England have had some outstanding midfield partnerships over the last 50 years, players who have ruled Europe with their clubs, but Kalvin Phillips (Leeds United) and Declan Rice (West Ham) have emerged as the unlikely pairing now set to conquer the continent for their country.
David Platt, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne tasted the semi-finals of Euro ’96 and/or the 1990 World Cup, while Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were among the best in the world for several years but could never quite seem to produce their best when in tandem for England.
Now, a player who this time last year was helping Leeds out of the championship and a 22-year-old who was rejected by Chelsea as a teenager have formed the midfield shield that helped England through five games at the tournament without conceding a goal before Mikkel Damsgaard’s free-kick for Denmark spoiled the record in the semi-final.
Both Rice and Phillips have the ability to drive forward and deliver penetrative passes, which they do for their clubs, but both have also shown the tactical discipline demanded by coach Gareth Southgate to generally hold, and dominate, the space in front of the back four.
Declan Rice. File photo
They both have a ravenous appetite for work and chase, harry, spoil, intercept and anything else they can think of to put the opposition off their stride.
Phillips began the tournament with a man-of-the-match display in the win over Croatia, while Rice was equally effective in snuffing out the threat of Luka Modric, having admitted he was “miles behind him” when watching England’s World Cup semi-final defeat from afar in 2018.
Against Germany the destructive duo faced the superstar pairing of Tony Kroos and Leon Goretzka and did an absolute job on them, starving them of time and possession and breaking up almost every developing attack.
“We faced players like Kroos, Goretzka or (Ilkay) Gundogan and people said that Kalvin and I could not compete against them. We had to fight each ball as if it were the last of our lives,” Rice said.
Both players will need to drain the fitness tanks again to keep Italy at bay in the final but should they do so their names will sit deservedly alongside those of Ball, Stiles and rest of the boys of ’66.