In many ways, Arsenal are in uncharted waters here.
After unexpectedly challenging Manchester City for the 2022-23 Premier League title until late in the season, they have now agreed a £105million ($133m) fee for West Ham United midfielder Declan Rice, leading the £90m City offer for him.
It was Arsenal’s third bid this window for the England international. All on top of their current record outgoing transfer fee of £72million for Nicolas Pepe in August 2019, and they represent something about the club’s strategy next season.
Firstly, Rice has always been Arsenal’s main target. Second, manager Mikel Arteta’s constant rhetoric on the need to “pick up recruitment” this summer in press conferences has been understood. and supported by the board — which sanctioned what would be a record-breaking payment for a British player.
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The height Arsenal are willing to go in regards to the fee for Rice may confuse some but, from the club’s point of view, going for the West Ham captain in this window is important.
Why? A few factors have become clear in the evolution of their recruiting strategy over the past two summers. The move from ‘Project Youth 2.0’ heading into the 2021-22 season to signing experienced players in their mid-twenties this time last year has been key to Arsenal raising their level.
Rice serves as a continuation of last summer’s strategy as a 24-year-old who has started all 12 of England’s games over the past two major tournaments, starting 93 percent (190) of his 204 league appearances for at West Ham and driving them to victory in the Europa Conference League final last month.
Along with all that, he’s another player whose attributes lend themselves to more than one role, even with the imminent signing of Kai Havertz from Chelsea – likely to fill the left-sided No 8 role for to Arteta – will see the Rice slot as a No. 6.
Havertz to Arsenal: Reasons Arteta is banking on move from Chelsea No 9 to ‘left 8’
With those jigsaw pieces in mind, Rice is one of the very few options with the attributes and quality to rival the league’s best in that role.
In a West Ham shirt, he has become a box-to-box midfielder, traveling forward with the ball, but still has experience playing a deeper role for them and England. Rice’s defensive qualities (mostly his anticipation and timing of tackles) immediately stand out when watching him. That eye test goes hand in hand with the numbers: last season his true tackle win rate (denoting tackles plus challenges lost and fouls committed) was the highest in the Premier League (69.9 percent out of 113 true tackle or 4.2 per 1,000 opposition touches) in the center and defensive midfielders.
For context, paired with Tomas Soucek for most of last season at West Ham, Rice didn’t have to hold his own in midfield but was excellent when called upon. Everton’s Amadou Onana and Leeds United’s Tyler Adams are in similar situations to Rice, as parts of a midfield ensemble for teams in the bottom half. Onana has a 67 percent true tackle win rate from 103 true tackles or 5.64 per 1,000 opposition touches while Adams has a 64.5 percent true tackle win rate from 138 true tackles or 8.84 per 1,000 opposition touches.
Declan Rice, dissected
Despite his dip in form in April, Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey performed this part of his role well for most of last season.
In 33 appearances, he has a true tackle win rate of 58.3 percent from 115 true tackles, or 8.12 per 1,000 opposition touches. That often feeds into Arsenal’s ability to play a high line and dominate teams by keeping the ball in the attacking half whether they have possession or not. Again for comparison, Manchester City’s Rodri has a slightly lower true tackle win rate of 56.4 per cent from 117 true tackles or 7.47 per 1,000 opposition touches.
Elsewhere in the midfield, Rice will be counted on more but his previous success rate bodes well. The added security at the back of the pitch could also give Arsenal’s more advanced midfielders more freedom than they enjoyed last season, which could work well with Havertz’s off-ball movement or the inclusion of Emile Smith Rowe in a more central role.
What happens to Rice’s tenure as an Arsenal player is somewhat unknown.
Some may see it as a risk to sign for a fee north of £100million who, like many of Arteta’s squad, will be entering the Champions League for the first time.
Rice is more likely to move the ball to the wings with West Ham, which could be useful with Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka. Arsenal are more used to their No 6, whether that’s Partey or last January’s signing Jorginho, feeding vertical passes into the lines. Rice did it once for England at the World Cup in November and December, but is becoming more progressive as well as measured at the right time to allow Arsenal time to breathe in some matches — for example, Jorginho at 2-0 away win at Newcastle United in early May — is a potential area for growth.
For the more regarded eras of ownership, patience may be required if they ask Rice to replicate what Partey has done in that role over the past two seasons. However, Arsenal’s pursuit of Ajax defender Jurrien Timber could help matters. Last season, Ben White did not convert from right-back to the same extent that Oleksandr Zinchenko did at left-back. White occasionally offered that support inside, but tended to stay on the same line as centre-backs William Saliba and Gabriel in the build-up before venturing forward into either the overlap or underlap Saka.
If Timber is signed to fill in at right-back with a slightly different interpretation of the role to White, where he reverses Zinchenko so that Rice has options on either side of him as well as through the lines, that could provide of more interesting developments for Arsenal’s game.
Jurrien Timber: Good on the ball and a very good passer – no wonder Arsenal like him
Arsenal’s last two summer windows have been all about squad building. This one is no different. Now, however, they are at a stage where adding more quality options in both positions is necessary to push further than they did last season while also bringing more variety to their game.
Rice is a key ingredient in Arsenal lifting themselves to the same thing. Arteta knew it, sporting director Edu Gaspar knew it and that’s why they persisted.
Arsenal don’t want last season to be a one-off, and getting close to signing up their main target before the start of July probably spells that out.
(Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
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