Declan Rice has helped transform Arsenal with an all-round game that stretches far beyond the duties of a defensive midfielder. But is there anything he can’t do?

Declan Rice is proof that it doesn’t matter how much a player costs if they succeed.

Rice joined Arsenal last summer in a deal that cost the club an initial £100 million with an additional £5m in add-ons. It was the seventh-highest transfer fee of all time, and the second-highest paid by a Premier League team after the £107m Chelsea spent earlier in 2023 on Enzo Fernández.

A big transfer fee inevitably – and rightly – brings pressure, and that is something we’ve seen many players struggle with over the years. From Fernando Torres’ difficulties after his £50m move to Chelsea to £86m Paul Pogba never fulfilling his potential at Manchester United, the Premier League’s history is full of examples of expensive flops.

More recently, Fernández is yet to prove he was worth the money for Chelsea, and the same could be said of fellow Chelsea central midfielder Moisés Caicedo who, like Rice, cost £100m last summer.

But while Chelsea’s expensive underperformers have plenty to prove, Rice might well have as good as repaid his transfer fee. If Arsenal win the title, he certainly will have.

While his ability is obviously the most important thing about him, Rice’s availability makes him even more valuable. It will have been at least part of the reason he commanded such a huge fee.

Rice started 175 of a possible 190 Premier League games between 2018-19 and 2022-23 for West Ham, and has only missed out on the Arsenal starting XI for one game this season. Even in that game – at home to Luton earlier this month – he appeared off the bench. He has also started nine out of 10 Champions League games (and came off the bench in the other).

It isn’t just impressive fitness that explains him being available every week. He has an exceptional disciplinary record, particularly for a player for whom so much of his game is based around breaking up play and winning the ball.

He has won possession 160 times this season but has committed just 28 fouls. For comparison, Caicedo has won possession the same number of times (160) but has committed 44 fouls. Alexis Mac Allister has won the ball 180 times but has committed 46 fouls. Douglas Luiz has won possession 169 times but has committed 45 fouls. Rodri – perhaps the best ball-winning midfielder in the business – wins the ball and commits fouls in roughly the same proportions as Rice, with 199 possession regains and 36 fouls to his name.

Declan Rice possession won

Rice, though, has picked up just four yellow cards and no reds all season. Caicedo has nine yellows and although he has no reds, he’s arguably been fortunate to escape a few since joining Chelsea; see fouls on Jérémy Doku in the league and on Ryan Gravenberch and Anthony Gordon in games in the Carabao Cup.

Mac Allister has six yellows and a red; Luiz has 10 yellows; Rodri has eight yellows and a red. They have all missed at least one game through suspension. Rice hasn’t missed any, and playing every single week has helped him improve since joining.

Physically, he is incredibly impressive. He is big, strong, and covers a vast amount of ground, hoovering up loose balls and winning battles all over the pitch. As well as making 77 regains in the middle third – ranking 20th in the Premier League despite playing for a possession-dominant side – he has won the ball 57 times in the defensive third. He also ranks 12th in the whole top flight for regains in the attacking third (28), with his contribution to Arsenal’s press far from insignificant.

His heatmap for the season – fairly unsurprisingly – covers almost the entire pitch.

Declan Rice touch map 2023-24

But his impact stretches far beyond his ball-winning ability – although many would consider him a number six, and that was probably the position that most thought he had been signed to play.

The truth is he is far too mobile and offers far too much in possession to be restricted to breaking up play. He is an elite box-to-box midfielder who offered plenty going forward at West Ham, and Mikel Arteta has this season unlocked another level in Rice.

Rice’s most eye-catching performances for Arsenal have come when Jorginho has played as the deepest midfielder, allowing Rice to attack more freely as the left-sided number eight.

Earlier in the season, with Thomas Partey struggling with injury and Jorginho unconvincing, Rice played as the deepest midfielder much of the time. But in the second half of the campaign, Rice moved into a more advanced position with the security of Jorginho behind him. The results have been stark.

He has got into the opposition box more consistently. With six goals and six assists this season, this is by a distance already his most prolific campaign in terms of goal involvements.

But while his first two goals – at Chelsea and Luton – came late on with his side chasing a result and throwing caution to the wind, he has simply become a more attacking player of late. He has four goals and five assists in his last 20 league appearances (0.45 goals or assists per game), after registering two goals and one assist in his first 14 (0.21 per game).

He has clearly been told to get forward more. In his first 25 Arsenal games, he touched the ball in the opposition box just 23 times (and six of those came in one game – vs Brighton in December) – at an average of less than one per game. In his last nine games, he has 33 touches in the opposition box – an average of 3.7 per game.

Declan Rice touches in the opposition box first 25 games
Declan Rice touches in the opposition box last nine games

His ball-carrying ability has helped him get forwards, too, and he does crucial work in turning Arsenal’s defence into attack quickly. He ranks sixth overall in the Premier League this season and top of all non-defenders for the number of times he has carried the ball at least 10m towards the opposition goal (143).

Only two players – centre-backs Rúben Dias (7,379m) and Jan Paul van Hecke (7,206) – have carried the ball further this season than Rice (7,168m), but the average distance of Rice’s carries (11.7m) is much higher than either of those players.

Declan Rice progressive carries for Arsenal

These contributions are crucial to Arsenal forcing the opposition back towards their own goal and into their defensive third.

While lesser teams might have to play long balls over the top and then try to win second balls, Rice helps Arsenal retain possession while pushing the opposition back.

Rice has also added another string to his bow recently, by taking Arsenal’s corners from the left side. He only became a set-piece taker for them in January, but has proved an effective choice, even if taking him out of the box removes a decent aerial threat for the team.

Of all Premier League players to take more than 15 corners this season, Rice’s have the highest expected assists average (0.04 per corner), suggesting he creates good-quality chances. Rice ranks ninth in the top flight for total xA from corners (1.4) despite taking at least 25 fewer than anyone above him.

Three of his 37 corners have led to a goal (8.1%), with only a handful of players boasting a better rate. Of course, this success isn’t only down to Rice and has as much to do with the work of the players attacking his crosses, but it is still impressive that he has added this to his game. It is now hard to name a single weakness in his game.

The signing of Rice has been genuinely transformative for Arsenal, and whether or not they go on to win the title this season, with Rice in tow they look set up to challenge at the top for years to come.

It’s hard to state just how valuable an addition he has been. Whatever he cost initially or ends up costing Arsenal, it is already money very well spent.

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