Sunday, April 21, 2024

New signing profile: Declan Rice

Months of groundwork and negotiation have finally paid off with Arsenal confirming the arrival of West Ham midfielder Declan Rice.

But who is the Englishman, what will he bring to the side and is he worth a club-record £100 million? Phil Costa reports.

What starts out as a lifelong dream can quickly turn into disconnection where youth football is concerned. Growth spurts, injuries, travel requirements or just one bad game could determine whether you make it or not, which is why when Declan Rice was released by Chelsea at 14 for lacking physicality, there were more questions than answers about his future. Thankfully his next club – West Ham – were only an hours’ drive across London away and happy to gamble on talent falling through the cracks.

Having made an impression at Chadwell Heath, the England international first broke through as a centre back under Slaven Bilić (2017/18 season) before moving into midfield under current manager David Moyes. It was there where he established himself in the Hammers’ starting lineup, becoming the youngest player to make 50 appearances since Michael Carrick and later captained the side following the retirement of club icon Mark Noble.

Despite confirming his desire to leave after rejecting a new contract, Rice played a crucial role in keeping West Ham in the Premier League last season and led the side to UEFA Conference League glory after beating Fiorentina 2-1 in Prague; their first trophy since 1980.

Certain roles require craft and creativity, but there is nothing subtle about Rice and his elite defensive qualities. Mostly deployed as the deepest midfielder (number six), he is tasked with patrolling central spaces and screening any danger that threatens the lowest line in the league – Wyscout data. What impresses most about the 24-year-old is his defensive variety; he is aggressive in duels but with clean timing and technique which points to consistency, as opposed to more chaotic styles which can feel erratic. Rice won possession more times (334) than any other Premier League player last season and since the start of 2019/20 is second only to Wilfried Ndidi (311) for successful tackles made (287), totting up just 26 yellow cards in 204 top flight appearances; making him more smooth criminal than bull in a china shop.

But there are more ways to skin a cat and what truly elevates Rice is his reading of the game. Despite his stocky, 6ft 1in (185cm) frame there is dexterity and sharpness to his movement which, when combined with high-level quickness of thought creates an interception machine. Again, the midfielder made more interceptions (63) than any other Premier League player last season and often surprises the opposition by walking or jogging into position, before springing into life and pouncing on passes. That sixth sense for anticipating where the ball will drop can not only help Arsenal – who play a very high line – defend in transition, but also sustain pressure and keep teams penned in as they search for an escape route.

With West Ham struggling last season, Rice was also asked to contribute more offensively alongside the impressively bad Tomas Souček which brought his two-way game to light. The 24-year-old has always been technically secure but for a clunky, slightly awkward mover his ball carrying ability is often overlooked. Playing in a box-to-box role, he completed more progressive carries (315) than every other Arsenal midfielder last term and two seasons ago, carried the ball further – 5152 yards – than any other midfielder in Europe. Naturally, these numbers were inflated by the transition-heavy approach under Moyes but his ability to glide across the ground and past players make him a valuable asset, especially late in games where his stamina shines through.

This hints at Rice being able to play both deeper and more advanced midfield roles, but with Thomas Partey potentially leaving the club this summer; he should be the point of reference. Statistically they profile similarly as shown below (Opta data) but their respective availability feels pertinent, with the England international missing just seven games in three seasons – Partey has missed 37 in that same period – which could be one of the drivers behind his exit.

What will be important is how quickly he can develop in possession. Rice is a reliable mid-range passer, with a penchant for right-side switches and delicate clips over the top. However, teams often surrender the ball against West Ham to nullify their counter attacking threat, which means the 24-year-old is rarely pressed with time to settle and find his passes. When lesser opposition sit off against Arsenal, speed becomes so important – can you combine with your midfield partners in one touch, or break a line in two? In bigger games where pressing is more intense, increasing that tempo could also help to mitigate his occasionally loose back-to-goal game.

Playing further up the pitch also presents new challenges. No team produced more high turnovers than Arsenal in the top flight last season (388), with West Ham recording over 100 fewer (281) which highlights how aggressive the Gunners are under Arteta. One habit Rice will have to curb is going rogue in his Superman suit – mostly through sheer desire to make a difference – but there will be a responsibility to pick his moments more wisely because he can be useful when breaking forward, just without leaving teammates exposed.

“When he (Rice) was released at Under-14, I was shocked but acted quickly to get him in the next day,” Dave Hunt, West Ham’s head of academy recruitment, told the BBC.

“In coaching we speak a lot about outstanding attributes but it’s different with him. It’s his character, determination and personality. That’s what sets him apart.”

And that’s essentially the crux of this deal. Not only is Rice an outstanding, Premier League proven midfielder with two-way quality, but a leader whose competitive edge suits this dressing room and project perfectly – something which must be considered following the departure of Granit Xhaka.

Of course, you can argue whether £100m represents value but our concept of value does not exist anymore – particularly when dealing between two top flight clubs. It doesn’t help that Arsenal fans have a complex relationship with spending after years of having to defend their penny pinching, before the scars of big money signings post-Arsène Wenger triggered other insecurities. But this regime has earned the right to go big and you cannot escape the feeling of Rice being a crowning piece – like Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool – for something really special.

Even six months ago this transfer would have felt impossible but the turnaround, both on the pitch and behind the scenes has been remarkable, to the point that Arsenal are going head-to-head and beating Manchester City for signings. Only Sol Campbell joining on a free transfer back in 2001 can rival this deal in terms of magnitude and what message it conveys to competitors.

Which is a scary thought in itself. Spending brings pressure which still feels new for everybody, as we have been comfortable enjoying the ride with this exciting young group. But having secured Rice, alongside extensions for several key players, the club are pushing all their chips into the centre of the table – it’s time to trust the hand and start winning.

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