In July last year, the big summer move finally happened. England international Declan Rice officially signed for Arsenal in a move that, if certain conditions are met, will reach £105m. A record transfer fee for an English player.
The club he left, West Ham, had accepted the midfielder would leave the club at the start of the summer. They aimed to squeeze as much money as they could out of the deal for the player who had lifted the Europa Conference League trophy for them just weeks prior. Bids were arriving from Arsenal, the reported main suitor, but the Hammers bided their time and eventually Manchester City threw their hat in the ring.
Declan Rice has arguably been Arsenal’s top-performing player this season. With Thomas Partey on the injury table, Rice has almost single-handedly taken on the role of the deepest midfielder and has excelled.
Often accompanied by two more attacking players, most commonly Martin Ødegaard and Kai Havertz, Rice has looked unfazed by a position that demands relentless work. The pressing work of the attacking players in front of the Englishman is organised to ensure the ball is often won in the opposition’s final third, but when the ball does surpass that first line it is Rice who is constantly there to cut it out.
With a central defensive trio of Rice, Gabriel and William Saliba, Arsenal’s defence has become watertight this season. The Gunners have conceded just 22 goals in 23 games in the league this season, the least of any team. The stats back up this impressive record too, Arsenal having conceded just 21.18 expected goals against.
An element of steel has been added to the Arsenal midfield with the signing of Rice, and this can be seen no more than in the big games. Arsenal are yet to lose a game against the so-called ‘big six’ this season, beating both Manchester City and Liverpool at home and taking a point from Anfield. Rice was a clear standout in all three games and was voted player of the match against Manchester City by the Arsenal fans.
The midfielder has also certainly chipped in on the attacking side of the game too.
Rice can often be found lunging into tackles high up the pitch that seem unthinkable, but somehow emerging with the ball and driving Arsenal forward. Once he is in full motion he can seem unstoppable at times, leaving defenders to hopelessly chase.
The midfielder has scored three massive goals for the Gunners so far this season. A 96th-minute winner against Manchester United cemented Rice in Arsenal fan’s good-books immediately. A goal against Chelsea which led his team back from a two-goal deficit to draw against Chelsea and a 97th-minute header to take all three points away at Luton saw Arsenal fans fall in love with their record-signing.
It’s not just in the opposition box that Rice is effective however, he leads the Arsenal squad in progressive passes with 196 and is only behind Rodri and Bruno Fernandes for league figures in that metric.
This season, Arsenal haven’t quite hit the league form they showed in the first half of last season. At this stage, Arsenal were five points better off. Some have pointed to the switch from Partey to Rice as a possible explanation to this, but the truth is far more related to the attackers who have not hit last season’s form. Mikel Arteta clearly fought for Rice’s signature and Arsenal will be very happy with their investment thus far.
West Ham’s rapid improvement
West Ham at this stage of last season, sat in the relegation zone on just 20 points. Before Sunday’s game, they sit in a very healthy eighth place, on 36 points. An incredible improvement of 16.
The Hammers were clearly not happy to lose their captain, but quickly used the money to good effect. Mohammed Kudus and Edson Alvarez arrived from Ajax and were joined by Premier League stalwart James Ward-Prowse and ex-Arsenal defender Konstantinos Mavrapanos.
Ward-Prowse and Alvarez have been deployed effectively in midfield with both players replicating elements of Rice’s game. Ward-Prowse is a brilliant passer and is more than able to spread play from deep. Alvarez is a more gritty, tough tackler. The Mexican is often seen making crunching tackles to break up play and has settled in well in the base of the West Ham midfield.
English midfielder Ward-Prowse in particular, has had a stellar start to life in London. A player known especially for his free-kicks, needing just one more to equal David Beckham’s league-high record of 18, the midfielder has added a massive threat from set-pieces. Five of Ward-Prowse’s six assists this season have come from excellently delivered corners.
The most impressive of the summer signings, however, has to be Kudus. The Ghanaian has been a breath of fresh air in West Ham’s attack, with his sometimes absurd dribbling and incredible ability to make space for the shot. Kudus was manager David Moyes’ biggest purchase of the summer and he bided his time to ensure the player settled in well. Starting his first Premier League game in late October, Kudus has started all but two league games since, registering six goal contributions in that time.
Kudus’ ability, and indeed potential at just 23, can possibly be best explained in a goal he actually scored against Arsenal, in the EFL Cup.
Making a run on the outside of Oleksandr Zinchenko, Kudus watched a long-ball travel all the way over the Ukrainian. In just one touch, Kudus took Zinchenko out of the game and finished low and hard past the Arsenal goalkeeper. It looks simple but is anything but, and is just a small window into the vast ability of the player who has West Ham fans so excited.
Sunday’s 2pm kick-off will be the third meeting of the two London clubs this season. In both previous games, West Ham got the better of Arsenal. By setting up deep and rigidly, Moyes was able to deny Arsenal the space to punish teams in the same way they have so often in the last two seasons.
Ironically the two games have seen off-games from Rice, as a substitute in the cup where he uncharacteristically gave the ball away several times, and from the start in the league where Rice gave away a penalty with a clumsy challenge late on. The now-Arsenal man will have to get out of his own head on Sunday and will aim to get one over on the club that gave him so many happy memories.
Sunday’s game will see the two sides of one of English football’s biggest-ever transfers come to blow, in an encounter that could see Arsenal’s title challenge halted or West Ham’s top-four dreams, just maybe, reignited.