Declan Rice made the right call picking Arsenal over Man City regardless of how the Premier League title race pans out

The England international could have moved to the Etihad last summer, but his decision to join the Gunners has already been justified

When Declan Rice got talking to John Stones on the first day of England’s camp for March’s friendlies against Brazil and Belgium, the Arsenal ace couldn’t help but point out that the pair’s next meeting would be as adversaries at the Etihad Stadium immediately after the international break.

“Big game next!” he said to the Manchester City defender. “Who are you playing?” Stones asked, the reference completely lost on him. “We’ve got you lot!” Rice replied, incredulous.

Stones is quiet and unassuming, and personifies the one-game-at-a-time approach to top-flight football, but Rice is a very different character, always thinking ahead, obsessed with the bigger picture.

So, while the midfielder may have been immensely excited by the prospect of winning his 50th cap for England, which he earned as captain on Tuesday against Belgium, not for a second did he lose sight of what was coming next


‘Potential title-decider’

Sunday’s showdown between Arsenal and City is “a potential title-decider” in Rice’s eyes. “It’s going to be really tight,” he acknowledged ahead of the Premier League leaders’ visit to the home of the third-placed champions. “But if you want to get past that barrier of Arsenal being labelled stuff, you have to go there and win. We have to show that steeliness and character to prove we can be one of the best teams.”

Rice also has something to prove, though. Both he and Arsenal have already beaten City in the Premier League this season, thanks to Gabriel Martinelli’s late goal at the Emirates all the way back in October. However, the Etihad represents the ultimate test for both, because City aren’t just the best team in the world, they’re also in possession of the best player in the world in Rice’s preferred position.

Best of the best

While on international duty earlier this week, Rice was asked about the fact that he has been utilised as both a No.6 and a No.8 by Mikel Arteta this season. He said he enjoys the more offensive role as it allows him to get into the box and score more goals – this is already the most prolific campaign of his career – but also quipped that it’s a little disconcerting sometimes to find himself as Arsenal’s furthest man forward. Rice, remember, started out as a centre-back before being converted into a defensive midfielder, so the more advanced role understandably still feels a little new to him.

Indeed, he still feels his “strongest position” is No.6. “That’s where I’ve built my career,” he explained, “that’s where I feel really confident.” And yet Rice still feels as if he has ample room for improvement.

“You look at the best sixes in the world and Rodri at Manchester City is arguably the best,” he told reporters on Monday. “You look at how he plays, how he’s always central, how he always connects the space between the backline and the forwards. You’re always trying to learn and be that main player.”

‘Only want to play for Arsenal’

Of course, Rice could have learned first-hand from Rodri how to be that “main player”. Manchester City were willing to pay as much as £90 million ($114m) for his services last summer, but eventually pulled out of the running after a determined/desperate Arsenal went even higher.

Rice could have pushed for a move to the Etihad, where he would have been guaranteed to win trophies. But Arteta says that the very first time he sat down with the England international, he told him “I only want to play for Arsenal and I only want to play for you.”

Rice obviously has previous when it comes to changes of heart and dramatic U-turns, but in this instance, he “maintained his word”, as Arteta put it.

It shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise, though. Rice defended his decision to turn his back on Ireland after three appearances at senior level because he felt that changing allegiances to England was “best for my future”. He quite clearly applied the same thought process to choosing between City and Arsenal.

‘Could play Rice when Rodri could not’

At the Etihad, Rice would have been guaranteed trophies, but not game time – and that would have been obvious to him. His midfield partner during England’s Euro 2020 campaign, Kalvin Phillips, barely played during his 18 months at City before being loaned to West Ham in January, while another international team-mate, Jack Grealish, has spent the majority of his two-and-a-half season stay thus far sitting on the bench.

Rice would obviously have been better equipped than Phillips to push for a starting spot, but Guardiola effectively admitted in October that he saw him not as Rodri’s replacement but his understudy. “Everyone knows we wanted him,” he said ahead of City’s autumnal trip to the Emirates. “We could play him when Rodri could not play.”

Granted, that claim could be interpreted as a typically snide comment from Guardiola, who has repeatedly lashed out at the perceived double standards of the media, whom he believes praise rivals for spending big on players but slate City for doing so. But the fact of the matter is that Rice would only have played in his preferred position whenever Rodri was rested, suspended or injured, while Stones would have remained Guardiola’s first-choice in the hybrid defender/midfield role.

Even getting to grips with the No.8 role at City would have been more difficult than it is at Arsenal, given it comes with even more creative responsibilities.

Value of control

At Arsenal, though, Rice was always going to be a regular, either as a six or an eight, and so it’s proved. No Arsenal player has featured in more games this season (39), with the 25-year-old quickly becoming one of the first names on Arteta’s team-sheet, along with William Saliba, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka.

When given that greater freedom to get forward, he has delivered, effectively earning Arsenal four additional points with his injury-time goals against Manchester United and Luton. But what he offers more than anything else is control, which Arteta, just like his mentor Guardiola, values above all else.

When it comes to winning possession and tackles, Rice is good but not great. He is not posting the same sort of numbers as the very best ball-winners in the Premier League (Christian Norgaard, Rodri, and Bruno Guimaraes). However, Rice both reads and influences the game wonderfully well. He is excellent when it comes to making interceptions (he has 35 this season, compared to Rodri’s 20) and, as Arteta has flagged, “winning crucial duels in dangerous areas of the pitch that allow us to counter”.

What really stands out, though, is just how cleanly Rice goes about doing the dirty work. He commits very few fouls and has been booked just three times in the league this season. His use of the ball is just as smooth, with Rice completing more than 90 percent of his passes this season.

It is in this aspect of the game – efficiently but rapidly recycling possession – that Rice really does compare to Rodri, while it’s also worth noting that he has just as many goals (six) and assists (five) as the Spaniard this season. He is essentially dictating and influencing matches in much the same way as the midfield master that he is openly studying.

Rice is right when he says he still has huge room for improvement. He’s said himself that his position and responsibilities have “changed a lot” since leaving West Ham and that it’s taken some getting used to. He believes that he’s played at a consistently high level this season, but nonetheless feels there are things that he can do better.

However, Arteta has admitted that he has been stunned at just how quickly Rice adapted to his new dual role, the benefits of which are now there for all to see.

Rice is rapidly evolving, with Gareth Southgate stating on Tuesday that the teenager that first arrived in the England squad that he initially viewed as a “converted centre-back” has now developed into a player with what he calls a “360-game”.

It remains to be seen, then, whether he is deployed as a six or an eight on Sunday, with Jorginho’s deployment as a deep-lying playmaker having played a key role in Arsenal’s fine form since the turn of the year. Wherever he is stationed, though, Rice will get to mix it with Rodri, who was suspended for last October’s game at the Emirates, which City almost inevitably lost. The champions will, thus, represent a very different proposition for Arsenal and Rice at the Etihad. It should indeed be a “tight” game, as Rice says, one that could easily go either way.

However, what we already know for sure is that Rice made the right call last summer. Serving as Rodri’s understudy at City would have been a terrible waste of his time for a player that’s already proven this season that he can become Arsenal’s main man.


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