicality. No other midfielder shields England’s defence and releases their forwards so effectively.
It makes Arsenal’s £105m man one of England’s three irreplaceables. The most obvious is Harry Kane, for his goals, assists and leadership, and the country would go into panic mode if Jude Bellingham picked up an injury that threatened his participation next summer. There are other attacking midfielders but Bellingham is a special case. He could make the difference.
But Rice is no less important. Other positions are more covered. John Stones is England’s best centre-back but Marc Guéhi is a worthy deputy. There is depth in goal, at right-back and in the wide areas.
There is no replacement for Rice. Kalvin Phillips has not started a league game for Manchester City this season but is still in the squad. Southgate remains unmoved by calls for James Ward-Prowse and Sean Longstaff. Henderson’s performance against Malta suggested that moving to the Saudi Pro League has left him unable to get around the pitch.
It makes England reliant on Rice, who provided structure and security against Malta. He wins tackles, senses danger and makes sure an occasionally skittish defence is under less pressure. Efficiency matters. It is not simply about cramming as many creators as possible on to the pitch. The sense remains that Southgate, who has been reluctant to leave one shielding player behind two advanced midfielders, would prefer the double pivot of Rice and Phillips in a big game.
“I understand Gareth wanting two holding players,” Rice said. “I know the public wants to see so much attacking flair, but as a manager I’d be the same in terms of wanting security. When I have played with Hendo it has always been a double pivot on paper but he has always had a licence to get forward. It is the same whether I play with Kalv or Trent.”
Rice is also capable of driving forward, as he did when he had a goal disallowed against Malta. He is in a good place. He has embraced the challenge of becoming Arsenal’s record signing. “When the transfer was going through I was very nervous,” he said. “It’s natural. You’re a human being bought for £105m – it doesn’t feel normal. But that was because of what I’d done at West Ham. When I signed for Arsenal, I just thought: ‘I just need to be Declan Rice.’ I just try to play my football.”
It has been a good year. Rice led West Ham to glory in the Europa Conference League last season and is still improving.
“You never want to stay stale,” Rice said. “At Arsenal I’m playing in a slightly different role. There’s a lot of talk over whether I can play higher up the pitch. At West Ham when I was more box‑to‑box, [David] Moyes used to say: ‘Roam, do what you need to do to get on the ball.’
“At Arsenal, it’s more structured and you’ve got to be more patient. We see a lot more of the ball so it’s about being more progressive. I had predominantly played in a side that was really good at counterattacking so I had to make a change.”
Rice, who will win his 48th cap against North Macedonia, makes a habit of adapting and thriving. Whereas Arsenal are using him on the left of a midfield three and allowing him to push on, England need his discipline in a deeper role.
There is a frenzy around Bellingham, and Alexander-Arnold needs a greater understanding of the position and has to be trialled in midfield against strong opposition.
But there must be appreciation for the player who makes everything tick. England will not go far in the Euros without Rice. He is the glue holding everything together.