Declan Rice: The kingpin to complete the Arteta puzzle

Arsenal and Declan Rice could transform each other, with the midfielder’s numbers showing a tremendous scope to become a proper superstar.

So Declan Rice was announced by Arsenal as their record signing on Saturday. Many Arsenal fans, myself included, are still pinching ourselves to keep in touch with the reality of the situation. It still feels surreal and nothing I had ever imagined the club would pull off.

Bringing one if not the best midfielder in the league to the Emirates has galvanised the mood within this fanbase, who were in a distraught mood a few years back. First and foremost, the credit should be reserved for Mikel Arteta and his intent for the club before his own ambitions. Then there’s also Edu Gaspar, with the pair transforming the club’s fortunes with their astute understanding of what’s most needed.

Now, on to Declan Rice and how imaginary this transfer still feels to most fans. The 24-year-old was pencilled to join Chelsea for many years, while Liverpool were casually linked with him as an alternative to Jude Bellingham.

Manchester City also derailed the spirits of Arsenal fans in this window with concrete interest and a subsequent bid. Pundits and experts were quick to dismiss the Gunners as ‘bottlers’ in this particular race following Pep Guardiola making an inquest.

Yet, with Rice signing on the dotted line, the stature of Arteta has become much clearer, as the midfielder admitted the manager had a major part to play in this transfer. He said, I’m so excited – he speaks for himself.”

“You see how he works – you got a real insight into how he works on the Amazon documentary, how he works with his players and not only as a coach, but psychologically how good he is with players, how he improves players. He’s a massive factor in the reason why I’ve come here.”

“I know he’s going to get the best out of me. I know I’ve got more levels to go up in my game, and I feel like he’s the manager to take me to those next levels. I’m really excited to be working with him.”

The Spaniard has developed a solid reputation that continues to attract the best talents. The arrival of Kai Havertz and Jurrie Timber are further proof of this pull, and Rice seems like the mega price, the signing of the summer, possibly the biggest of Arteta’s time here, and the club’s overall.

For the £100 million Arsenal paid to West Ham, there should not be any questions about ‘overpaying’ considering the quality of the player. The current market also dictates these prices, with established England internationals tending to cost a vast sum. Mason Mount, Kalvin Phillips and Harry Maguire are prime examples, and lest we forget Jack Grealish, who is still not an automatic starter for Gareth Southgate.

With Rice, Arsenal are getting a transformative midfielder who will vastly improve the teams and players. More importantly, Arteta had lost a leader in Granit Xhaka, and with Rice, they have found someone to walk into the team as a readymade replacement in that aspect.

In truth, he is a defensive midfielder, but his underlying numbers indicate there’s more to his game than just guarding the backline. We shall dwell on what Rice brings to this team and some numbers crunching, which gives a definitive idea of his role and how he could improve his game personally.

Declan Rice, the premium midfield upgrade.

Arsenal, aka ‘penny pinchers,’ did not just shatter their club and British records for a signing. The Gunners have shown enough faith in the 24-year-old to pay that money to signify a plan in place.

It does seem like Rice has a stage set for him at the Emirates, with the Gunners moving in a direction that could see them becoming a dominant footballing force. How Arterta further shapes his squad remains to be seen, but the 24-year-old seems like the kingpin of his complex puzzle.

Arsenal’s season was built around a midfield partnership of Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey, which enabled the free-flowing attackers to play without fear. Not only were the duo a physical presence in the middle, but they also did their job fairly well.

However, with Xhaka now going and Partey also possibly departing, Arteta may look at a proper lone No.6 in the middle and will task Rice with the duties. It’s no easy task for the England star, who must take up massive responsibilities.

Alternatively, if Partey does stay, the partnership with Rice could look even more daunting than the one with Xhaka did. From a transfer perspective, if the Ghanaian stays, he will continue playing in that No.6 role and Rice in Xhaka’s LCM role, but if he leaves, the 24-year-old replaces him.

In the current system and after analysing how Havertz would fit in, it’s evident that Arsenal would need a new LCM if Partey leaves. The 30-year-old has been brilliant, but his style slightly differs from what Arteta wants. The Ghanaian is too vertical for Arteta’s liking and not as astute in defensive actions as Rice.

Hence, it’s clear that Rice is an upgrade in this midfield, although the comparing numbers with Partey are not too dissimilar on the close comparison. Understandably, the difference is marginal, considering these are two midfielders playing high-tempo football in this league, and they are one of the very best in the division.

Declan Rice’s number crunch

The £105 million Arsenal are paying for Rice is reminiscent of what Man City paid for Rodri. The amounts are different, but not the value the two sides achieved. In Rodri’s case, it was a release clause, although his price could have been much higher if not for the stipulation.

We should momentarily look away from the price tag and concentrate on what Rice brings with his numbers. Importantly, the 24-year-old is a premier ball winner and has improved considerably every season since his debut in 2017-18, when he started as a centre-back.

Last season, he won possession 334 times, the highest in the league, and only Rodri (301) was the other midfielder to break the 300 mark. Rice also lead the league on interceptions (63), seven more than his closest competitor (Ndidi, Caicedo and Doucoure), which makes him one of the best in the defensive midfield roles.

He also dribbled past only 20 times, which, when broken down comes down to 0.6 times per 90. The figure is superior to stats posted by some of the top-holding midfielders in the league, including Partey, Moises Caicedo, Rodri and Casemiro.

Moreover, Rice has started at least 32 league games in his last five seasons, which shows his constant availability. However, the one aspect that would test his character is the style of play at Arsenal, considering West Ham were a team that often sat deeper.

Arsenal tend to set themselves higher up the pitch, and here, Rice will have to play on the front foot. For instance, the Gunners tend to depend greatly on turnovers, producing a league-high 388 last season. In comparison, West Ham only had 100, showcasing their style of play and how Rice fits in.

At Arsenal, Rice may have to work more in advanced areas and will not have many options around him, considering how high up the pitch Arsenal play. Hence, if we compare how he operated at West Ham, he is likely to get exposed defensively at times. However, there’s optimism that it may not become a problem as we dwell further into some positives and more comparisons.

Declan Rice has massive scope for improvement.

Many credible data sources tend to make Partey the closest profile to Rice. The numbers are high, and the differences are minimal, considering the level at which the two midfielders operate. For instance, the Ghanaian has slightly better stats with touches and defensive actions.

Partey also has better stats with Aerials and touches inside the box. But, as mentioned before, the differences are negligible, and with Rice coming in to take his spot, the England international could post better numbers in the coming season.

On closer examination, Partey and Rice have very similar season stats, which makes sense considering why Arteta chose the 24-year-old as the ideal successor. However, some other stats potentially point to massive future improvements from the England international.

For instance, his carry output drastically reduced last season compared to the 2021-22 campaign. In the latter, he made a mammoth 716 carries, compared to last season’s 597, behind only Rodri (702). Arsenal’s system could allow the midfielder ample space and time to better those numbers and make himself a threat in and around the final third.

One surprising stat was his total passes from last season, which came to 2,083, with Rodri, Pierre-Emile Hojberg and Moises Caicedo making more. It’s baffling because West Ham were the third-worst team in possession, and incredibly enough, Rice had an 88.1% completion rate in that aspect.

To make it better, Rice’s 607 forward passes were only behind Bruno Fernandes (633) and Rodri (624), with the trio breaking into the 600 mark for players in their position. An interesting stat from Opta Analyst also showed West Ham recorded the lowest average passing options (1.08) of all Premier League teams in 2022-23.

Rice was not aided by space or movement around him when passing the ball. Only six players in the league completed more passes when an opponent was within two metres. It’s intriguing enough to show the midfielder’s ability to play in tight spaces and how he can excel in the Arsenal side.

Overall, he does seem like the perfect fit for Arteta and his plans to enhance this squad. The Gunners have every chance of challenging for silverware and competing with Manchester City in the upcoming season with Rice on their side.

The midfielder has a challenge ahead of him, and if he succeeds here, it will make Arsenal a powerhouse in England and Europe. With Rice, they have one of the most formidable central midfielders in the world at their disposal, as an exciting season awaits.

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