In terms of squad depth, Arsenal have clear areas to address in the two 2023 transfer windows.
This month, with the failed pursuit of Mihajlo Mudrik and the signing of Leandro Trossard, the need for perimeter reinforcements has become a top priority this month. Consider the huge gap between the first-choice trio of Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka and the second tier that gets pushed out whenever Mikel Arteta rotates his team. Gap, midfield is next on the agenda.
This is reflected in the club’s planned summer move for West Ham United’s Declan Rice, a move that makes sense for them in a number of ways.
Most importantly, regular England starter Rice, 24, will add to their depth in midfield. Mohamed Elneny is a consistent player, as his 93 appearances for Egypt show, but turns 31 in July, while 23-year-old Albert Sambi Lokonga Often fails to impress in games when on the field. Rice, by contrast, is more likely to compete for the starting spot.
Arsenal have been trying to bolster their midfield over the past two summers, with a move for Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz in 2022 after expressing interest in Wolves’ Ruben Neves a year ago. The bid was rejected.
The strategy for 2021 is to sign players under the age of 23 and let them develop at the club. This was the window in which Lokonga, then 21, arrived from Anderlecht. But the next step for Arsenal has become clear: recruiting players in their 20s who are both capable and experienced and ready to make a real impact on their squad.
Gabriel Jesus, 25, and Oleksandr Zinchenko, now 26 but 25 when he signed, are examples this summer.
Rice turned 24 on January 14 and has 187 Premier League appearances and captaincy West Ham advance to the semi-finals of the Europa League. On top of that, he started all of England’s games at Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.
Before delving into how Rice’s traits would fit stylistically for a league leader, some context is key.
The all-round role he usually plays at West Ham alongside Thomas Soucek has not been replicated at Arsenal, but he has recently played a No 6 in a midfield three at club level and is also inclined to play in England this way. Some of the strengths he displayed at West Ham could be transferred to the way Arsenal play, but some of the demands on him could be different.
Rice’s greatest strengths are his athleticism and defensive awareness. Those are the things that will be needed, whether he is used in box-to-box pairings or as a No. 6, especially at Arsenal.
As Tifo’s Jon MacKenzie explained earlier in the season, Arsenal’s ‘break defense’ was designed to leave enough space to kill teams in their own half when the full-backs tucked in. Typically, this will be the ball-side centre-back or No 6 who launches a quick-stop counter-attack when possession is lost.
This is where Rice excels.
Take the away game against Everton in the Premier League in September as an example. West Ham lost control in the attack. Home midfielder Alex Iwobi’s first move was to kick the ball into midfield while his claret and blue opponents remained on Everton ground.
Rice didn’t dive right away after returning to her spot. Instead of turning and receiving the ball with Neil Maupay, he looks at the space Everton will try to exploit (on the left side of West Ham’s defence) with Amadou Onana (Rice runs past to reach The location shown in the figure below) is ready to join the attack.
He screens well, anticipates passes and is ready to tackle the ball as it reaches Onana, stopping the offense before it actually gets going.
As Arsenal become more dominant in the game, a player’s ability to read the game in these circumstances will become even more important.
It’s something Rice already does on a regular basis, and it’s not just about timing tackles when the midfield is exposed.
He is the outfield player with the most recoveries (recovery of loose balls) in the Premier League this season (181, Manchester City’s Rodri is second with 177 and Arsenal’s William Saliba is third with 156) and Crystal Palace’s Cheick Doucoure (34) is second in terms of interceptions (32).
what really sets him apart is what happened rear He made such an intervention.
Away to Manchester City last season, he was already on the move as Jesus passed the ball infield…
…turned out to be an easy tackle in front of Ilkay Gundogan.
His first instinct after winning possession is to push forward, but without any support, he can dribble well off pressure and move the ball forward.
West Ham can focus on possession – something Arsenal have tended to do this season – rather than making the game a crazy game where you attack and we attack, like in basketball.
However, if Rice does feel there is an opportunity to move on, he will leave.
He did that for England against France in last month’s World Cup quarter-final, to fight back after winning the ball in midfield. Arsenal fans may remember him walking across the middle of the pitch during the 3-3 draw against Arsenal at the London Stadium in March 2021.
A strong player, the Englishman backed himself up to push the ball forward. This is probably the biggest contrast in style between him (playing more box-to-box) and Arsenal’s main No 6, as Partey is more of a passer in that position.
Since the start of last season, Rice had the most total volume (1,032) and the longest total distance (11,729 meters) in the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, most of his forwards are in midfield and he does more work than dribbling to bring West Ham up front. Since the start of last season, his 556 appearances are sixth in the Premier League but first among midfielders, while his 175 appearances this season are seventh, again first among midfielders.
When the 24-year-old makes these runs, his tight control is often overlooked. Whether it’s moving the ball quickly before a shot or pass, or making room for himself at the start of the dribble, his game helps in those areas.
Considering that Arsenal also use Xhaka’s all-round midfielder, he may also provide some tactical flexibility in the midfield setup.
At first glance, Rice’s movement with the ball might hold some eyebrows if viewed from Arsenal’s perspective.
He gets into the final third fairly regularly, 154 of 191 attempts succeeded (fifth in the Premier League this season), But these tend to be the turns of West Ham’s opposing full-backs.
It seems to be his preference rather than going over the line, something Arsenal players do on the pitch quite often, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
England take this all the more seriously because he is a No 6, which was evident in their World Cup loss to France.
Resuming a loose pass, Rice fired a fine forward ball to Phil Foden.
When Foden bounced the ball back to him, he assessed the situation and passed to Harry Kane in a congested area of the pitch (outside frame in the next screenshot).
Kane let Jude Bellingham run away from him but failed to pass the ball to the Dortmund midfielder.
Rice made two quick passes and found his defender both times. Not every pass he makes in an England shirt does, but moments like the one above show us he can do it.
One area where Partey has made a big difference this season is his resilience. That was the key to Martin Odegaard’s goal against Tottenham this month as he allowed three players out with one touch. Whether that can be replicated will be another question for Rice or any other Arsenal midfield target.
As with the line-breaking pass, it’s not something Rice does every week, but he’s already shown glimpses of it at the international level.
The French game again provides an example.
Harry Maguire passed him in midfield…
… Rice moves toward the ball but controls his back foot, opening the turn.
Antoine Griezmann took off in the first move and Rice was able to break into France’s half unchallenged before launching England’s attack down the right.
If Arsenal’s interest ends in a transfer, Arteta will want those attributes to become more apparent.
As far as goals go, Rice is a logical target for the Premier League leaders.
On the pitch, he excels in an area that not all midfielders are capable of, and his limitations look open to improvement. Off the pitch, he fits with the direction Arsenal are going, with room to perform in the short term but also room to improve in the long term.
January is certainly too early for any concrete developments. Even so, players and clubs are moving towards the shared goal of competing in the Champions League and finding what they want at that level.
For Arsenal, that means a competitive squad with depth. For Rice, this will be an opportunity to continue to improve his game.
(Above: George Wood/Getty Images)