West Ham, 2017–
Declan Rice doesn’t carry himself like a junior member of the teams he plays in. Despite still very much being in the early stages of his career, Rice is a leader on and off the pitch for West Ham, and does a similar job when surrounded by senior players on international duty with England.
With options limited in England’s central midfield, Rice has swiftly become an integral member of Gareth Southgate’s team, while at club level, he and Tomas Soucek have combined to form a physically imposing central midfield duo as West Ham secured a return to European football by finishing sixth in the Premier League in 2020/21. David Moyes, who has overseen West Ham’s improvement since returning to the club, understandably values Rice very highly indeed. “He is arguably the best holding midfield player in the country and the best thing about Declan is he will get better,” West Ham’s manager said. “I don’t agree with the owners that he is a £100m footballer. Far, far more than £100m. Far, far more.”
Rice is a defensive-minded player who does his best work winning the ball and protecting the defence. His seamless conversion from a central defender into a defensive midfielder – where he has shown a real talent for delaying and breaking up attacks, particularly at the point of an attacking transition for his opponents – has proved just how naturally this side of the game comes to him. He has an ability to spot danger that only the best ball winners have; Rice is similar in this regard to N’Golo Kanté. Like Kanté, covers an awful lot of ground and makes both tackles and interceptions in big numbers – though he doesn’t quite match the Frenchman’s statistics.
Rice is a tenacious player, strong in the tackle and combative in the air. He is two-footed and able to jockey opponents in either direction, able to turn and sprint either way should his opponent knock the ball past him and try and beat him for pace. He is so difficult to beat when one-on-one with an opponent that he has the incredibly useful ability to slow attacks down, allowing teammates to make recovery runs and regain the team’s shape before damage can be done (below).
His anticipation, agility and ball-winning ability means he is very capable at counter-pressing, and he often wins the ball back early on following a loss of possession, before quickly distributing the ball to a more attacking teammate. This means players further forward, such as West Ham’s wide attackers Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals, can gamble on Rice winning the ball back by taking up a position beyond their direct opponent in the hope that Rice will get the ball their way quickly. That can be a risky approach but it is one that pays in big rewards when it works.
A lot of the dog work that he does – and he does a lot – goes under the radar. He makes the kind of contribution to his teams that is often overlooked when assessing the impact of a player on a match or team because so much of what he does is a result of good positioning that will slow down opposition attacks or force play towards the flanks. Rice’s most eye-catching work, however, is done after a regain, in turning defence into attack.
Rice is an incredibly powerful runner, and he is capable of carrying the ball forwards at pace to launch a counter-attack or simply break lines before distributing to a teammate. He has the physical attributes to burst right through the heart of an opponent (below), and he can manoeuvre the ball to beat players that try to close him down before sprinting away from them. In these situations, opponents often resort to fouling him – or stretching the rules – to stop him.
He has very good passing ability, and it is improving, too. While he is good at retaining and recycling possession, he plays vertical passes where possible, and he has the ability to play accurate, long-range diagonal passes towards an advancing winger to switch play. Most of the time, he is conservative with his passing, playing simple passes to more attack-minded teammates, but given he can play dangerous balls forwards, opponents cannot sit off him and allow him space to pick his pass. He is a more than capable link between defence and midfield.
His aerial ability means he is a threat at attacking set-pieces, and he is most effective when making a near-post run and glancing the ball towards goal – a tactic he has had some success with at both club and international level. However, he is more of a threat when challenging for and pouncing on loose balls in the area. Again, his anticipation is of real use in these situations.
Role at West Ham
Rice’s all-round ability and his formidable partnership with Tomas Soucek means his manager can play formations with just two central midfielders: West Ham manager Moyes favours a 4-2-3-1 in games where he wants his team to dominate the ball and a 3-4-3 where he wants a bit more security or simply to match up the opposition’s shape. England manager Gareth Southgate is also able to play a two-man midfield with Rice in the team.
Soucek’s success since arriving from Slavia Prague has had a positive impact on Rice’s West Ham form. The Czech Republic international and Rice alternate positions regularly but, of the two, Rice has slightly more freedom to attack. He makes lung-busting runs to drive his team towards goal, though it is rare to see either player advance beyond the ball.
If either is caught out of position, they will make every effort to quickly get back into West Ham’s out-of-possession shape that is such an important part of Moyes’ philosophy. This involves Rice and Soucek remaining close together and near to the defence with the aim of denying the opposition too much space between the lines and preventing passes through the central lanes (above). Moyes likes his teams to funnel play out wide wherever possible and Rice and Soucek do a good job of ensuring that happens.
Rice plays a key role in winning the ball back, and then transitioning to attack with forward passes. During established period of possession, too, he does an important job in helping West Ham break the opposition down with line-breaking passes into Bowen, Fornals or Jesse Lingard. He also likes to pull out wide, usually to the left side of the centre-backs after left-back Aaron Cresswell has advanced up the flank, before switching play over towards the right (above). He is far more effective playing these balls from left to right than he is right to left.
He is a real force in the West Ham midfield, able to dominate opponents physically and with the ball at his feet, and he is a significant part of the reason that West Ham have shown such marked signs of improvement under Moyes.
The West Ham manager might have done Rice a disservice by calling him a “holding midfield player” because there is so much more to his game than the defensive side of things. His assessment of him as a player who is worth more than £100m might just prove accurate, though, given how important he is to the team. The truth is that even an offer that great might not be enough to tempt West Ham into selling such a key man.