Declan Rice was the picture of frustration after Arsenal’s 2-1 loss in Lens on Tuesday night. He couldn’t quite work out how the Gunners had lost a game that he felt they had “dominated”. However, while he was disappointed by his side’s first defeat of the season, he was far from despondent. “We’re just warming up and getting into our rhythm,” he told TNT Sports. “Our focus turns back to the league and it’s a massive game on Sunday.”
He’s certainly not wrong about that latter claim. We may only be seven games into the 2023-24 Premier League campaign but the meeting between last season’s top two at the Emirates already feels like a must-win match for the home side.
Arsenal were utterly outclassed in both of their games against City last season and those two defeats played a pivotal role in both the Citizens’ initial resurgence and eventual title triumph. So, while the Gunners may have edged City on penalties in the Community Shield in August, the pressure is very much on Mikel Arteta’s men to show that they can beat the treble winners when it really counts.
Remember, Arsenal have lost all seven of their Premier League clashes with City since Arteta took over in December 2019. “That is why,” former defender William Gallas told Gambling Zone, “they need to demonstrate they can handle the big occasion, show some balls, and show Man City that things will be different this season.”
However, while Rice has made a positive start to his time in north London, he also has plenty to prove on Sunday.
The 24-year-old knew before he’d even played a competitive fixture for Arsenal that his £105 million ($131m) move from West Ham meant that he would forever have a price tag “attached” to him. His hope was that he wouldn’t be judged on the size of the fee. He obviously will be – that’s just how both the media and fandom work in modern football – but, in truth, the numbers involved in the deal are irrelevant.
Rice clearly isn’t worth £105m. When even the entertainingly reckless owners at Chelsea baulk at the size of the fee being demanded by the selling club, you know that the player is outrageously overpriced.
However, context, as always, is key. As Liverpool discovered during the summer, effective defensive midfielders are very hard to find these days – and are, therefore, incredibly costly. Arsenal, then, deserve credit for managing to land one of the best on the market during the off-season – and, rather significantly, in spite of interest from City.
Where would Rice have played at City?
Of course, the treble-winners ultimately decided that they didn’t need Rice badly enough to fork out a club-record fee – but that doesn’t mean that he won’t prove value for money at Arsenal.
City, in contrast to the Gunners, were already in possession of the premier player in Rice’s position – Rodri, who is, rather incredibly, still only 27.
Given Pep Guardiola usually likes to send his side out with two No.8s that effectively play as No.10s, as well as a centre-back that serves as an auxiliary midfielder (John Stones), Rice was hardly a priority signing.
There would have been immediate questions over exactly where he would have played, with Rodri the obvious first-choice in the No.6 role.
Pep’s problem in midfield
Still, City’s refusal to match Arsenal’s bid for Rice means that they’re in a very awkward position this weekend – and Guardiola knows it too.
The Catalan coach was visibly disgusted with Rodri for stupidly getting himself sent off against Nottingham Forest a fortnight ago, glaring at the Spain international as he trudged towards the tunnel.
Rodri’s straight red means that he will be suspended for the biggest game of City’s season so far and given Guardiola appears to have little faith in Kalvin Phillips, it will be fascinating to see how his side lines up in north London.
Guardiola, of course, is a master tactician, capable of finding surprising solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems, but Arsenal absolutely have to take advantage of City’s selection dilemma – and Rice is undoubtedly key in that regard.
‘We’ll find out how good Rice is’
Let’s face it, these are the kinds of games Rice was bought to help Arsenal win. This is why they paid the big bucks. They wanted a player of personality with the requisite quality to boss direct clashes with title rivals, in a similar fashion to Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira.
Rice, of course, is no Vieira – at least not yet. He is not the best defensive midfielder in the Premier League – that’s obviously Rodri – and he’s not even been the best midfield in north London this season – that’s Yves Bissouma, who is one of the main reasons why Spurs have made such a sensational start to the season under Ange Postecoglou.
As the stats underline, Rice isn’t as adept as either man at winning possession, duels or tackles. In fact, he’s made fewer successful tackles than Bukayo Saka this season, and regained possession fewer times than Martin Odegaard.
He also offers less going forward. Both Rodri and Bissouma have completed more passes and are far better at beating players, which is why midfield icons such as Roy Keane and Graeme Souness both believe Rice has to add much more to his game if he is to go down as a truly great midfielder.
“Arsenal have obviously paid way too much for him,” Keane said on Sky Sports at the start of the season. “He’s certainly not worth over £100m but he is a good player: he turns up every week and he is a big strong boy.
“And we have talked about his physicality – Arsenal lacked that in the last month or two [of last season]. But we will find out over the next year or two how good Declan is. Has he got that really top quality in terms of seeing a pass and getting nine or 10 goals a season? We’ll soon find out.”
‘I have started life at Arsenal well’
In fairness to Rice, he couldn’t have made a much better start to his Arsenal career in the circumstances. Given the weight of expectancy placed on his shoulders by the fee, he has played with an impressive amount of confidence and dynamism to date.
The fans already love him – singing the Arsenal anthem ahead of his first Premier League outing certainly helped – and he’s quickly become one of the most popular players in the dressing room.
Indeed, there is already a feeling at the Emirates that they are looking at a future Arsenal captain, and it’s easy to understand why.
In the 3-1 win over Manchester United at the start of September, when Arsenal were in dire need of some “momentum”, as Arteta put it, Rice provided plenty – as well as the 96th-minute, go-ahead goal that sent the Emirates into raptures.
“Just watching it again, it is so special,” he told Sky Sports afterwards. “Like I have said before, I can’t control the price. But when I came here I tried as much as possible to block that out and I want to be consistent. I have started life at Arsenal well but I have so much more I can do.”
And that’s undeniably true, particularly as he now regularly finds himself in more advanced positions than he did at West Ham. There is very much an onus on him to both broaden and improve his offensive skill set.
Against City, though, Arsenal need Rice to do what he does best.
Can Rice reach Rodri’s level?
With Rodri unavailable, he has a chance to take complete control of the game’s key battleground, which he is more than capable of doing. Rice reads the game wonderfully well and there is no better midfielder in the Premier League when it comes to making interceptions.
It’s also worth noting how few fouls he gives away (just three so far this season – four times fewer than Rodri) – illustrating just how cleanly and efficiently he goes about his business of breaking up opposition attacks.
Rice has also swiftly become integral to Arsenal’s attempts to keep the ball moving as quickly as possible because of the way in which he retains possession – he has a pass success rate of 92.44 percent. Again, he’s not in the same class as Rodri (95.21%) but still hugely impressive.
Furthermore, Rice is obviously a ruthlessly ambitious character. He has shown that in the past, first by ditching Republic of Ireland for England at international level, and most recently by leaving his beloved West Ham for London rivals Arsenal. He is far too humble – and intelligent – to admit it publicly but he will believe that he has both the attributes and attitude to reach Rodri’s level.
But being a difference-maker against a dreadful United is one thing; dominating City is quite another. There is arguably no greater challenge in the game today. Is Rice really up to the task?
Well, he has, at least, been given huge helping hand by Rodri, the man he’s trying to usurp as the best No.6 in the world, meaning this is a glorious chance for Rice to both prove his worth to Arsenal – and show Man City exactly what they’re missing. He simply has to take it.