Why Declan Rice will be an era-defining signing for Arsenal

Declan Rice left West Ham this summer after leading them to tehir first silverware in 43 years

PREMIER LEAGUE Why Declan Rice will be an era-defining signing for Arsenal

Mark Kinyanjui 05:31 - 30.06.2023

Why are Arsenal signing Rice? and why will he be an era-defining signing for the club?

On Wednesday night, it was announced that West Ham United finally agreed a bid by Arsenal for English midfielder Declan Rice worth up to £105 million ($133m) after Manchester City pulled out of the race to sign the midfielder.

That was Arsenal’s third bid in this window for the England international. All have been well over the Gunners' outgoing record transfer fee of £ 72 million for Nicolas Pepe in August 2019, and they represent a couple of things about the club’s approach to next season.

Rice has always been Arsenal’s prime target. The heights Arsenal are willing to go regarding the fee for Rice may confuse some, but from the club’s perspective, landing the West Ham captain in this window is essential.

But why are Arsenal signing Rice? And why will he be an era-defining signing for the club?

A number of factors have been clear with the evolution of their recruitment strategy over the past two summers. Moving from ‘Project Youth 2.0’ going into the 2021-22 season to signing experienced players in their mid-twenties this time last year was key to Arsenal raising their level.

Rice serves as a continuation of last summer’s strategy as a 24-year-old who has started all 12 of England’s games at the past two major tournaments, started 93 percent (190) of his 204 league appearances for West Ham and driven them to win the Europa Conference League final last month.

Alongside all that, he is another player whose attributes lend themselves to more than one role, same as Kai Havertz who joined from Chelsea.

With those parts of the jigsaw in mind, Rice is one of very few options with the attributes and quality to rival the league’s best in that role.

In a West Ham shirt, he has become increasingly a box-to-box midfielder, carrying the ball forward but still has the experience of playing a deeper role for both club and country.

Rice’s defensive qualities (mostly his anticipation and timing of tackles) are what immediately stand out when watching him. That eye test marries up with the numbers: last season his true tackle win rate (denoting tackles plus challenges lost plus fouls committed) was the highest in the Premier League (69.9 percent from 113 true tackles or 4.2 per 1,000 opposition touches) among central and defensive midfielders.

Everton’s Amadou Onana and Tyler Adams of Leeds United were in similar situations to Rice, as parts of a midfield ensemble for bottom-half teams. Onana had a 67 percent true tackle win rate from 103 true tackles or 5.64 per 1,000 opposition touches while Adams had a 64.5 percent true tackle win rate from 138 true tackles or 8.84 per 1,000 opposition touches.

In 33 appearances, he had a true tackle win rate of 58.3 percent from 115 true tackles or 8.12 per 1,000 opposition touches. That often fed into Arsenal’s ability to play a high line and dominate teams by keeping the ball in the attacking half whether they had possession or not. 

Again for comparison, Manchester City’s Rodri had a slightly lower true tackle win rate of 56.4 percent from 117 true tackles or 7.47 per 1,000 opposition touches.

In a different area of midfield, Rice will be counted on more but his previous success rate bodes well. Extra security further back down the pitch may also give Arsenal’s more advanced midfielders even greater freedom than they enjoyed last season, which could work nicely with Havertz’s off-ball movement or the inclusion of Emile Smith Rowe in a more central role.

What happens with Rice in possession as an Arsenal player is a bit more of an unknown.

Some may see that as a risk with a signing for a fee north of £100million who, like many of Arteta’s squad, will be stepping into the Champions League for the first time.

Rice has been more likely to switch the ball to the wings with West Ham, which could be useful with Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka out wide. Arsenal are more accustomed to their No 6, whether that is Partey or last January’s signing Jorginho, feeding vertical passes through the lines.

Rice did this at times for England at the World Cup in November and December, but becoming more progressive as well as measured at the right times to allow Arsenal time to breathe in certain matches — for example, Jorginho in the 2-0 away win at Newcastle United in early May — is a potential area for growth.

For more considered periods of possession, patience may be needed if they are asking Rice to replicate what Partey has done in that role for the past two seasons. Arsenal’s pursuit of Ajax defender Jurrien Timber could help matters, however. Last season, Ben White did not invert from right-back to the same extent Oleksandr Zinchenko did at left-back.

White occasionally offered that support inside but tended to stay in the same line as center-backs William Saliba and Gabriel in the build-up before venturing forward to either overlap or underlap Saka.

If Timber signs to fill in at right-back with a slightly different interpretation of the role to White, in which he inverts like Zinchenko so Rice would have options either side of him as well as through the lines, that could provide more interesting developments for Arsenal’s play.

Rice is a key ingredient to Arsenal elevating themselves in both regards. Arsenal would not want last season to be a one off-season and signing Rice would certainly be a statement of intent.