Qualifying for Euro 2020 was a breeze for England, winning seven and losing just once against the Czech Republic in Prague, as they comfortably topped Group A by a margin of six points.
However, plenty of discussion remains about whether the Three Lions will be genuine contenders to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy next summer.
Following the Euro 2020 tournament finals draw, England have once again been pitted against the Czech Republic, along with Croatia, while awaiting the Path C play-off winners that will add one of Scotland, Israel, Norway or Serbia to their Group D tournament finals schedule.
While the picture becomes clearer regarding the rivals, there’s still the sensation that Gareth Southgate hasn’t yet decided on his ideal squad, or the preferred tactics he will deploy against much tougher opponents, with question marks surrounding the midfield in particular.
— England (@England) November 30, 2019
Arguably one of the biggest dilemmas facing Southgate is how to make the most of Declan Rice. The 20-year-old West Ham midfielder had been tipped as the solution to Southgate’s search for a holding midfielder, yet question marks remain as to whether he’s ready to fill that key role.
Given that Euro 2020 betting at 888 has England installed as firm favourites to win the tournament, it’s an issue that Southgate will soon need to resolve.
Since switching his international alliegence it has become increasingly clear throughout the Euro 2020 qualifiers, Southgate had Rice earmarked as a holding midfielder, filling a role that has proven somewhat problematic for the England boss.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson wasn’t entirely convincing in the deeper position, neither was Harry Winks when he was tasked with the job, leaving Rice as the ideal candidate for a shot at making the role his own.
🗓 2017 – Declan Rice makes his West Ham Debut aged 18.
🗓 2019 – Declan Rice receives his first England call-up aged 20.
Hard work pays off. pic.twitter.com/zm2I7Rb34C
— West Ham United (@WestHam) March 13, 2019
Given that Southgate has become increasingly keen to deploy a more attacking 4-3-3 shape, that has led to more reliance on using a single holding midfielder, allowing the more advanced players to push forward more and combine with the attacking trio.
The problem there is that Rice was often left exposed when rival teams countered. Just like Winks or Henderson, being asked to operate as the solitary holding midfielder was proving tough for Rice.
Initial impressions were highly positive in the qualifying matches against Montenegro away, then Bulgaria at home, although Rice appeared to struggle more in the 5-3 win against Kosovo at Wembley and the 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in Prague.
Those two disappointing displays prompted Southgate to use Winks in his place for the 0-6 away win in Bulgaria, followed by the 7-0 trouncing of Montenegro at home.
While there was a return to the starting eleven for Rice for the 0-4 win in Kosovo, as Winks was moved out to the left of the midfield trio, his performance was distinctly average and perhaps less than Southgate was hoping for.
Given that West Ham have also struggled this season , the England boss may well believe it’s perhaps too soon to hand Rice such a huge responsibility with his country, as he ponders who to select for the Euro 2020 tournament.
Declan Rice won seven tackles against Montenegro; at least two more than any other player on the pitch.
Sweeping up on his first England start. 🧹 pic.twitter.com/7JVRAHQJ2N
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 25, 2019
The holding midfield roles will undoubtedly be the biggest quandary for Southgate, as he plans ahead over the coming months. If he seeks to use one holding midfielder and pin hopes on England’s obvious attacking strength to dominate games, whoever plays in that slot is always likely to be left exposed.
Alternatively, given the attributes of the players at his disposal, Southgate could play with two holding midfielders, although this appears to be an option he prefers to avoid, even though it would offer the Three Lions more solidity.
Despite mixed performances for club and country in October and November, there was a strong display from Rice in the crucial 0-1 win for West Ham at Chelsea.
Southgate will undoubtedly have taken note, which means if Rice can maintain his form over the coming months, it should ensure he will form a key part of England’s ambitions to win Euro 2020.