In many ways, Arsenal are in uncharted waters here.
After Manchester City unexpectedly challenged for the 2022-23 Premier League title until late in the season, they have now agreed to pay £105m ($133m) for West Ham United midfielder Declan Rice, surpassing City’s bid of £90m. sterling.
It was Arsenal’s third offer in this window for the England international. They all eclipsed Nicolas Pepe’s current record £72m transfer fee in August 2019, and they represent two things about the club’s approach to next season.
First, Rice has always been Arsenal’s main target. Secondly, manager Mikel Arteta’s constant rhetoric about the need to “fix the recruitment process” this summer has been understood in press conferences. And Backed by the board of directors – who sanctioned what would have been a record payment for a British player.
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The heights Arsenal are willing to go in terms of Rice’s fee may confuse some, but from the club’s perspective, landing the West Ham captain in this window is essential.
Why? There have been a number of factors that have been evident with the evolution of their recruitment strategy over the past two summers. Moving from ‘Project Youth 2.0’ into the 2021-22 season to sign experienced players in their mid-20s this time last year was key to raising Arsenal’s level.
Rice serves as a continuation of last summer’s strategy when as a 24-year-old he started all 12 of England’s matches in the previous two major tournaments, starting 93 per cent (190) of his 204 league games for West Ham and leading them to 1-1. Winning the Europa League final last month.
Besides all that, he’s another player whose attributes are suited to more than one role, although the imminent signing of Kai Havertz from Chelsea – likely to fill the No. 8 left-side role for Arteta – would see Rice’s place as a no. 6.
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With those parts of the jigsaw in mind, Rice is one of very few options with character and quality to rival the league’s best in this role.
In a West Ham shirt, he is increasingly becoming a midfielder, traveling forward with the ball, but still has experience playing a deeper role for both the team and England. It’s Rice’s defensive qualities (mostly his anticipation and timing of tackles) that stand out immediately when watching him. This eye test marries numbers: last season, his true tackle win rate (referring to tackles plus challenges lost plus fouls committed) was the highest in the Premier League (69.9 per cent of 113 real tackles or 4.2 per 1,000 touches). opposition) between the middle. and defensive midfielders.
Rice, for example, didn’t have to defend alone in midfield, alongside Tomas Soucek for most of last season at West Ham, but excelled when called on. Everton’s Amadou Onana and Leeds United’s Tyler Adams have been in similar situations to Rice, being part of the lower half teams midfield group. Onana has a true tackle win rate of 67 percent from 103 real tackles or 5.64 per 1,000 opposition touches while Adams has a true tackle win rate of 64.5 percent from 138 true tackles or 8.84 per 1,000 opposition touches.
Declan Rice, Anatomy
Despite his form dipping in April, Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey carried out this part of his role well for most of last season.
In 33 games, he achieved a true tackle winning rate of 58.3% on 115 true tackles, or 8.12 per 1,000 opposition touches. That often fueled 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, Rodri’s win rate at Manchester City was slightly lower than the true tackle’s win rate at 56.4 percent from 117 true tackles or 7.47 per 1,000 opposition touches.
In a different area of midfield he will rely more on Rice, but his previous success rate shows promise. The added safety at the back of the field could also give Arsenal’s more advanced midfielders more freedom than they enjoyed last season, which could work well with Havertz’s off-the-ball movement or the involvement of Emile Smith-Rowe in a more central role.
What happens with Rice in possession as an Arsenal player is somewhat of an unknown.
Some might see that as a risk signing for a fee north of £100m who, like many in Arteta’s squad, will be making their Champions League debut.
Rice has been more likely to shift the ball to the wings with West Ham, which could be useful with Gabriel Martinelli and Bucayo Saka out wide. Arsenal are more accustomed to their number six, whether it was Partey or signing Jorginho last January, feeding vertical passes across the lines. Rice did this on occasion for England at the World Cup in November and December, but became more progressive and measured at the right times to let Arsenal breathe in some games – for example, Jorginho in a 2-0 win away at Newcastle United in early May – in the area potential for growth.
For more measured tenures, patience may be needed if they ask Rice to repeat what Barty has done in this role over the past two seasons. However, Arsenal’s pursuit of Ajax defender Jören Timber could help sort things out. Last season, Ben White didn’t switch from right-back to the same level as Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back. White occasionally provided such support inside, but tended to stay in the same line as centre-backs William Saliba and Gabriel in the build-up before venturing forward to either overlap or pin Saka.
If Timber were to fill him in at right-back in a slightly different interpretation of the role to White, in which he flips like Zinchenko so that Rice has options either side of him as well as through the lines, that could provide more interesting developments for Arsenal’s play.
Jurrien Timber: Brilliant handling of the ball and a great passer – no wonder Arsenal want him
The last two summer windows at Arsenal have been all about team building. This is not different. However, they are now at a point where it is necessary to add multiple quality options in the same position moving forward than they did last season while providing more variety to their game.
Rice is a key component of Arsenal lifting themselves up on both counts. Arteta knew it, sporting director Edu Gaspar knew it and that’s why they pushed so hard.
Arsenal don’t want it to be a one-off last season, and coming close to scoring for their primary goal before the start of July probably indicates that it won’t be.
(Photo: Katherine Ivel/Getty Images)
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