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Declan Rice to Arsenal: Former West Ham star will add a new dimension and could fulfil different roles under Mikel Arteta

Arsenal will spend up to £105m on Declan Rice; 24-year-old has the capacity to play either as a No 6 or a No 8 in midfield and flexibility could be a real bonus for Gunners boss Arteta

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Sky Sports' Nick Wright and Ron Walker take a deeper look into why Mikel Arteta was so keen to secure Declan Rice's services

If Arsenal needed any further convincing over the merits of a move for Declan Rice, they got it just after the half-hour mark during their 2-2 draw with West Ham at the London Stadium in April.

Mikel Arteta's side were two goals up and seemingly cruising towards a victory which would have sent them six points clear of Manchester City. But it all changed with a moment of quick-thinking from a player who has become their record signing.

Rice, seeing Kieran Tierney about aim a pass towards Thomas Partey deep in the Arsenal half, set off on a sprint to close the Ghana midfielder down, reaching him just in time to steal possession, then carrying the ball into the box and finding Lucas Paqueta.

The subsequent penalty, won by Paqueta and scored by Said Benrahma, shifted the momentum of the game away from Arsenal. Perhaps even that of the title race too. And it started with Rice.

Rice is stationed inside the centre circle when he starts sprinting towards Partey
Image: Rice is stationed inside the centre circle when he starts sprinting towards Partey
Rice reaches Partey and robs him of possession as he tries to turn
Image: Rice reaches Partey and robs him of possession as he tries to turn
Rice tees up Lucas Paqueta, who draws a foul from Gabriel Magalhaes for the penalty
Image: Rice tees up Lucas Paqueta, who draws a foul from Gabriel Magalhaes for the penalty

It was not the first time he had rushed to pressurise Partey in the game. "Rice is just trying to show him he's going to go after him," said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher on co-commentary.

That passage of play showed many of the qualities that made Rice so appealing to Arsenal: the anticipation to spot the opportunity; the speed and power to get there and emerge with the ball; the composure to set up his team-mate and force the penalty.

It also showed the extent to which the 24-year-old has developed as a player. Rice started out at as a centre-back at West Ham before converting into a holding midfielder. Now, he is much more, his effectiveness at both ends of the pitch taking his value past £100m.

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Rice's heat maps show how his West Ham role evolved
Image: Rice's heat maps show how his West Ham role evolved

As Partey found out, his ability to win possession is unrivalled.

Rice made more ball recoveries than any other Premier League player last season, his total of 334 putting him well clear of Manchester City's Rodri in second place. He also made the most interceptions with 63, seven more than anyone else.

Rice has played as part of a double pivot with Tomas Soucek at West Ham but those ball-winning attributes, together with his physical prowess and the quality of his distribution over short and long distances, could easily be harnessed as the No 6 in Arteta's system.

That is the position in which David Moyes sees his long-term future - "as his career progresses, he may become a proper No 6," he said in April - and it may well be where he will land at Arsenal.

Arsenal have already signed Kai Havertz and are in advanced talks for Jurrien Timber
Image: Arsenal have already signed Kai Havertz and Jurrien Timber

After all, Partey, while still an important figure at the base of Arteta's midfield, has just turned 30, with only two years remaining on his contract and a patchy injury record behind him.

Rice, by contrast, has not yet hit his peak at 24 and has also demonstrated impressive robustness, featuring in 93 per cent of West Ham's Premier League games over the last five seasons. Partey has featured in only 71 per cent of Arsenal's over the last three.

Arteta knows he cannot continue to rely on Partey's fitness, hence the signing of a short-term alternative in Jorginho in January. But dependability and robustness are not the only qualities Rice would add in the position. His ball-carrying prowess is another.

His evolution in that aspect was noted by Gareth Southgate last year - "he breaks the game up so well and now he has more confidence to drive with the ball and bring it forward as well," said the England boss - and it is borne out in the numbers.

Rice's ball-carrying ability is a major strength
Image: Rice's ball-carrying ability is a major strength

According to data from Second Spectrum, who define a carry as "a touch event where the ball-carrier travels 10 metres or more while in possession", Rice ranked second only to Rodri for total carries last season, while nobody carried the ball further in terms of distance.

Even more impressive is that nearly 70 per cent of Rice's carries were categorised as "pressured", meaning they featured opposition players attempting to take the ball off him.

Attempting is one thing; succeeding is another. Belgian side Gent found that out in the Europa Conference League quarter-finals, when Rice carried the ball from deep in his own half and glided past three defenders to score a sensational individual goal.

There were plenty of other examples domestically. Over the course of the Premier League campaign, he bypassed a total 214 opposition defenders through carries, the fourth-most in the division.

Rice's ability accelerate beyond opponents, breaking lines with the ball at his feet, is something Arsenal did not have among their deep-lying midfield options last season and would allow Arteta's side to hurt teams in a different way.

Even more tantalising, though, is that Rice is now capable of capitalising in the attacking third. That goal against Gent was one of 10 he has scored since the start of the 2021/22 season. His offensive output has been a major area of development in his game.

Since making the transition from defence to midfield under Manuel Pellegrini at the start of the 2018/19 campaign, his numbers for chances created, final-third pass and shots per 90 minutes have all increased steadily, reaching highs last term.

His threat has been transformed and it is partly for this reason that, as well as using him as a No 6, Arteta will likely feel confident that he could play in the left-sided No 8 role vacated by Granit Xhaka, whose leadership he could also help to replace.

Moyes sees the same potential in Rice - "he could play as an attacking midfield player," he said as recently as last month - and that despite the context being very different at West Ham.

Could Declan Rice be used as Arsenal's left-sided No 8?
Image: Could Declan Rice be used as Arsenal's left-sided No 8?

Moyes' side had an average of only 41 per cent possession last season - the third-lowest in the division - compared to Arsenal's 60 per cent, circumstances which demanded a defensive focus.

But it is worth noting that Rice, who ranked behind only Southampton's James Ward-Prowse and Brighton's Pascal Gross for distance covered, illustrating his capacity to play as a box-to-box midfielder, also has a crucial role in the way in which they attack.

Indeed, it is no coincidence West Ham direct a high proportion of attacks down their left, where Rice combined so effectively with Said Benrahma, Lucas Paqueta, left-backs Aaron Cresswell and Emerson Palmieri, as well as left-sided centre-backs Angelo Ogbonna and Nayef Aguerd.

Rice was key on and off the ball on the left of West Ham's midfield
Image: Rice was key on and off the ball on the left of West Ham's midfield
West Ham directed a higher proportion of attacks down their left than their right
Image: West Ham directed a higher proportion of attacks down their left than their right

It is not difficult to imagine Rice bridging defence and attack in a similar manner at Arsenal as they seek to strengthen their left side to the same extent as their right, where Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka's partnership has flourished.

What is certain, though, is that, wherever he is used, Rice would add solidity off the ball. At the same time as developing the attacking side of his game in recent seasons, the former Chelsea trainee has gone from strength to strength in a defensive sense.

Indeed, while he actually made fewer tackles last season than in three of the previous four campaigns, he in fact became more difficult to beat in one-on-ones, his improvement evident in the year-to-year reduction in how often he is dribbled past.

Last season, it occurred only 0.55 times per 90 minutes, three times fewer than in the 2018/19 campaign, his first as a midfielder. For context, Partey and Rodri were dribbled past roughly twice as often per 90 minutes during the 2022/23 season.

Rice's all-roundedness equips him for different roles and that, ultimately, is another crucial aspect for Arteta, who has been seeking to make Arsenal tactically adaptable since the start of his tenure.

"We want to have versatility," he explained in conversation with Sky Sports in 2020. "We will be more difficult to control if we are able to master two or three different formations… Always with the same principles, but being able to change system, and to attack and defend in different ways."

The onus he places on versatility has only grown since then, to the point where it was one of the first qualities he mentioned when discussing the arrivals of five of their last six major signings, from Gabriel Jesus to Leandro Trossard.

That trend now looks set to continue and the hope for Arsenal is that Rice, a player whose quick-thinking at the London Stadium shifted the momentum in last season's title race, might in future help drive them over the line.

This article was first published on June 14

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