It was a long time to spend teetering on a tightrope. One false move was all it would have taken to turn Declan Rice into England’s latest fall guy. The margin for error was gone. There were 81 minutes left and Rice was already under immense pressure, conscious there was a risk of a second booking every time he stepped in to try to wrest control away from Leon Goretzka and Toni Kroos in Germany’s midfield.
At that stage it was all too easy to imagine a distraught Rice walking off, head in hands after another mistimed tackle, kicking himself after seeing red, gripped by the horror of blowing the biggest match of his career. It felt like a familiar tale: an England player losing composure against wilier opponents and making one bad decision too many on the way to yet another painful defeat in a knockout tie.
Perhaps that was on Rice’s mind. He had looked slightly startled during the early stages, briefly creating the impression that the jump in quality was too much for him. Germany’s midfielders were dominant and it was not long before Goretzka was surging through England’s surprisingly porous centre, forcing Rice to bring him down on the edge of the area.
The booking was inevitable, leaving Rice in a precarious position. The 22-year-old could not afford to be passive against two of the best midfielders in the world, but he could not risk catching the referee’s eye either. He had to find the perfect middle ground, judging when to hold off and when to impose himself, and it would not have been a surprise if someone of Rice’s inexperience had failed to strike the right balance.
Bear in mind that he has never played in Europe at club level. In April the West Ham midfielder even came across as a bit of a fanboy, tweeting that “watching Toni Kroos is very special” when the Real Madrid player’s long-range passing destroyed Liverpool in the Champions League.
It was a reminder that Rice usually watches the biggest games from his sofa and there was a danger of his boyish enthusiasm fading when he finally came up against Kroos, whose craft had the potential to give England flashbacks of Luka Modric tormenting them in Russia three years ago.
By now, however, we should know better than to doubt Rice. This is a player who is used to being written off.
He was released by Chelsea when he was 14 and later had some difficult early moments after breaking through at West Ham, from David Moyes hammering him after a costly mistake during a game against Arsenal in April 2018, to Manuel Pellegrini hauling him off at half-time during a defeat by Liverpool four months later.
Yet Rice, who has turned down contract offers from his club this summer amid interest from Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City, bounces back. Those who know him talk of a player who always wants to learn more. He is a sponge in more ways than one, soaking up pressure on the pitch, absorbing information off it. His attitude is second to none, his willingness to accept responsibility impressive too, and his discipline was a key factor in England eventually wearing down Germany.
Rice did not hide and he did not suffer a rush of blood to the head. He won the ball and moved it on to England’s forwards. Working with Kalvin Phillips, he gradually grew into the contest, stripping Kroos of influence and ensuring that Goretzka’s powerful runs became less of a threat.
The game changed. Rice sensed that it was there to be won and the moment in the second half when he casually took the ball off Thomas Müller before winning a 50-50 with Kroos summed up his positive mindset. He did not hesitate after inviting the challenge from Kroos with a heavy touch. Instead of lunging in, Rice produced a technically assured block tackle, made off with the ball and got his side moving.
Later, with England closing in on victory and a quarter-final with Ukraine in Rome on Saturday, Rice could be seen chasing down Antonio Rüdiger before whipping up the crowd. He had done his job, shutting down Germany’s attacks, laying the foundations for Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling to seal the game with a little help from Jack Grealish and Luke Shaw.
This is how balanced teams function. The complaints over Rice’s supposed lack of passing ability after the draw with Scotland did not hold water. The reality is that he is far more progressive, dynamic and incisive for West Ham, but with England he has been asked to hold his position and keep possession ticking over. Gareth Southgate has focused on control and Rice has listened to his manager’s instructions, containing Modric when England beat Croatia in their opening game and allowing his West Ham teammate Tomas Soucek little joy during the victory over the Czech Republic.
He is a player who makes the ugly side of the game look easy. Rice, who remains one yellow away from being suspended for the semi-finals, knows it is not all about stepovers. He has played a major part in England’s faultless defensive record from their first four games and there were no tears when the fall – or more accurately the collapse – arrived against Germany. Instead of a second booking sending him crashing, it was cramp taking hold as he tried to join the celebrations after Kane’s goal. He could afford a smile.