I know that I have said this before but, when you write about a club, it’s the contentious or divisive players that really do your job for you. Brilliance, especially obvious brilliance, is really difficult to write about. Because it’s so obvious. I cannot juice 1200 words out of ‘William Saliba is good at defending.’
Granit Xhaka? Olivier Giroud? Theo Walcott? I will always hold a candle for these players because they made producing a weekly column on this site very easy. They were box sets in their own right, they fell in and out of form, suited some games and some opponents and not others. They were a constant source of debate and intrigue with depth and texture.
I am actually slightly grateful for the miniature soap operas that have surrounded David Raya and Kai Havertz this season, they have got me through this season and I know I will write about them again. I easily could have written about either one of them this week were I minded to do so.
But I will keep those in the back pocket for a quieter week or when I am lacking in inspiration. In truth, I have found ideas for this column harder to come by over the last 18 months. It is a truism that ‘we’re quite good, aren’t we?’ Or ‘everything is going pretty well all considered’ just doesn’t make for interesting copy.
In the notes app on my phone, I have the whole first team squad listed out in squad number order . If I am struggling to conjure a wider theme or incident to write about, I peruse the squad list and wonder whether there is an individual I can analyse in depth. This mundane writer hack has been rendered far less useful recently.
I rarely ever have anything to say about Gabriel, Saliba, Ben White, Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli. (Gabriel Jesus is a vein I can find a little more easily given my knowledge of his career in Brazil and with the Brazilian National Team and because, externally at least, he does seem to be a figure of discussion).
There are only so many times you can say a player has played well. It’s the same reason that the Premier League Player of the Month is rarely won by a Ballon D’Or nominee level talent. To win Player of the Month suggests the needle has moved for that player somehow or that they are on an upward trajectory. Those whose baseline is weekly brilliance do not conform to that pattern.
Which brings me onto Declan Rice. He is brilliant all the time. It is very difficult to burnish that observation with additional insight. He is also brilliant in a really obvious way- you don’t have to crane your neck to see it or ‘listen to the notes he is not playing.’
Signing him from West Ham was also the most obviously logical signing of all time. Arsenal could not sustain their title challenge last season because they became too loose out of possession, so they bought the best out of possession player in the division.
It reminds me, sadly, of the time that Manchester United lost the Premier League title on goal difference in 2011-12 and Alex Ferguson responded by buying the Premier League Golden Boot Winner (whose name escapes me) and they won the title at a canter in 2012-13. Or when Arsenal decided they couldn’t stretch to Patrick Kluivert’s salary in the summer of 1998, meaning they didn’t buy the striker they needed and subsequently lost the title to Manchester United by one point having scored 21 fewer goals than their title rivals.
The signing of Declan Rice also calls to mind Arsene Wenger’s remark about signing Mesut Ozil in 2013, ‘You don’t need scouting to buy Ozil; you need the money.’ Arsenal’s transformation into a team whose defensive structure looks far tighter this season isn’t entirely down to Declan Rice but he is probably the biggest factor.
Throughout his career, Rice has shown an immensely swift capacity for learning too, he seems to add elements to his game every season. In 2021-22, he operated in the deeper role in West Ham’s double pivot alongside Tomas Soucek. In 2022-23, Soucek and Rice switched roles. This was because Rice really developed some of his attacking attributes (his ability to drive with the ball for example) and Arsenal are enjoying the fruits of that development now.
We’ve started calling him Dhalsim after the Street Fighter character because when he tackles his leg seems to just grow another 20 inches. https://t.co/9YZ1uDkIPW
— Tim Stillman (@Stillmanator) December 2, 2023
His legs have this strange telescopic quality to them, like a boxer waiting for his opponent to slightly expose his chin before administering a jab. His leg often just seems to extend out of nowhere to poke the ball away from the opponent. His feet have the same deceptive quality in possession too.
He looks as though he is just about to give his opponent a sight of a tackle before jabbing the ball with the outside of his foot and retaining it. His limbs seem to extend and retract at will. One aspect of his game perhaps Arsenal fans did not appreciate was his ‘superhero gene.’
Rice is a player for high leverage moments with a good instinct of when to make that last ditch run into the penalty area or exactly which part of the goal line to cover when required. His game is, largely, the discipline of being in the right places at the right times and doing the right things.
Occasionally, there’s a mesmerising drive upfield, the kind of tackle that brings a stadium to its feet. Mostly he just does all the simple things well. Every. Single. Time. This consistent competency is also underscored by a collection of moments where he achieves the spectacular. He might be football’s first ever £105m bargain.
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