Opinion from the stands

Analysis: How good is Declan Rice?

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In recent times in the aftermath of England’s impressive showing in the 2018 World Cup, people have grown to become more optimistic about the prospect of developing players that shall be able to turn up on the big stage for their countries. Every season, a prospect manages to catch our eye as soon as they take to the pitch. Declan Rice has done just that this season, emerging as a ball-winning midfield lynchpin for Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham revolution and his name is on pretty much every football fan’s lips. He has made a splash that has caused ripples even in the betting scene, with a football bet being placed every other day at a rapid pace with respect to his prospects and how he affects West Ham’s until he inevitably leaves for greener pastures.

It’s not that England is a stranger to producing legitimate footballing talent. Over the years, we saw the likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and a host of other talents grace the Premier League and further the English game. However, it seems that there are marked differences in terms of how well the talent in question is able to channelize their abilities onto the pitch and with how much consistency. Unfortunately, the English youth system earned a bad rep with some suggesting that English players, for the most part, are overrated and usually acquire this false sense of value based on their nationality rather than the quality of their play. This is further fuelled by the fact that England has yet to win a World Cup of 1996. Before Southgate took over the reigns of the national team, many suggested that the modern game had moved on from typical 4-4-2s and hoofball football, proponents of which are still found in the game in the form of Tony Pulis, Roy Hodgson and so on, and so it was only natural that the youth system suffered as it would usually fail to inculcate virtues of the modern game into the next generation of players to come out of the system.

West Ham United have a cherished history of developing great young English players. The likes of Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and so on came through the academy system and made a name for themselves at West Ham before earning big moves to other clubs. The latest talent to grab the bull by the horns is Declan Rice, who was handed his debut two seasons ago by Croatian manager Slaven Bilic. Although Rice was developed as a centre back and played there for the most part at youth and U-21 level, he has been turned into a ball-winning midfield destroyer by Manuel Pellegrini this season. Rice has impressed since being given the opportunity, and has seized the chance by delivering some stellar performances like scoring the winning goal against Arsenal in a 1-0 victory and Chelsea. While he was expected to pick the Republic of Ireland as his nation of representation, Rice stunned everyone by announcing that he has chosen to represent England instead, much to the dismay of Irish fans who had hoped that the team could be built around the talents of Rice. Regardless, he’s definitely one to watch and the bigwigs of the English game have started to take notice, with Manchester City said to be in pole position to land him given how desperately Guardiola needs a replacement for Fernandinho, who is now 34 and will expectedly start declining. The English national team stands to benefit from Rice’s switch or ultimate choice of national allegiance too, with there being an obvious lack of a proper defensive midfielder in the team for years. One would expect Rice to make the defensive midfield position his for years to come and probably turn out to be the final piece in Gareth Southgate’s jigsaw puzzle with an exciting bunch of talents coming through to become part of the national side in recent times.

Let us take a look at how good Rice has been this season and whether the bite justifies the hype in this case.

Stat Attack

As a player who was developed as a centre back, it is quite obvious and natural that Rice’s strengths lie in his defensive output. Albeit he’s kind of obligated to contribute to the attack considering that he’s played in the midfield, Rice is as pure a ball winner as one can get and will rather shield the defence than try anything flashy and will prefer to let his more creative teammates do the job in attack. As per WhoScored, Rice won possession a massive 111 times in the final third, which is more than any other player 23 and under in Europe’s top five leagues this season. Those are some N’Golo Kante numbers, who made his name at Caen and was the leading tackler in Europe there before Leicester snapped him up. He’s almost the leading tackler amongst Englishmen in the Premier League with 60 and his ability to break up play would’ve definitely made some managers sit up. He has also won possession 113 in the middle third, which is again more than any player 23 or under in Europe’s Top Five. Those are extremely impressive statistics for a guy who turned 20 this year.

It is possible that the fact that England doesn’t have an undisputed starter at DM might’ve played into Declan Rice’s decision. Rice’s main competition, in theory, comes from Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier, neither of whom have really managed to cement a spot in the national side as established ball winners or anchormen. Although quite experienced, they don’t quite fit the bill in Southgate’s system given how badly they need a player to screen the back four or three that Southgate employs along. While both are definitely better in terms of overall offensive output, it’s the defensive side of the game that Rice has significantly outshined them in terms of this season along with the fact that he’s a regular at PL level, while the latter two are struggling to break into their respective sides due to a multitude of reasons.

All in all, Rice is one to keep one’s eye on and should be a fixture wherever he goes and also for the English National Team in the years to come.

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