Arsenal have clear areas to address in 2023’s two transfer windows when it comes to squad depth.
The need for reinforcements out wide has taken priority this month, with the failed pursuit of Mykhailo Mudryk and the signing of Leandro Trossard. Central midfield is the 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 who get rolled out whenever Mikel Arteta rotates his side.
This has manifested in the club planning 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 depth in midfield. Mohamed Elneny is a steady player, as his 93 Egypt caps would suggest, but turns 31 in July while Albert Sambi Lokonga, 23, often fails to make an impression in matches when he gets to play. Rice, in contrast, would be more likely to compete for a starting spot.
Arsenal have tried to bolster their midfield in the past two summers, having bids rejected for Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz in 2022 after showing interest in Wolves’ Ruben Neves a year earlier.
The strategy in 2021 was to sign players under the age of 23, allowing them to grow at the club. This is the window when Lokonga, then 21, arrived from Anderlecht. But the next step in Arsenal’s evolution has become clear: recruit players in their mid-20s who add both quality and experience and are ready to have a true 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 appearances and captained West Ham to the Europa League semi-finals. On top of this, he started all of England’s games at Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.
Before diving into how Rice’s attributes would fit stylistically at the league leaders, some context is key.
The box-to-box role he usually plays in a pair with Tomas Soucek for West Ham is not replicated at Arsenal, but he has played as a No 6 in a midfield three recently at club level and also tends to do so for England. Some of the strengths he displays 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. Those 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 as full-backs tuck in. Often, it will be the ball-side centre-back or No 6 who pushes out to quickly stop counters when possession is lost.
This is where Rice excels.
Take this instance from September’s Premier League trip to Everton, where West Ham are dispossessed while attacking. Home midfielder Alex Iwobi’s first action is to play the ball up to halfway, while his counterparts in claret and blue are still in Everton territory.
Having got himself back into position, Rice does not dive in straight away. Rather than turning to engage Neal Maupay on the ball, he is looking at 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 make his tackle as the ball reaches Onana, stopping an attack before it has truly started.
As Arsenal become more dominant in matches, players’ ability to read the play in situations like that will become more important.
This is something Rice already does regularly and extends beyond just timing his tackles well when left exposed in midfield.
He is the outfield player with the most recoveries (loose balls recovered) in the Premier League this season (181, with Rodri of Manchester City 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 truly sets him apart is what happens after he makes such interventions.
Away to Manchester City last season, he is already on the move as Jesus makes his pass infield…
…and intercepts ahead of Ilkay Gundogan easily as a result.
His first instinct after winning possession is to drive forward, but without any support he does well to dribble away from pressure and move the ball on.
West Ham can settle on the ball — something Arsenal have tended to do this season — rather than allow the play to become a frantic you-have-an-attack-we-have-an-attack scenario, like a basketball game.
If Rice does sense an opportunity to push on, however, he will go.
He did this for England against France in the World Cup quarter-finals last month to set up 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 may 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, Rice has the most total carries (1,032) and highest total carry distance (11,729 meters) in the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, most of his progressive carries are in the middle third, with him doing 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 to quickly shift the ball on the run before getting a shot or pass away, or to make space for himself at the start of a dribble, it is an area of his game that helps in those areas.
Given Arsenal also use a box-to-box midfielder in Xhaka, he may also provide some tactical flexibility in regards to how that midfield is set up.
At first glance, what Rice does with the ball may cause reservations when looking at him through an Arsenal lens.
He passes into the final third fairly regularly, with 154 successful from 191 attempted (fifth-most attempted in the Premier League this season), but these tend to be switches of play to West Ham’s opposite full-back.
This seems to be his go-to option rather than playing through the lines, something Arsenal players do right across the pitch, but that does not mean he cannot do it.
England put more emphasis on this with him as a No 6, which was evident in that World Cup loss to France.
Recovering a loose pass, Rice fires a nice forward ball to Phil Foden.
When 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 has Jude Bellingham running off him, but fails to get his pass through to the Borussia Dortmund midfielder.
Twice in quick succession, Rice looked to advance the ball and found his man on both occasions. Not every pass he plays in an England shirt is like this, but moments like those above show us he can do it.
One aspect of Partey’s play that has made him important this season is his press resistance. It was key to Martin Odegaard’s goal against Tottenham Hotspur this month as he took three players out of the game with one touch. Whether that can be replicated will be another question posed to Rice, or any other Arsenal midfield target.
As with line-breaking passes, this is not something Rice does on a weekly basis but he has shown glimpses of it at international level.
Again, the France game provides an example.
Harry Maguire passes to him on halfway…
…Rice moves towards the ball but controls on his back foot, opening out to turn.
Antoine Griezmann jumps at the first movement and Rice is able to drive into France’s half unchallenged, before setting up an England attack on the right.
If Arsenal’s interest was to end in a transfer, Arteta will want these attributes to become more visible.
As far as targets go, Rice is a logical one for the Premier League leaders.
On the pitch, he excels in areas that not all midfielders can, while his limitations look like they can be improved on. Off the pitch, he fits the direction in which Arsenal are heading, with scope to perform in the short term but also to improve in the long term.
January will surely be too soon for any concrete developments. Even so, both player and club are edging closer to their shared aims of playing in the Champions League and finding what will be required of them at that level.
For Arsenal, that means a competitive squad with depth. For Rice, it would be an opportunity to continue to elevate his game.
(Top photo: George Wood/Getty Images)