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Why Arsenal are looking to trump Chelsea in race for Rice

Posted on January 20, 2023

As far as reports have made out, Chelsea have beaten London rivals and league leaders Arsenal to two big name signings in the January transfer window, hijacking proposed moves for attackers Joao Felix and Mykhailo Mudryk.

But it seems now the Gunners have played their hand in a bid to one-up the Blues.

Reports have come out to say that Mikel Arteta’s side are the favourites to sign long-term Chelsea target Declan Rice this summer, and it looks as if he may be keen on the move. The ex-Chelsea academy player has previously mentioned about looking to play in the Champions League, and West Ham may be resigned to losing their star man after withstanding any potential moves in previous windows. Though we are only halfway through the season, Arsenal are in a good position to return to Europe’s elite competition, while the Blues may miss out on Europe altogether if their form continues.

Regardles of the current state of each club, in terms of requirements of the teams, it’s clear to see that Rice would be an ideal candidate for the north London outfit, adding depth in an area where it is needed most, while having a player who fits the bill of an all-rounder in terms of ability, fitting the Mikel Arteta ethos.

At the moment, Arteta has the choice of Granit Xhaka, Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny able to play the more deeper midfield role, while Albert Sambi Lokonga is still inexperienced. In the more advanced role, Martin Odegaard and Fabio Vieira are both still young, though the former is one of the first names on the teamsheet. Overall, though, this gives the Gunners limited options to rotate in the midfield and the requirement to plan ahead, with the former trio all coming towards, or already in, their 30’s.

It is clearly an area that needs strengthening, and the club has shown publicly that they are actively looking to reinforce in that area after the failed bid to bring Douglas Luiz in on deadline day last simmer.

Should Arsenal get a deal done for Rice, not only would they be getting a player who can cover in his more natural defensive position in the midfield, but also someone who can offer plenty in more offensive areas too. This would give Arteta the option to rotate with ease, and importanly, would strengthen their squad depth, which continues to come up for scrutiny. It would also help to build a squad to last for years, which is already taking shape given the Gunners have the youngest squad in the Premier League, while Rice is only 24.

Defensively Arsenal have been very hard to break down, with only Newcastle (11) conceding fewer goals in the Premier League than the league leaders (14). If Rice is added to the mix, then that defence simply gets tougher to break down. Additionally, were a key man to sustain an injury, then it wouldn't be such a blow to the Gunners' goals. This wasn’t the case last season when Partey was injured, which inevitably played a big part in the Gunners missing out on a top four place.

There is no better way of highlighting the influence of Rice’s defensive contribution this season than looking at the league table, brushing over league position of course. West Ham may sit in 18th in the Premier League table, they rank joint fifth for the best defensive record, with just 25 goals conceded.

But individually Rice has consistently shown how vital he is to the Hammers and how he can play an equally similar defensive role for Arsenal at the base of midfield.

Throughout a game his energy in midfield helps to maintain order and at times it feels like he never stops running. No player has won possession in the midfield third more times than Rice (104) in the Premier League this season, which is the joint highest in Europe’s top five leagues. Additionally, his awareness would play a pivotal role in Arteta’s team, who often commit a lot of players forward when attacking, so the fact that he has made more ball recoveries of loose balls of outfielders in the Premier League this season (178) would be a big help in keeping control.

Even looking at more direct defensive metrics, he has 45 tackles and 29 interceptions in the league this season, which is better than any player in the Gunners squad, and which both rank highly in the league overall. It is difficult for any player to get past Rice, noted in that he has been dribbled past just six times - a tackle success rate of 88.2% is the ninth best of the 146 players to attempt 25 or more tackles in the Premier League this season - underling the sort of quality he would bring, whether as a starter or even backup to Partey.

This season we have seen Xhaka, a more traditionally deeper midfielder, play a much more offensive role, often as a ‘number 8’ carrying the ball, creating chances, linking up play and having more shots. Though Rice hasn’t played as advanced as Xhaka, his general movement and numbers do suggest he has the capability to replicate that sort of role for Arsenal if need be.

In terms of successful dribbles, he ranks fifth among Arsenal players (11) this season, with the likes of Gabriel Martinelli (31) and Gabriel Jesus (27) ranking in the top five in the league overal. What's more, Rice’s 24 shots ranks fifth as well among the Gunners' current crop of players.

Another side of Rice’s game that ranks highly and would be of particular interest to Arsenal of course, is his overall passing game. His pass success rate ranks second (89.8%) compared to Arsenal players, behind only centre-back William Saliba (92%), while his 1.3 key passes per game is a decent return for a player whose starting position is deep in the midfield. Too further emphasise his range of passing, Rice ranks third in the league for successful final third passes (286), behind only Rodri (356) and Kevin De Bruyne (321) and just two passes ahead of Xhaka (284), underlining the similarity to their games.

While Xhaka may have seven goal contributions to Rice’s three, he has shown there are elements to his game that can help him in the former's particular role should he be required to play as a more offensive midfielder.

Ideally most Arsenal fans would want to see a new midfielder this month, not wanting to see their team crumble in the title race, given what happened last season with injuries in the battle for the Champions League. However, knowing that a midfielder of Rice’s standard could be joining in the summer would be worth the wait, especially if it gets one over bitter rivals Chelsea.