Sunday, July 21, 2024

How to grow Rice

Ordinarily, I try not to correlate too much between a player’s Arsenal performances and his National Team performances. Due to the lack of time together and the inability to buy the players that you need, international teams are nowhere near as functional as club sides. International football is, if not a different sport, a different version of the sport.

Not least because football is a team game and partnerships and combinations are like chemical reactions. If one piece moves or withdraws, that has a chain reaction on the players around them. In an England sense, for example, the team has transitioned away from three of the partnerships that have defined Gareth Southgate’s reign.

Harry Maguire and John Stones at centre-half has been ably replaced by Guehi and Stones but elsewhere there have been teething problems. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips was a very well established partnership in central midfield and with Phillips growing stale on Manchester City’s bench, it took Southgate a while to find a balancing chemical for Rice’s tirelessness.

Likewise, without Raheem Sterling’s centre-forward style runs, Harry Kane’s proclivity to drop into deep spaces has looked laboured- especially as Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham like to occupy those same spaces and Kane looks unwilling or unable to adapt to that for his team.

For Bukayo Saka, none of these combining factors appear to affect him. He doesn’t seem to need certain players around him or certain types of player around him. Just put him on the right and watch him do his thing regardless of who is in his vicinity when he does it.

I think England’s midfield struggles have told us something about Declan Rice that I think Mikel Arteta learned around half-way through last season. It became increasingly clear that he is the Granit Xhaka replacement, as opposed to the ‘six.’ Don’t get me wrong, he is perfectly capable of playing ‘in the six’ and I am sure we will see him there from time to time but I feel strongly he has proved to be a better Xhaka replacement.

His versatility in this respect is still very useful. Arsenal’s midfield takes on two predominant shapes, depending on the phase of play so, technically, Rice does a bit of sixing and a lot of eighting in any one game. Off the ball, Arsenal’s midfield looks more like a box, with Havertz dropping back from centre-forward to play parallel to Odegaard.

In this phase, Rice is very much part of a double pivot next to Partey or Jorginho. However, when Arsenal win the ball, it tends to ‘fan out’ into more of a diamond and it looks more like this.

In this scenario, Rice can use his energy to ‘stretch his legs’ and run into that left channel. Neither Partey nor Jorginho are the most gifted athletes, so they can slide across and stay deep while Rice can sprint into open spaces and avail of his energy. Being in these spaces also allows Rice to ‘hunt’ for the ball in central areas and snuff out attacks before the flame can even flicker.

Rice’s energy and his ability to cover a lot of ground means, in my eyes, keeping him in an armchair in front of the defence wastes one of his best attributes. In an England sense, Kalvin Phillips was always a passable passing midfielder and that was pretty much all Rice needed because he can do the heavy lifting in a partnership. Rice is a good passer but probably not as incisive as someone like Jorginho or Partey.

For England, Kobbie Mainoo proved to be a vastly superior partner for him than Conor Gallagher. In an England shirt, Rice has only ever really needed a half decent passer beside him but we also saw in the tournament that, without a more natural passer next to him, Rice looked overburdened. I think his season for Arsenal shows that he needs something similar in an Arsenal shirt.

After Christmas, when Havertz moved upfront, Rice was nearly always partnered with Jorginho or Partey. Another one of the aspects that makes Rice more of a Xhaka replacement is because he has always veered to the left channel, he did so for West Ham, he has done so for England and continues to do so at Arsenal.

The other consequence of this is that Rice has hastened the redundancy of Zinchenko. Prior to Rice’s signing, Zinchenko would invert from left-back and sit alongside Partey at the base of the midfield. With Rice taking over that ‘left six’ position, Zinchenko is no longer needed in that space. But the Ukrainian’s absence does cost Arsenal another ball progressor because they had two of those at the base of their midfield.

This might explain the interest in left-sided defender Riccardo Calafiori, not as an inverting left-back but as someone on the left side who is more comfortable distributing. Neither Rice nor Martinelli would list distribution as one of their key attributes. So not only does Rice need a right-leaning partner (in the footballing sense, you understand) he certainly needs a distributor next to him because Arsenal cannot lose Zinchenko AND someone like Jorginho from the build-up phase.

Rice can wear the superman cape and essentially play in two positions depending on the phase of play and it’s his energy, his stride with the ball and his ability to ‘hunt’ that make him the player he is. He is already utterly extraordinary at those facets of the game, it would be completely unreasonable to expect him to turn into Andrea Pirlo on top of that.

In certain game states, I think he can drop back as the six if Arsenal want or need to get a more attacking ‘eight’ in his stead, it gives Arsenal a substitution to keep up their sleeve. Though Rice managed seven goals and eight assists in the Premier League last season, so he is hardly an attacking zero.

Though he could probably still tidy up a little in possession and adjust his body shape when receiving the ball so he can turn and run with fewer touches of the ball required to get himself turned. Rice averaged 7.7 progressive passes per 90 last season. In his final season at West Ham, he averaged 6.59 and the season before that, when he did play very much as a six, he averaged 7.25.

You can see the needle on his progressive passes hasn’t moved significantly despite leaving a defensive, midtable team for a dominant, title challenging one. That isn’t a criticism per se, it’s just an illustration of the player Arsenal have. He is a world class ball winner, has boundless stamina and can absolutely master the hybrid role of ‘six out of possession and eight in possession.’

What he probably can’t do is turn into a young Jorginho as well. I think Arsenal need that player next to him, just as England have- especially since Rice’s presence on the left has probably curtailed Zinchenko’s prominence in the team. I think Arteta and Arsenal should prioritise long-term replacement(s) for Partey and Jorginho and cherish the player they have in Declan Rice.

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