Arsenal have clear areas to address in the two 2023 transfer windows when it comes to squad depth.
The need for reinforcements came to the fore this month, boosted by the failed pursuit of Mykhailo Mudric and the signing of Leandro Trossard. Central midfield is next on the agenda, given the huge drop-off between the first-choice trio of Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka, and the second line that Mikel Arteta drops out every time he rotates his flank.
This is evident in the club planning a summer move for West Ham’s Declan Rice, a transfer that makes sense for them on a number of fronts.
More importantly, Rice, 24, a regular starter for England, would add to the midfield depth. Mohamed Elneny is a regular with 93 caps for Egypt but will turn 31 in July, while 23-year-old Albert Sambi Lokonga has failed to impress in matches when he comes on. Rice, on the other hand, could compete for a starting spot.
Arsenal have tried to strengthen the midfielder over the past two summers, with offers for Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz rejected in 2022 after Wolves showed interest in Ruben Neves a year ago.
The strategy for 2021 was to allow the under-23 players to develop at the club. This is a window into the arrival of 21-year-old Lokon from Anderlecht. But the next step in Arsenal’s evolution is clear: to recruit players in their mid-20s who add both quality and experience and are ready to make a real impact on their team.
Gabriel Jesus, 25, and Alexander Zinchenko, now 26 but 25 when he signed, are examples this summer.
Rice turned 24 on January 14th and has already done so 187 Premier League appearances and captaincy West Ham reached the semi-finals of the Europa League. Moreover, he started all of England’s games at Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.
Before we get into how Rice’s attributes stack up stylistically against the league’s leaders, some context is important.
The box-to-box role he usually plays alongside Tomas Soucek for West Ham will not be repeated at Arsenal, but he has recently played as a No.6 in a midfield three at club level and has also played for England. Some of the strengths he showed at West Ham will translate to Arsenal, but some of the demands on him may differ.
Rice’s biggest strengths are his athleticism and defensive ability. These will be needed, whether he is used in box-to-box pairings or as a No. 6, especially at Arsenal.
As John MacKenzie of Tifo explained earlier this season, Arsenal’s “relaxing defence” is set up to stifle teams in their own half, leaving wide spaces as the defenders drop in. Usually, he is a central defender for the ball side or No. 6 pushes out to stop counters quickly when they lose possession.
This is where Rice excels.
Take this example from September’s Premier League trip to Everton, where West Ham were dispossessed when attacking. Home midfielder Alex Iwobi’s first attempt is to play the ball into the half while his colleagues in claret and blue are still in Everton territory.
Back in his seat, Rice doesn’t dive right away. Instead of turning to draw Neil Maupai onto the ball, he is looking at the space that Everton will try to exploit (on the left of West Ham’s stretched defence) ready to link up with Amadou Onana (Rice ran into the position shown below). attack.
He covers well, waits for the pass and stops the attack before it really starts when the ball reaches Onana.
As Arsenal dominate matches, the players’ ability to read the game in such situations becomes crucial.
It’s something Rice already does on a regular basis, and it goes beyond timing him well when he’s open in the midfield.
He has the most recoveries (loose ball recoveries) in the Premier League this season (181, second with Manchester City’s Rodry 177 and Arsenal’s William Saliba a distant third with 156) and the second most interceptions (32) in the back. Crystal Palace player Cheik Doukur (34).
What really sets it apart is what happens after he makes such interventions.
When he left for Manchester City last season, he was on the move as Jesus made his pass on the pitch…
…and as a result, Ilkay beat Gündogan with ease.
His first instinct after winning is to drive forward, but with no support, he moves away from the pressure and drives the ball forward.
West Ham can handle the ball – something Arsenal have been able to do this season – rather than letting the game become a you-have-the-attack-we-have-an-attack scenario, like a game of basketball.
If Rice feels an opportunity to move on, he will.
He did it for England in last month’s World Cup quarter-final against France, setting up a counter-attack after winning the ball on the halfway line. Arsenal fans may also remember his midfield performance against them in a 3-3 draw at the London Stadium in March 2021.
A powerful player, the Englishman gets himself back to bring the ball forward. This may be his biggest contrast stylistically (more box-to-box play) and Arsenal’s key No.6 position, as Partey is a distributor of that position.
Since the beginning of last season, Rice has the most shipments (1,032) and the highest total transportation distance (11,729 meters). In the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, most of his forward carriers are in the middle third, where he does more work than on the ball to move West Ham up the field. His tally of 556 is sixth in the Premier League since the start of last season, but first among midfielders, while his 175 this term is seventh – again for midfielders.
When the 24-year-old makes these runs, his close control often flies under the radar. It helps in these areas of his game, whether it’s changing the ball quickly before a shot or pass, or getting space early on the dribble.
Given that Arsenal also use a midfielder in Xhaka, he can provide tactical flexibility in terms of how the midfield is deployed.
At first glance, what Rice does with the ball might raise reservations when viewed through Arsenal’s lens.
It regularly moves to the last third, 154 out of 191 attempts (fifth most in the Premier League this season), but these alternate playing with West Ham’s opposite defender.
That seems to be his best option rather than playing through the lines, which Arsenal players do across the pitch, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
England put more emphasis on this with him as No.6, which was evident in the World Cup loss to France.
Recovering a loose pass, Rice fired a nice forward pass to Phil Foden.
When Foden wins the ball back to himself, he assesses the situation and directs a pass from the crowd to Harry Kane (out of frame in the next screenshot).
Kane missed Jude Bellingham but couldn’t get his pass past the Borussia Dortmund midfielder.
Twice in a row, Rice looked to advance the ball and found his man both times. Not every pass he makes in an England shirt is like that, but moments like the one above show he can do it.
One aspect of Partey’s game has made him important this season. Martin Odegaard’s goal against Tottenham Hotspur this month was key as he sent off three players with one touch. Whether that can be repeated will be another question for Rice or the Arsenal midfielder.
As with Linick’s offense, it’s not something Rice does every week, but he’s shown glimpses of it internationally.
Again, the France game provides an example.
Harry Maguire passed him on the halfway line…
…Rice moves towards the ball but controls the back foot and opens up to turn.
Antoine Griezmann pounces on the first move and Rice is able to get into France’s half, setting up England’s attack on the right.
If Arsenal’s interest ends in a transfer, Arteta wants those attributes to be on display.
In terms of goals, Rice is a logical fit for the Premier League leaders.
On the pitch, he excels in areas that not all midfielders can, and his limitations can only be improved upon. Off the pitch, he fits the direction Arsenal are going, can deliver in the short term but will improve in the long term.
January is too early for any concrete events. However, both player and club are moving closer to their common goal of playing in the Champions League and finding what is required of them at that level.
For Arsenal, that means a competitive squad with depth. For Rice, this would be an opportunity to continue his game.
(Top photo: George Wood/Getty Images)