Everyone makes mistakes. Some are more expensive than others – think Kepa Arrizabalaga’s £71.6 million move to Chelsea – but at the end of the day we as fans can sometimes make the wrong call when assessing players. When Declan Rice was linked with a move to Stamford Bridge earlier this season I was quick to rebuke the rumours, thinking the he could prove to be more of a Drinkwater than Makélélé at Chelsea. However, with the benefit of hindsight I can hold my hands up and say I was wrong, and in this article I will try and convince any remaining doubters as to why Rice could be a crucial part of Chelsea’s future, and how he could be moulded into a Terry-style figure in this exciting, young team.
Chelsea went into their away match with West Ham on the 1st of July hot off a run of wins against Aston Villa, Manchester City and Leicester City following the restart of the season. With an in-form Manchester United hot on our tails, however, a win against our London rivals seemed crucial in the fight for a top four space. Unfortunately for the Blues, they came up against a Declan Rice inspired side. The 21 year old captained his team in the absence of Mark Noble, and put in a display befitting of a great leader. He won an astonishing 5 tackles, the most of any player on the pitch, created a chance, and completed 90% of his passes as he dictated the Hammer’s play in a calm, mature fashion. It was the latest in a string of impressive displays from the youngster, who has impressed with both his leadership and playing style, as he continues to draw attention from some of the league’s best sides.
Rice has largely been deployed as a defensive midfielder or as a defensive minded central midfielder this season, and has managed to feature in every single minute of West Ham’s league campaign so far. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the London side play this season that Rice has been kept busy in the middle of the park, but even so his 5.2 tackles and interceptions per game this season – a figure which cannot be matched by any West Ham or Chelsea player this season – is very impressive, and he ranks 4th in the league for tackles completed on 109. Possibly more impressive is Rice’s incredible 75.5% duel success rate, a whole 13% better than arguably the best defensive midfielder in the league, Wilfred Ndidi. His impressive technique in the tackle means he concedes only 1.1 fouls per game despite his side often being overrun in midfield, almost half the rate of N’Golo Kanté’s 2 every match.
In Lampard’s system Rice will be expected to press opponents on the ball, something which may come as a slight shock to his system following his time in Moyes’s low block, minimal press system at West Ham. However, the Englishman has proven himself to be an adept presser, with a 29% pressure success rate, only slightly behind Ndidi’s 33%. These figures all point to an extremely well-rounded defensive player, but how is he going the other way?
Whilst he might not quite be at Jorginho’s level in the way he dictates play, Rice is still very competent on the ball, and gives a solid platform for more creative players around him at West Ham, including the likes of Felipe Anderson and Pablo Fornals, to excel. Competing 36 passes per game at a success rate of 86% pales in comparison to his Chelsea counterpart (Jorginho completes 72 passes at an average 88% completion rate), but the two have very different remits in very different systems, with West Ham averaging a mere 41% possession of the ball every game compared to Chelsea’s 62%. Rice also creates a respectable 0.5 chances per game, just shy of Jorginho’s 0.8, and has an impressive 78% long pass (over 25 yards) accuracy, 2% less than the Italian and 5% lower than Kanté’s. Even though Rice comes out below Chelsea’s current options in all of these metrics it is vital to point out that a lack of players in offensive positions due to his side’s defensive setup gives him little opportunity to impress with his range of passing and he is limited by both his side’s system and their possession in what he can do on the ball. I would expect him to thrive in Chelsea’s system.
It is easy to see when looking closely at Rice’s underlying numbers that he is an incredible prospect, and given his obvious leadership skills – he has captained his side on 4 occasions and seems comfortable commanding his teammates to do what he knows is best for the team – it is clear to see why he is valued at around £60 million. As you can tell from the headline for this article, I believe Rice could be the long-awaited heir to John Terry in Lampard’s side, but this would require him to move back into his former role as a centre back. This should not trouble the Englishmen too much as he only stepped into midfield in the 2018/19 season as manager Pellegrini noticed his impressive distribution. Before being dropped by Chelsea as a 14 year old, and for the next 5 years, he played as a dominant centre back. Does he have the traits to succeed at the back at Chelsea though?
It has been noticeable since the restart that Chelsea don’t have a commanding presence at the back, with the empty stadiums exaggerating the blatant lack of communication in the Blue’s defence. Rice has proven himself to be a commanding figure who talks and instructs those around him very well. He would fit into this Chelsea side perfectly, if he could transfer his defensive skills and calm passing out from the back to a centre back berth then he could organise what has been the most porous Chelsea defence for a generation, one which has leaked more league goals than 15th placed Brighton. It seems an age since Terry marshalled a defensive line containing Carvalho, Ferreira and Gallas to a title, conceding just 15 goals on the way: this season 54 goals have been conceded. Rice could make an instant and vital difference in this regard.
The parallels between Rice and Terry are remarkable. Whilst Rice made the move from Chelsea to West Ham aged 14, Terry made the move the other way at the same age. Like Rice, Terry’s ball-playing abilities saw him feature in midfield in the youth set-up (before settling at centre back). Terry captained Chelsea just 2 days before turning 21, and Rice similarly captained his side before turning 21. Should Lampard and the board make a move for Rice, he could continue the similarities between himself and arguably the greatest Premier League centre back of all time in captaining Chelsea.
Like Terry, Rice wouldn’t be the tallest central defender, standing at 1.85 metres tall (2cm shorter than Terry), but he uses a mixture of good timing and physicality to dominate in the air. He currently wins 1.4 aerial duels per game at a success rate of 60%: a rate better than Rudiger (58.1%), Christensen (57%) and Tomori (55%), but inferior to Zouma (77%). However, aerial ability is usually a trait which improves with experience and so there is a good chance Rice will grow into the aerial master like Terry before him, something which is necessary as we have been incredibly vulnerable to set pieces and crosses this season.
Looking towards the future, a centre back pairing of Declan Rice and Fikayo Tomori looks like a stable base on which to build a title challenging squad. Tomori brings incredible pace, and has clocked top speeds of 34.2 km/hour this season (1.3km/hour quicker than the very fast Zouma), something which makes him a shoe-in as a sweeper behind the dominant Rice. With the potential for the West Ham star to get tight to his man and nip in with crucial interceptions (he is 8th in the league for interceptions per game this season) and challenge for every ball and Tomori covering anything that gets past Rice, Chelsea would finally have a dominant centre back duo.
West Ham have successfully staved off relegation for another season, which will considerably increase their asking price for Rice. He is thought to be valued at around £60 million, although there have been rumours of a swap deal being offered, including Barkley and Batshuayi going the other way. It is vital that Chelsea conclude this business, with other top clubs including Manchester United bound to be interested in the supremely talented 21 year old. There is the potential draw of best friend Mason Mount as well as a young, exciting squad to link up with in West London to persuade Rice to make the move to Stamford Bridge, and hopefully Roman Abromovich is able to once again dip into his deep pockets to secure the services of Rice. Just like Terry, he could become the leader of a top Chelsea side for the decade to come.
Written by Daniel New