The most prestigious nightclubs have the sternest bouncers. This England team at Euro 2020 is no different.
Sure, there are fewer posers and pretenders. And looking inside, it is clear to see these young somethings are genuinely having a great time ahead of Sunday’s first men’s final in 55 years. But those who have tried to enjoy themselves in England’s joint have found themselves considerably disappointed. Six teams have attempted to get in and run wild, yet only managed one goal between them. All now roaming the streets nursing bruised egos and the worst kind of spare time.
Upholding that exclusivity has been the two at the door, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips. A combination employed by Gareth Southgate affording his side the kind of control that really does feel like a luxury. Their ever-presence as the midfield two in both the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 systems has been one of the surprise success stories of the tournament.
How rare it is to have West Ham and Leeds United in sync, but here we are. After league seasons as invaluable rocks for their respective teams exceeding expectation, it does not seem much of a coincidence that, together, Rice and Phillips have been integral for their country. They are two of just five players to have started every match so far.
England’s tactical parameters are strictly defined, but the free-form workings inside those margins would not work without them. Both offering protection to the backline, stifling opponents in midfield and operating as key conduits from back to front and side to side in attack.
They have grown in the estimation of observers who feared they might be exposed by the rigours of high-pressure, international football, especially with no European club experience behind them. Perhaps that has been a blessing. The way they have operated suggests no ego or burden to any matters at hand, allowing Jordan Henderson to steadily work his way back to full fitness.
Now there feels a singularity and permanence to them. And, as with the rest of this group, an infatuation that might veer into fan fiction if things go well this weekend. A “good cop, good cop” partnership with the right streaks of bad, boasting complementary and overlapping skills.
Rice is the no-frills dynamo, sleek and functional, either holding and giving or holding and driving. The one who creates those passages of commentary where it is simply one name after the other because he never seems to have the ball for long. He has only misplaced 23 of the 300 passes attempted in the competition so far – the kind of recycling numbers Greta Thunberg would be proud of.
Then there’s Phillips, parts stripped then reassembled by Marcelo Bielsa to create this perpetually mobile distributor. He breezes about the place while chewing gum like he’s browsing TK Maxx, albeit with the purpose of someone who has been told there’s a winning lottery ticket in the pocket of an oversized pair of Evisu jeans. He clocked 15km against Denmark, buzzing about through all 123 minutes, to take him a total of 67.3km covered at Euro 2020. His average of 11.11km per 90 minutes is the highest of anyone in the tournament.
His range of passing arguably the broadest of the squad, possessing every type of club in his bag. Including the iron reserved for inflicting a bit of damage. Discreet damage, it should be said. By leading the line in tackles won by an Englishman (eight – currently second overall but certain to take the tournament lead in the final), he has also committed 10 fouls while only cautioned once. Yet moments like the shoulder check on Kai Havertz when the German was hounding Kieran Trippier on the right touchline and crunching Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg in the opening exchanges of the semi-final with the most brazen alpha-ing live long in the mind.
All this has forged a more personal relationship between the two. While their fanbases championed their causes at the expense of the other, a bond on the field has been replicated off it, with the odd show of love across social media providing us with a snapshot of this.
There is, however, something of a conundrum on the horizon. Italy will be the toughest challenge England have faced – that’s generally how finals work – and Roberto Mancini’s swaggering entertainers present new problems to solve.
A core axis of Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella and Jorginho sat between them has thrived against the press, zipping the ball about to their various outlets with remarkable efficiency. Even the tightness of man-to-man coverage does not dull their sharpness.
Against Belgium, they embraced the claustrophobia to get ahead, though they did give up enough of the ball that should have been used better by the No 1 ranked international side. Likewise Spain, who were much more wasteful in front of goal.
This bravado and technical ability at the heart of the Azzurri, which extends to Matteo Pessina and Manuel Locatelli, will test the robustness of the Rice-Phillips partnership. Particularly Jorginho, whose knack of finding space this tournament has contributed to the extra 5km he has registered over Phillips, albeit from 40 more minutes.
Then there is the prospect of both Rice and Phillips covering the threats from out wide. Both Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa thrive by using the touchline as a rope to bounce off into central areas, creating as many issues for full-backs as defensive midfielders. An early yellow card for one of Rice and Phillips will put a target on their backs for further testing. Youri Tielemans was exposed in this way during the quarter-final when he could not tactically foul with a yellow to his name, allowing Insigne to skip by and curl one into the top corner.
There has been talk of splitting up Rice and Phillips by reintroducing Henderson, who is fresher and more attuned to matches of this magnitude as a Champions League and Premier League winner. It’s hard to say who would drop out, and moreover, it does not seem a necessary tweak beyond any injury niggles that have not come to light. Tactically speaking, the arguments for change do not seem that clear cut, especially given how the incumbents have grown with every match.
On less important sentimental considerations, it would be a shame if they did not get to finish the job. To step out onto the Wembley turf one last time, side by side, for the most important gathering for generations. Guarding the door against those looking to spoil the party of the last six weeks.
Hopefully, after one last night on duty, Rice and Phillips can finally clock off and join the party themselves.
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