England’s centre-halves couldn’t have asked for a better shield than the one Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips have given them so far at Euro 2020.
They’ve slowed the opposition down and covered the ground really well – but they have also been methodical in their play and aggressive when needed, like they were against Germany in the last 16.
If you’re a defender, that’s exactly what you want in front of you. What I love about them is that those boys know their roles, and they are not bothered about being a superstar.
I know Declan very well and I’ve spoken to Kalvin on a couple of occasions recently and the one thing I would say about them straight away is that, in equal amounts, they are both extremely humble.
They want to do their job for the team and someone else can have the accolades – as long as we get the right result.
As well as being happy just to be a part of this England team, they have got a steely determination that means they feel they can make a difference at this tournament.
I am glad they are finally getting appreciated for what they bring to this side, but they are not the only ones who deserve credit for us keeping a clean sheet in every game we’ve played so far.
Different defenders, same result
The biggest compliment I can give to Gareth Southgate for England’s flawless defensive record at Euro 2020 is that it is not down to any individual player.
That’s been proven by the fact our personnel at the back has changed in each of our four games, and we’ve used a different shape for three of them.
We’ve always had the same end result though – a disciplined and resolute display and zero goals conceded.
That’s testament to the culture that Gareth and his coaching staff have created, the messages he has given the players about maintaining their levels and the mindset he has instilled in this squad.
First and foremost, he has set up his team to be hard to beat, which is not what the media or most fans wanted to see from them at this tournament.
They’ve been shouting for a more flamboyant and carefree approach, but Gareth has done it the way he has wanted. It’s been extremely successful and it’s given us a great foundation to work from.
Success as a unit is our biggest strength as a team
We go into Saturday’s quarter-final with Ukraine as the only team in the last eight who are yet to concede and, on our way there, we have faced only eight shots on target across the four games.
In goal, Jordan Pickford has looked confident and composed when he’s been needed and, in terms of our defenders, I think the perfect way to put it is that they have all been solid without doing anything truly spectacular.
They’ve all put in at least a 7/10 performance, whoever has played, and wherever they have been used.
Southgate has used seven of them so far, sometimes in different positions, but they haven’t had to stand out.
We are not relying on anyone to hold it all together because everyone has played their part. Our success as a defensive unit has become our biggest strength as a team.
You always need a little bit of luck, of course and we probably had that when Thomas Muller missed his big chance to equalise for Germany.
Keeping things tight definitely helps, though, and we are getting that bit right at the moment.
Why Maguire can make the difference
What Southgate has done is even more impressive when you consider there were quite a few question marks over England’s defence before the tournament started.
His main centre-half, Harry Maguire, wasn’t ready for the first two matches, which is why using two sitting midfielders in Rice and Phillips was imperative.
Maguire came back and did well against the Czech Republic in England’s final group game, and then against Germany last time out, but he still wasn’t 100% fit, which is why we stuck with that extra protection in front of him.
He is getting stronger all the time, though, and if England are going to win this tournament, he will play a big part. Especially at International level, where teams are so well drilled, Harry offers us something extra that is going to be very useful.
I’ve really enjoyed watching Maguire since he has come back into the team and it took me back to how I felt after seeing him in Russia when we reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.
He brings us a calmness in defence, but he is also not afraid to take chances because of his willingness to bring the ball out and play through the opposition lines a bit more.
That’s nothing against the other defenders who have featured so far, but he definitely brings something different on the ball and he is also a big presence in both boxes because of his ability at set-pieces.
Maguire’s return is another reason I’m feeling confident about us getting past Ukraine on Saturday, but we will have to be careful because it’s a different proposition to what we have faced before.
While there was some doubt before the Germany game, we are expected to win this time – despite playing in Rome rather than being comfortable at Wembley and having to deal with a hotter climate and travel.
We will have to wait and see how the team reacts but, if we play well, we will win. By two goals, that’s my prediction.
Rio Ferdinand was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.