It’s been quite the year for Declan Rice. From captaining West Ham to their highest league finish in over 20 years, to starting in the final of the Euros at Wembley in July and now scoring for the Hammers in Europe, the 22-year-old just keeps progressing. Despite West Ham’s dubious £100m valuation, reports suggest Rice does want to leave, and there’s very little doubt in my mind that he’ll end up at one of the Premier League giants. With Chelsea and Manchester United seemingly the most interested, his signing could well be the missing piece in either squad, converting title challengers into clear favourites. So, what’s all the fuss about? Isn’t he just another Eric Dier?
What makes Rice special is that he carries out the basics of defensive midfield play to a very, very high level. He’s an excellent ball-winner and can cover a lot of ground rapidly, meaning he is very effective in transition, where he’s relied upon to break up opponents’ counter attacks. Rice’s athleticism, tenacity and ability to defend on either side all contribute to his high success rate in one-on-one duels, acting as a shield to West Ham’s back-four. Notably, much of the work he does off the ball is often overlooked, positioning himself to cut off passing lanes and force the play out wide. Rice is also an efficient counter-presser, winning the ball back quickly when it’s given away and shifting it straight to a nearby teammate. In fact, constant counter pressing is a key part of a certain Thomas Tuchel’s footballing philosophy, but we’ll get onto him later. The truth is that physicality and intensity are the hallmarks of any Premier League title-winning midfield, as proven by the presence of a strong base in all the greatest league-winning sides. Most recently, we’ve seen the likes of Fabinho, Fernandinho and Matic, but the trend dates all the way back to guys like Mikel, Essien, Makelele and Vieira. This season will be no different, and Chelsea can only rely on the protection provided by its back-three system for so long.
I should say now that Jorginho was fantastic in the club’s Champions League success and Mateo Kovačić has started the season very well, it’s just that Rice is a different profile of player. Jorginho, for example, is brilliant in the first phase of build-up in Chelsea’s current system, allowing them to play out with ease. However, we’ve seen many times that he gets crucified in transition, simply because he lacks athleticism. Similarly, Kovačić has a habit of not picking up runners and of being out of position, meaning that when he’s paired with Jorginho, the midfield can be bypassed very easily. Of course, Tuchel recognises this, hence why he chooses to play with the added security of a back-three. Yet, as shown last season following Thiago Silva’s red card in the collapse against West Brom, when the system is disrupted, the protection goes, as well as any sense of midfield control. Pointing this out is a matter of fact, not an agenda against either Jorginho or Kovačić, who would both (particularly Kovačić) benefit very much from having Rice alongside them. As for Kanté, well, he’d finally have his Matic replacement.
Needless to say, it’s not very often that Chelsea are on the wrong end of a first half red card, but playing a back-three has its own negatives, negatives which became more apparent in recent games against Tottenham (1st half) and Juventus. Yes, it is the system that won Chelsea the Champions League, but it’s important to recognise that these were high entropy games, end to end encounters, full of space to drive into after containing opposition pressure. Naturally, therefore, fewer attackers are needed as attacks require less careful construction and more exploitation of space and in-the-moment decision making. The problem arises when teams sit in deep against Chelsea, who tend to suffer from a painful lack of creativity. Side-to-side football, no penetration, 40-yard shots from Rudiger, it gets rough. In all honesty, this is not a new issue in Tuchel’s reign, and his league form last season was not as good as many suggest, with points dropped against Wolves, Southampton, Leeds, West Brom, Brighton and Aston Villa. The common theme? Low blocks. The solution? Simple. More attackers on the pitch. Rice’s sweeping presence would facilitate a four-at-the-back system, allowing Chelsea to attack less predictably, more dynamically and far more expansively, knowing that in the case of a turnover of possession, Rice will be there to win back the ball.
It is no coincidence that Tuchel, as stated by many reports, is a big fan of Rice, with the German always having played a back-four at his previous clubs. Despite the credibility of these reports, some fans have jumped to dismiss them amidst suggestions that Rice is unable to play in a possession-based setup. While these concerns are understandable, and there were times during the Euros where he looked uncomfortable on the ball, I would say they are overstated. Unlike Eric Dier (sorry Eric), Rice has very good technical ability, and during his time at West Ham he has displayed a wide range of high-level passing, in particular the long-range diagonal to the wings, a pass he is able to hit with precision. He has shown he is able to play in tight spaces, acting as the link between defence and midfield, but this is an area in which he can improve. We mustn’t forget he’s still 22 years old, and he can most certainly be coached into becoming more comfortable in possession, working on things such as his body orientation when receiving the ball under pressure. Considering the defensive presence he brings, as well as aspects not even mentioned yet (including his aerial ability and powerful drives through the opposition midfield), reservations about Rice with the ball at his feet shouldn’t be enough to discourage Chelsea fans from wanting to sign the midfielder. Besides, Tuchel clearly isn’t put off.
Signing Rice would not only return the defensive power and athleticism Chelsea’s midfield has been starved of for so long, but also a young, hungry England international with everything to prove, having been released from Chelsea’s academy all those years ago. His leadership qualities and personal connection with many of Chelsea’s XI, such as Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, would certainly help to reinforce an already-confident Chelsea dressing room. Having the option to play both the well-oiled back-three system (against possession-based sides) and a new-look, fluid back-four system (against deeper defences) would surely see Chelsea as favourites for the Premier League title. Equally, there’s no doubt that Rice would fill the gaping, title-preventing hole in United’s midfield. So, Marina, is it going to be us or them?
Written by Tom Driver