or all the excitement around England‘s attacking arsenal this summer, one player’s potentially defining role has perhaps been overlooked.
Given the way the West Ham midfielder has established himself in the England side over the past year, it is easy to forget that this is to be his maiden major tournament.
Southgate has said for months that he has known his preferred starting XI for Sunday’s Group D opener against Croatia and you can bet your house that Rice has been at the heart of that team throughout.
If Harry Kane is the first name on the teamsheet, then the 22-year-old cannot be far behind him.
It is not something that has always been appreciated, but Rice’s understanding of the game and anticipation reflect that of a player with 50-plus international caps, not 17.
It is rare to see the midfielder, who switched his international allegiance from the Republic of Ireland to England in 2019, lunge into a late challenge or be caught out at key moments, such is his awareness.
Such qualities could prove priceless to Southgate should England reach the business end of the tournament this summer.
It is not just Rice’s defensive prowess that can aide the Three Lions. West Ham manager David Moyes has worked tirelessly with the midfielder to improve his impact on the ball. His range of passing and confidence to carry it forward have transformed dramatically during what has been a remarkable season for Rice at club level.
Rice led West Ham into the Premier League’s top six, and there is a serious belief within the coaching staff at London Stadium that they would have qualified for the Champions League were he not injured on international duty in March and forced to miss six weeks of the run-in.
That sort of impact, for a player of his age, is not lost within the England set-up.
Southgate places huge stock in his senior leadership group – comprised of Kane, Jordan Henderson, Harry Maguire, Raheem Sterling and Conor Coady – but Rice is never far from his mind.
The England manager has hailed Rice and close friend Mason Mount as two of his young leaders and last week described the pair as “future captains for whatever teams they play in”.
Rice is confident, vocal and composed at the heart of midfield, providing a screen for England’s weakest department and offering the foundation for their best.
With Rice behind them, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Sterling, Rashford, Mount and Kane can wreak havoc going forward, safe in the knowledge that the balance of the side is in good hands.
“A team without balance is not a team,” Jose Mourinho, the former Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid manager, wrote in The Times recently.
“Rice is this kind of player. He is mature, calm, a team player who doesn’t think about himself. He always has the correct answers and gives incredible stability to the team.”
Rice is, as he noted himself when the squad was announced, untested at this level. Southgate knows a lot is expected of the young midfielder for club and country, but has little fear over his mindset.
The West Ham academy graduate will enjoy and savour every moment of being part of this set-up, not be cowed by it.
Despite playing for the Republic of Ireland at youth level and winning three senior caps, Rice is a bonafide England fan, capable of reciting, word for word, James Corden’s rant as ‘Smithy’ at the England squad for Comic Relief in 2009.
After his first England call-up in March 2019, it was not just his proud parents Sean and Stephanie who received photos of his new England kit laid out in his hotel room, but members of staff in the offices back at West Ham.
The significance of being involved in a tournament with England will not have been lost on Rice then. It is a moment he will relish and an opportunity he will want to take. Do so, and he could be the key to England’s chances of ending 55 years of hurt.