Arsenal have clear areas to address in 2023’s two transfer windows when it comes to squad depth.
The need for reinforcements wide has taken priority this month, with the failed pursuit of Mykhailo Mudryk 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 string being rolled out every time Mikel Arteta rotates his side.
This has manifested itself in the club plotting a summer move for West Ham’s Declan Rice, a transfer which would make sense for them on a few fronts.
Most importantly, regular England starter Rice, 24, would add to their midfield depth. Mohamed Elneny is a steady player as his 93 caps suggest, but turns 31 in July, while Albert Sambi Lokonga, 23, often fails to make an impact in games when he does get to play. Rice, on the other hand, would be more likely to compete for a starting spot.
Arsenal have sought to strengthen their midfield in the past two summers, having rejected a bid for Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz in 2022 after showing interest in Wolves’ Ruben Neves a year earlier.
The strategy in 2021 was to bring in players under the age of 23 so they could grow at the club. This is the window when Lokonga, then 21, arrived from Anderlecht. But the next step in Arsenal’s development has become clear: recruit players in their mid-20s who add both quality and experience and are ready to make a real impact on their squad.
Gabriel Jesus, 25, and Oleksandr Zinchenko, 26 years old now but 25 when he signed, are examples of this from the summer.
Rice turned 24 on January 14 and has already made 187 Premier League games and captain West Ham into the Europa League semi-finals. On top of this, he started all of England’s matches at Euro 2020 and the World Cup in 2022.
Before diving into how Rice’s traits would fit stylistically with the league leaders, some context is key.
The box-to-box role he usually plays in a pairing with Tomas Soucek for West Ham has not been replicated at Arsenal, but he has played as a No.6 in a midfield three recently at club level and tends to do so for England. Some of the strengths he shows at West Ham will be transferable to how Arsenal play, but some of the demands on him may differ.
Rice’s biggest strengths are his athleticism and defensive awareness. They will be needed whether he is used in a box-to-box pairing or as a No.6, especially at Arsenal.
As Tifo’s Jon MacKenzie explained earlier this season, Arsenal’s “rest defence” is set up to suffocate teams in their own half with spaces left out wide when full-backs cut in. Often it will be the ball side’s central defense or not. 6, pushing out to quickly stop counters when possession is lost.
This is where Rice excels.
Take this example from September’s Premier League trip to Everton, where West Ham were dispossessed while attacking. Home midfielder Alex Iwobi’s first act is to play the ball up to halfway while his counterparts in claret and blue are still in Everton territory.
After settling back into place, Rice doesn’t dive in right away. Instead of turning to engage Neal Maupay on the ball, he looks to the space Everton will try to exploit (to the left of West Ham’s stretched defense) with Amadou Onana (who Rice ran past to reach the position shown below) ready to join. the attack.
He covers well, anticipates the pass and is ready to tackle when the ball reaches Onana and stops an attack before it really starts.
As Arsenal become more dominant in matches, the players’ ability to read the game in situations like that will become more important.
This is something Rice already does regularly and goes beyond just timing his tackles well when they are left exposed in midfield.
He is the outfield player with the most recoveries (free balls) in the Premier League this season (181, with Manchester City’s Rodri second on 177 and Arsenal’s William Saliba a distant third on 156) and is second for interceptions (32) behind Crystal Palace’s Cheick Doucoure (34).
What really sets him apart is what happens after he makes such interventions.
Out for Manchester City last season, he is already on the move when Jesus makes his pass inside the field…
…and easily intercepts ahead of Ilkay Gundogan as a result.
His first instinct after winning possession is to drive forward, but without support he is wise to dribble away from pressure and move the ball forward.
West Ham can settle for possession – something Arsenal have tended to do this season – rather than letting the game become a frantic you-have-an-attack-we-have-an-attack scenario, like a basketball game .
However, if Rice senses an opportunity to push, he will go.
He did that for England against France in last month’s World Cup quarter-final to spark a counter-attack after winning the ball on halfway. Arsenal fans may also remember his run through the middle of the pitch against them in the 3-3 draw at the London Stadium in March 2021.
A strong player, the Englishman backs himself to carry the ball forward. That might be the biggest contrast stylistically between him (playing more box-to-box) and Arsenal’s primary No.6, as Partey is more of a distributor from that position.
Since the start of last season, Ris has the most total transports (1,032) and the highest total transport distance (11,729 metres) in the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, most of his progressive carries are in the middle third, where he does more work than the ball to move West Ham up the pitch. His tally of 556 ranks sixth in the Premier League since the start of last season, but first among midfielders, while his 175 ranks seventh this term – first for midfielders again.
When the 24-year-old makes these runs, his close control often goes under the radar. Whether it’s moving the ball quickly on the run before getting a shot or pass, or making room for himself at the start of a dribble, it’s one area of his game that helps in those areas.
As Arsenal also use a box-to-box midfielder in Xhaka, he can also provide some tactical flexibility in how this midfield is set up.
At first glance, what Rice does with the ball might cause reservations when looking at him through an Arsenal lens.
He enters the final third quite regularly, with 154 successful out of 191 attempts (fifth-most attempts in the Premier League this season), but these tend to be change of play for West Ham’s opposite back.
This seems to be his option rather than playing through the lines, something Arsenal players do across the pitch, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
England put more emphasis on this with him at No.6, which was evident in that World Cup loss to France.
Rice recovers a loose pass and sends a nice forward ball to Phil Foden.
As Foden bounces the ball back to him, he assesses the situation and drills a pass through a crowded area of the pitch to Harry Kane (out of frame in the next screengrab).
Kane makes Jude Bellingham run away, but fails to get his pass through to the Borussia Dortmund midfielder.
Twice in quick succession Rice tried to advance the ball and found his man on both occasions. Not every pass he plays in an England shirt is like that, but moments like the ones above show us he can do it.
One aspect of Partey’s game that has made him important this season is his press resistance. It was the key to Martin Odegaard’s goal against Tottenham Hotspur this month as he took three players out of the game with a single tap. Whether that can be repeated will be another question asked of Rice, or any other Arsenal midfield target.
As with line-breaking passes, this isn’t something Rice does on a weekly basis, but he has shown flashes of it at the international level.
Again, the France game provides an example.
Harry Maguire passes him at halfway…
…Rice moves towards the ball but controls on his back foot and opens up to turn.
Antoine Griezmann pounces in the first move and Rice is able to drive into France’s half unchallenged before setting up an English attack down the right.
Should Arsenal’s interest end in a transfer, Arteta will want those qualities to become more visible.
In terms of goals, Rice makes sense for the Premier League leaders.
On the field, he excels in areas that not all midfielders can, while his limitations appear to be room for improvement. Off the pitch, he fits the direction Arsenal are heading in, with the ability to perform in the short term but also to improve in the long term.
January will certainly be too early for any concrete developments. Still, both player and club are moving closer to their shared goal of playing in the Champions League and finding what is required of them at that level.
For Arsenal, that means a competitive team with depth. For Rice, it would be an opportunity to continue to elevate his game.
(Top photo: George Wood/Getty Images)