reeclan Rice and Mason Mount were the most obvious fall guys when Belgium was busy giving England the chance at Wembley on Sunday. They were irrefutable proof of Gareth Southgate’s conservatism when Belgium led in the first half. They were the bad guys: just the latest example of an England manager preventing his team from adopting a more expansive style by starting two sloggers and leaving the hosts on the bench.
The Southgate skeptics had a strong case for much of the first half. England were uninspired in a 3-4-3 system that had room for seven defensive players but no room for Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish. Belgium outnumbered Rice and Jordan Henderson in central midfield and threatened to turn into the same old story for England against more cunning opponents.
Mount was not a popular choice on the right. The Chelsea midfielder had come to replace Grealish, who had played inventively in the friendly win over Wales, and struggled to grab the ball. As for Rice, Belgium was happy to give it to him. At one point, he stepped in confidently, seeking to alter the balance of the game. Rice opened her body to receive a pass and, without touching a touch, kicked the ball straight to Yannick Carrasco.
The mood would change though. Rice, winning his 10th cap, was in charge at the end: stomping in midfield, cutting passes, stifling Belgium’s hopes of a late equalizer. Southgate felt it was the best performance from the West Ham midfielder for England, who achieved a resilient victory when Mount capped a diligent display with a deflected strike. “I’ve read a lot about Mason and think he’s a very underrated player,” said Southgate, “but not by us. “
The debate will continue in the European Championship next summer. It’s all the rage to criticize Mount and Rice, who have been best friends since their Chelsea academy days, and the clamor for Grealish will not be extinguished. The Aston Villa winger is a seductive talent, capable of picking the lock and giving England unpredictability. He is wonderful to watch and as Southgate acknowledged after the Wales game gives them something different.
But Mount got a nod against Belgium. A less glamorous option than Grealish, his managers have tended to value the sense of the stance of the mount and squeeze the ball. Despite being predominantly an attacking player, his inclusion was Southgate’s surest appeal, hinting that he planned to be cautious against stronger opponents next summer.
Southgate wants that layer of insurance. With doubts hanging over England’s defense, going from a four to a three-back will have consequences further down the pitch. Use a 4-3-3 and there would be room for Mount to build moves from midfield and Grealish to the flanks. But someone has to give up in a 3-4-3 and while Mount is unlikely to be used as one of the two in the central midfielder, he has shown for Chelsea he can thrive in a large role in this system.
Reliability comes into play with Mount. The 21-year-old is a gifted technical player and his attitude is exemplary. In the feverish world of social media, however, he tends to be divided. He is portrayed as the Golden Boy. Chelsea manager Frank Lampard is accused of favoring Mount because he is a local talent. Now Southgate is apparently giving the professor’s pet a special treat.
“What will overcome it all is Mason’s talent and attitude,” Lampard said this month. Managers trust Mount. It was difficult at the start against Belgium. In the second half, he drifted to the left and refused to hide. He took the ball. He forced the problem. He won his share of luck.
The challenge is to continue. Released by Chelsea at the age of 14, Rice is a tough character. The 21-year-old struggled against Frenkie de Jong when England lost to the Netherlands last year and his death must be sharper internationally, but those who watch Rice regularly know he is destined for the Mountain peak. Like Mount, he finally proved it against Belgium. Maybe they deserve more respect.