Gareth Southgate is looking forward to seeing a confident Declan Rice in action as England kick-off their quest to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Rice has been a regular for Southgate’s Three Lions since making his debut as a substitute in a UEFA European Championship qualifying win over the Czech Republic at Wembley in March 2019, starting 12 of a possible 17 internationals since then.
With the 22-year-old also captaining West Ham United on the pitch for much of a 2020/21 season that has seen the Irons challenge near the top of the table, the England manager believes the deep-lying midfielder is growing as a player and a person with every game he plays.
Southgate’s England begin their quest to reach next summer’s World Cup in Qatar, and continue their preparations for the rearranged European Championship finals in June, by taking on San Marino, Albania and Poland in their opening three Group E qualifiers, and he expects Rice to play an important role for his country.
He’s fantastic player to work with and he really wants to learn and to improve
“It’s great to see him in a team who are in a different position in the league because I think you want your players to be involved in matches where they are pushing for Europe or pushing in the cups, because the more different experiences they have the better,” Southgate observed.
“So, if his club can qualify for Europe and he is involved in European competition then that’s another step in his individual development that he hasn’t had yet at club level.
“He’s fantastic player to work with and he really wants to learn and to improve. To be captain of his club at such a young age tells you all you need to know really about his personality and his character.”
It is not only Rice’s character that has impressed Southgate, but also his all-round ability.
The reigning Hammer of the Year ranks second among Premier League midfielders in interceptions made this season – Burnley’s Josh Brownhill has made 59 to Rice’s 58 – while his attacking contribution continues to improve.
There was evidence of Rice’s growing confidence on the ball in Sunday’s 3-3 Premier League draw with Arsenal, particularly when he collected it inside his own half and drove 50 yards down the pitch before testing Bernd Leno with a well-struck shot.
Southgate believes that willingness to take the game by the scruff of the neck will be vital, particularly in this summer’s Euro finals, where England face Croatia, Scotland and Czech Republic at the group stage.
“He’s outstanding at recovering balls in midfield,” the England manager continued. “I think there are only a couple higher in the league in terms of recoveries in those midfield areas.
“I think there is still more to come with the ball, that building of attacks, that receiving from defence and transferring the ball quickly forward. We see evidence of it and we see at times he has the athleticism to drive forward with the ball as well.
“So, I think those are the things we want to see more of, but he is also a very young player so, in terms of running the biggest games in a Euros, that’s of course going to be a huge challenge when you look at just our group opponents.
“In the first game, it’ll be Modrić, Kovačić, Brozović and Rakitić, all outstanding players, but we’ve been able to get him some good experience in the semi-finals of the Nations League against the Dutch, which would have been the biggest game he’d ever played in.
“He’s played some good qualifiers for us now as well, so we’re building those experiences with him and he’s been a very important player for us over the last couple of years.”
England’s three World Cup Group E qualifiers will be broadcast in the UK by ITV. Click here for a full rundown of West Ham’s March internationals.