Declan Rice and Mason Mount were the obvious fall guys when Belgium were busy giving England the runaround at Wembley. They were incontrovertible evidence of Gareth Southgate’s conservatism when Belgium were ahead in the first half. They were the villains: just the latest example of an England manager stopping his team from adopting a more expansive style by starting two sloggers and leaving the entertainers on the bench.
Admittedly the Southgate sceptics had a strong argument for much of the first half. England were uninspired in a 3-4-3 system that had room for seven defensive-minded players but no space for Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish. Belgium were outnumbering Rice and Jordan Henderson in central midfield and it was threatening to turn into the same old story for England against slicker opponents.
Mount was not a popular pick on the right. The Chelsea midfielder had come in for Grealish, who had played so inventively in the friendly win over Wales, and was struggling to get on the ball. As for Rice, Belgium were happy to let him have it. At one stage he stepped in assertively, looking to alter the balance of play. Rice opened his body to receive a pass and, without taking a touch, knocked the ball straight to Yannick Carrasco.
Yet the mood would shift. Rice, earning his 10th cap, was in charge by the end: stomping around midfield, cutting out passes, snaffling out Belgium’s hopes of a late equaliser. Southgate felt it was the West Ham midfielder’s best performance for England, who secured a resilient win when Mount capped a diligent display with a deflected strike. “I read a lot of things about Mason and I think he’s a very underappreciated player,” Southgate said, “but not by us.”
The debate will rumble on into next summer’s European Championship. It is fashionable to criticise Mount and Rice, who have been best mates since their days in the Chelsea academy, and the clamour for Grealish will not die down. 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 the nod against Belgium. A less glamorous option than Grealish, his managers have tended to value the Chelsea midfielder’s positional sense and pressing off the ball. While Mount is primarily an attacking player, his inclusion was the safer call from Southgate, hinting he plans to err on the side of caution against stronger opponents next summer.
Southgate wants that layer of insurance. With doubts hanging over England’s defence, switching from a back four to a back three will have consequences further up the pitch. Use a 4-3-3 and there would be room for Mount as a No 8 tasked with constructing moves from midfield and Grealish on the flanks. But someone has to drop out in a 3-4-3 and although Mount is unlikely to be used as part of a two in central midfield, he has shown for Chelsea he can flourish in a wide role in that system.
Reliability comes into play with Mount. The 21-year-old is a gifted technical player and his attitude his exemplary. In the fevered world of social media, though, he tends to split opinion. He is depicted as the golden boy. Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s manager, is accused of favouring Mount because he is a homegrown talent. Now Southgate is apparently affording the teacher’s pet special treatment.
“What will overcome everything is Mason’s talent and attitude,” Lampard said earlier this month. Managers trust Mount. It was difficult at first against Belgium. In the second half, though, he drifted to the left and refused to hide. He took the ball. He forced the issue. He earned his slice of luck.
The challenge is to keep going. Released by Chelsea when he was 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 passing needs to be snappier at international level but those who watch Rice regularly know he is destined for the top. Like Mount, he proved it against Belgium in the end. Perhaps they both deserve more respect.