Why all-action Rice appeals to Europe’s elite

“He is some player. That is why we value him so highly. It was a Roy of the Rovers-type of goal.”

David Moyes was describing arguably the standout moment of West Ham’s run to the Europa Conference League final. Declan Rice pinched the ball off a Gent player near the edge of his own box and ran with it.

The Hammers captain kept going and going before rolling the ball into the bottom corner. It sealed a comeback victory to reach a semi-final that the Hammers would go on to win as well. But that goal also summed up Rice this season – and why Wednesday’s final in Prague is set to be his last outing for the club.

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Former Arsenal striker Alan Smith believes his former club are in the ‘box seat’ in the race to sign West Ham midfielder Declan Rice in the summer

The 24-year-old has been everywhere in the West Ham midfield. Throughout the season, Rice has been seen as a deep midfielder, but then all of a sudden he leads the charge going forwards. Just like that goal against Gent.

And that is why Rice is becoming such an attractive option for Europe’s elite, with Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Manchester United all interested.

Rice’s statistics, without context, do not make much sense. The midfielder is West Ham’s most reliable attacking player, yet has some of the best defensive numbers in the Premier League.

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In the league season just finished, Rice was involved in more attacking sequences (138) than any other Hammers player, while only Manchester City’s Rodri carried the ball more times.

Yet the fact that England midfielder tops the charts for most possessions won and interceptions this term shows Rice has a dual role at West Ham – he is both a defensive and attacking midfielder. An all-action middle man.

One reason for this is the flexible midfield the Hammers deploy with Rice and Tomas Soucek. One player sits, the other goes and attacks. But never both at the same time.

Against Manchester United last month, Rice was seen all over the park as his all-action display earned him a man-of-the-match award and the Hammers a 1-0 win.

The midfielder took just four minutes to cut out a David De Gea goal kick and launch an attack, with Soucek sitting in a defensive role at the same time.

Rice ventures forward regularly in this West Ham team, with Soucek in a defensive role
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Rice ventures forward regularly in this West Ham team, with Soucek in a defensive role

Later in the half, with Soucek caught high up the pitch, Rice was seen doing the dirty work by stopping a dangerous Man Utd counter attack.

Rice can also do the defensive work as the deeper player, as seen here stopping a Man Utd counter attack
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Rice can also do the defensive work as the deeper player, as seen here stopping a Man Utd counter attack

Asked about his relationship with Rice during their first season together at West Ham, Soucek said: “It’s a very good balance between each other and it’s a big advantage for our team that both of us can cover the pitch and run everywhere.

“We can go box-to-box from the defence to the attack and one of us knows the other one will do it, so there’s a great balance between us.”

This partnership can easily be replicated at the clubs interested in him.

Rice can have a similar relationship with Casemiro, who scored as many Premier League goals (four) as Rice this season. Bayern Munich have Joshua Kimmich, who can rotate between defence and attack.

At Arsenal, the way Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka have improved on their goal tallies just goes show that Rice can fit easily into Mikel Arteta’s team.

Another key part of Rice’s game that appeals to Europe’s top clubs is his effectiveness in transitions.

Only Bruno Fernandes was involved in more transition phases from defence to attack in the Premier League last season.

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It means the West Ham captain is one of the best players in the league at launching attacks within five seconds of getting the ball with his team in a defensive state.

Rice had the third-highest forward passing percentage in the Premier League and his regular quick-thinking while launching attacks was useful in big games.

Against Man Utd in May, Rice went from blocking a shot from Antony on the edge of his own box to putting Said Benrahma clear on the left flank with one simple flick.

Rice closes down a Manchester United attack on the edge of his own box
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Rice closes down a Manchester United attack on the edge of his own box

Rice's quick-thinking releases Benhrama seconds later
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Rice’s quick-thinking releases Benhrama seconds later

All of a sudden, West Ham are in a promising position on the break
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All of a sudden, West Ham are in a promising position on the break

Earlier in the season in a home game against Liverpool, he closed down Jordan Henderson near the touchline and released Michail Antonio for an attack within seconds.

Rice wins the ball off Jordan Henderson on the left touchline
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Rice wins the ball off Jordan Henderson on the left touchline

Within seconds, Rice has released Michail Antonio down the flank
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Within seconds, Rice has released Michail Antonio down the flank

The best example came against Arsenal in April – in one of the games that ultimately cost the Gunners in the Premier League title race.

With West Ham trailing 2-0, Rice – once again pushing up in the press – won the ball from Partey and fed Lucas Paqueta in the box. Gabriel was then forced to concede the penalty and the Hammers ended up clawing back a 2-2 draw, but Rice’s endeavour plus quick pass into Paqueta was crucial to the move and the comeback.

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Benrahma pulls one back for West Ham from the penalty spot after Paqueta went down in the box

Rice was responsible for 258 more moves like that – putting the ball into positive areas after gaining possession – in the season just gone and the reason why this area of play appeals to Arsenal and Manchester United is because both clubs benefit from attacks via transitional plays.

Fernandes and Marcus Rashford had the highest and third-highest Expected Goal tallies from attacks launched by transitions last season, while Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard were fourth, fifth and ninth in the same list.

For both clubs, and Bayern Munich, Rice seems like a perfect fit. The only question that remains is which one will land one of English football’s prized assets.

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