Monday, May 20, 2024

No ‘buts’ with Declan Rice, but …


Like most of you, I’m sure, I was hugely impressed by Declan Rice’s performance against Brighton on Sunday. To say this player has exceeded my expectations since his arrival from West Ham is something of an understatement. I knew he was good, I didn’t quite realise he was that good.

The fact he pushed through illness from the night before made it even more impressive, because there’s no way he could have been at 100%. Yet his 80% or whatever he was at was sufficient to play the way he did. His technical quality is obvious, and the way he reads the game is almost eerie. You know the way in a film when someone is being chased through a forest and they run, looking back behind them because that’s where they’re fleeing from, and then all of a sudden the person they’re trying to escape is right in front of them somehow (cinematic licence!)? That’s what it must be like to play in midfield against Declan Rice.

You think you’re going to get to the ball, or make the tackle, but … bam … Declan Rice is there. Or he’s not there because now he’s skipping down the wing because he just feels like stretching his legs a bit. We can all see and ooh and aaah at those things, but not only does it feel like he has taken the midfield to a new level, he’s brought something extra in terms of character.

Arsenal badly needed Declan Rice on Sunday. He was the only fit central midfielder, at least the only one who can play in that deep position, and he pushed himself through whatever illness had been troubling him to help the team. If he’d had an off day, you could understand that. If he played in a way which helped him conserve energy, perhaps a bit more conservatively, you could understand that too. But on a day when players like Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Jesus were absolutely brilliant, he was just as good.

When Emile Smith Rowe had a chance in the 93rd minute, it came after Rice battled to win the ball high up the pitch, fighting an opponent to win possession, then crossing for Leandro Trossard who headed into the path of our number 10. It was 2-0. The game was won. He had put in a monumental shift, but there he was striving to make something positive happen. That tells you so much about the kind of player he is.

All of the above makes it sound like there’s a ‘but’ coming, and of course there is. Not about Declan Rice though. He is officially a but-free zone. It’s about who we have around him and their availability. On Sunday, Jorginho was out with a ‘foot problem’, and as yet we’re not sure how long that might keep him out. Hopefully not too long, and he’s a player whose injury record wouldn’t be a major concern.

I realise there are significant differences in style etc between the Italian international and Rice, but I think that’s true of any comparison involving one of the best players in the Premier League. I’m not as down on Jorginho as some, and although there are some weaknesses in his game, he’s experienced enough and smart enough for those not to be exposed too often. So, I hope he’s back in the fold soon.

Beyond that though, we have some thinking to do. Mohamed Elneny has a hamstring problem, perhaps not surprising given he’s been out for so long, but if there’s a drop-off between Rice and Jorginho, it’s even more obvious in Elneny’s case. He’s a great character, and a very willing guy, but also the very essence of a squad player at this point. His future surely lies elsewhere at the end of this season.

As for Thomas Partey, on his day he’s still a very accomplished player, but his injury record wouldn’t fill you with much confidence. We’ve had none of those days for quite some time, his end of season form in the last campaign was horrendous. He might be back soon, but even if he is, he’ll be off to AFCON in January. It might only be a few weeks, but it adds to the already significant chunk of the season he’ll have missed. His propensity for falling off towards the end of a season must be a worry too, although perhaps this time around the fact he can hardly be fatigued may work in our favour.

Which is to say, for all the chatter about Arsenal buying a forward in the January transfer window, I think I would feel much more comfortable with a central midfielder. If you lay it out like this I think it shows quite clearly where a good signing could make a real difference.

Front three options: Gabriel Jesus, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Leandro Trossard, Kai Havertz, Emile Smith Rowe

DM options: Declan Rice, Jorginho, Mohamed Elneny, Thomas Partey

There are always ways to reshuffle a team to cope in the short-term. Oleksandr Zinchenko can play in midfield, Jakub Kiwior has played as a DM in his career albeit sporadically, but going into the second half of this season, I would far prefer a midfield addition to a forward. Which isn’t to say I don’t think we can improve up front, but on Sunday we had 17-year-old Myles Lewis-Skelly on the bench as our only midfield cover, and that’s not a situation we can turn a blind eye to when we’re pushing to try and win the title after so long. Let’s also not ignore the fact the manager literally played Rice at centre-half last week to see how he might fit there, so if that scenario came to pass we’d be even lighter in the middle.

I don’t know what the plans are for January, or who might be available that fits into our recruitment strategy, but I do hope the rumours about implausible deals for a centre-forward are more of a smokescreen than reality, because I think our needs are more pressing elsewhere.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. Thanks as always for reading, more here tomorrow.

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