Declan Rice’s man-of-the-match display for 10-man West Ham in their goalless draw at Aston Villa on Monday evening reaffirmed his status as one of the more talented young performers in the Premier League. The 20-year-old England international is not just doing it at a high level, he is showing maturity in one of the most important areas of the pitch.
No midfielder in the Premier League has made more tackles than Rice this season and only three have made more interceptions. The only other man to rank among the top 10 in both metrics is Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi – but Rice has been far tidier in his use of the ball with a pass completion rate of 86.8 per cent that is only a fraction below Liverpool’s Fabinho.
Indeed, among the 34 players to have made a dozen or more tackles in the Premier League this season, only Fabinho and Manchester City’s Rodri have a better passing accuracy than the West Ham midfielder. That is the company he is keeping. That is the standard to which he aspires. It has sparked a debate this week about just how good he could become.
“If I were a top-four team and I was looking for a player in that position, I would have Declan Rice as that holding midfield player,” Jamie Carragher told Monday Night Football. “I would not pay £90m for him but if it was £50m he could do a job in a Champions League team.”
Is this even his best position?
During Rice’s breakthrough season at West Ham under David Moyes, he was used with some success as a centre-back. It was only when Manuel Pellegrini took charge last season that he switched to his favoured role in midfield. As a result, there were question marks right from the start about whether Rice had the quality to be a top-level midfielder.
“I am always sceptical in terms of seeing a player go from centre-back into central midfield and then wondering to myself what they are going to become,” said Gary Neville.
That scepticism is understandable given English football’s history of pushing defenders into midfield. Gareth Southgate infamously appeared there in England’s defeat to Germany in the final game at the old Wembley. Eric Dier, the man Rice has replaced in England’s midfield, began his Tottenham career in defence. Carragher himself started out there.
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“When I played for England U21s, I was the holding midfield player,” Carragher recalled. “There is no doubt in this country we produce that type of midfielder.
“It does feel like at European level, it is more technical. Foreign countries sometimes look at that holding midfield player differently to how we look at it. That is probably still one area where English teams still look for something different. We see the holder as someone who breaks things up, whereas foreign countries see them as someone to start the attack.”
But is this label an unfair one?
While it is tempting to bracket Rice among this group, it is not an accurate reflection of his passing ability – something Carragher noted in the player’s performance at Villa Park.
“I thought his passing was outstanding at times. He played a pass in the second half, he drilled it across the pitch. There was one early on, he flicked it around the corner. We were looking at Matteo Guendouzi and he struggled getting pressed at times, but Rice actually did really well. I actually think Declan Rice’s passing is better than what he is given credit for.”
Holding midfielders are often accused of being too safe with their passing and there is no doubt that much of Rice’s use of the ball is designed to circulate possession rather than speed up the attack, but he is capable of penetrating the lines too. Only Rodri has a better success rate than him with his long passing in the Premier League this season.
So could he go the next level?
The mention of Rodri, a £62.8m club-record signing for Manchester City, and Fabinho, already a Champions League winning midfielder with Liverpool, highlights the standards that are being set in the Premier League right now. It will not be easy for Rice to reach that level.
“You have got Fernandinho, Rodri, Fabinho, Nemanja Matic in his heyday,” said Neville. “To get up to that level, there is a bit of a jump to make. Fabinho is absolutely sensational on the ball, Sergio Busquets is unbelievable on the ball.
“To be comfortable on the ball at the top level – we are talking World Cups, European Championships, Premier League – it is about knowing where you are with your back to goal. The great players know what is over their shoulder, they receive the ball on the half turn, they take the ball to the right side, they have that ability to do it.
“There is another player in Scott McTominay on a similar journey. They are great lads but once you are at that level, it’s not harsh for us to judge them at the top level against their contemporaries – with Fabinho and with Busquets.”
Remember time is on his side
Perhaps the most important thing to note regarding Rice is his age. He is the third-youngest player to have started all five of his team’s Premier League games this season. It is likely to accelerate the development of an already hugely promising young player.
West Ham vs Man Utd
September 22, 2019, 1:00pm
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“At the moment, I think he is a really good Premier League holding midfield player,” added Neville. “I think he is doing brilliantly for West Ham and I think he is hugely ahead of where he should be in terms of expectation. He is playing for England and he is obviously a really good type in terms of his attitude and his work ethic. He will get better.