Arsenal have clear areas to address in the two transfer windows of 2023 when it comes to squad depth.
The need for reinforcements wide has taken priority this month, with the failed pursuit of Mykhailo Mudryk and the signing of Leandro Trossard. Central midfield is next on the agenda given the huge slump between the first-choice trio of Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka and the second string being rolled out as Mikel Arteta rotates his side.
This is reflected in the club planning a summer move for West Ham’s Declan Rice, a transfer that would make sense for them on several fronts.
Most importantly, regular England starter Rice, 24, would add to their depth in midfield. Mohamed Elneny is a steady player, as his 93 Egypt caps would suggest, but turns 31 in July, while Albert Sambi Lokonga, 23, often fails to make an impression in matches when he does play. Rice, in contrast, would be more likely to compete for a starting spot.
Arsenal have tried to strengthen their midfield over the past two summers, with bids rejected for Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz in 2022 after showing interest in Wolves’ Ruben Neves a year earlier.
The strategy in 2021 was to sign players under the age of 23, allowing them to grow at the club. This is the window when Lokonga, then 21, arrived from Anderlecht. But the next step in Arsenal’s evolution has become clear: recruit players in their mid-20s who add both quality and experience and are ready to have a real impact on their team.
Gabriel Jesus, 25, and Oleksandr Zinchenko, 26 years old but 25 when he signed, are examples from this summer.
Rice was 24 on January 14 and had already made it 187 Premier League appearances and captaincy West Ham to the semi-finals of the Europa League. On top of that, he started all of England’s games at Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.
Before diving into how Rice’s attributes would fit stylistically into the league leader, some context is key.
The box-to-box role he usually plays in a pair with Tomas Soucek for West Ham has not been replicated at Arsenal, but he has played as a No. 6 in a midfield three recently at club level and tends to do so for England as well. Some of the strengths he displays at West Ham will be transferable to how Arsenal play, but some of the demands on him may be different.
Rice’s biggest strengths are his athleticism and defensive awareness. These will be needed, whether he is used in a box-to-box pairing or as a number 6, especially at Arsenal.
As Tifo’s Jon MacKenzie explained earlier this season, Arsenal’s “rest defence” is set to suffocate teams in their own half with spaces left wide as full-backs tuck in. 6 which pushes out too quickly stop counters when property is lost.
This is where Rice excels.
Take the example of September’s Premier League trip to Everton, where West Ham were dispossessed while attacking. Home midfielder Alex Iwobi’s first action is to play the ball up to half, while his counterparts in plain and blue are still in Everton territory.
When you get back into position, don’t dive straight away. Rather than turning to engage Neil Maupay on the ball, he looks at the space Everton will try to use (to the left of West Ham’s stretched defense) with Amadou Onana (who Reis ran past to reach the position shown below) Ready to join the attack.
He covers well, anticipates the pass and is ready to make his tackle as the ball reaches Onana, stopping an attack before it has really started.
As Arsenal become more dominant in matches, the ability of players to read the game in such situations will become more important.
This is something Reis already does regularly and extends beyond just timing his tackles well when left exposed in midfield.
He is the outfield player with the most recoveries (loose balls recovered) in the Premier League this season (181, with Manchester City’s Rodri second on 177 and Arsenal’s William Saliba a distant third on 156) and is second for interceptions (32) Behind Cheick Doucoure of Crystal Palace (34).
What really sets him apart is what happens yet He makes such interventions.
Away to Manchester City last season, he is already on the move when Jesus makes his pass in the field…
… and intercepts ahead of Ilkay Gundogan easily as a result.
His first instinct after winning possession is to drive forward, but without any support he does well to dribble away from pressure and move the ball on.
West Ham can settle on the ball – something Arsenal have tended to do this season – rather than allowing the game to become a frantic you-have-an-attack-we-have-an-attack scenario, like a basketball game.
If Rice senses an opportunity to push on, however, he will go.
He did it for England against France in the World Cup quarter-finals last month to set up a counter attack after winning the ball on halfway. Arsenal fans may also remember his run through the middle of the pitch against them in the 3-3 draw at the London Stadium in March 2021.
A strong player, the Englishman backs up to carry the ball forward. This may be the biggest contrast stylistically between him (playing more box-to-box) and Arsenal’s primary number 6, as Partey is more of a distributor from that position.
Since the start of last season, Rice has the most total carries (1,032) and the highest total carry distance (11,729 meters) In the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, most of his progressive carries are in the middle third, with him doing more work than the ball to move West Ham up the field. His tally of 556 ranks sixth in the Premier League since the start of last season but first among midfielders, while his 175 ranks seventh this term – first for midfielders again.
When the 24-year-old makes the runs, his close control often goes under the radar. Whether it is to quickly shift the ball on the run before getting a shot or passing away, or to make room for himself at the start of a dribble, there is an area of his game that helps in these areas.
Since Arsenal also use a box-to-box midfielder in Xhaka, he could also provide some tactical flexibility in how the midfield is set up.
At first glance, what Rice does with the ball may cause reservations when looking at it through an Arsenal lens.
He goes into the last third quite regularly, With 154 attempts from 191 attempts (fifth-most attempts in the Premier League this season), But these tend to be switches of play to West Ham’s opposite full-back.
That seems to be his choice rather than playing through the lines, something Arsenal players do on the pitch, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
England put more emphasis on this with him as a number 6, which was evident in the World Cup loss to France.
Recovering a loose pass, Rice fires a nice forward ball to Phil Foden.
When Foden bounces the ball back to him, he assesses the situation and drills a pass through a tight area of the pitch to Harry Kane (out of frame in the next screengrab).
Kane has Jude Bellingham running away from him but fails to get his pass to the Borussia Dortmund midfielder.
Twice in quick succession, Rice looked to progress the ball and found his man on both occasions. Not every pass he plays in an England shirt is like this, but moments like the one above show us he can do it.
One aspect of Partey’s game that has made him important this season is his press resistance. That was the key to Martin Odegaard’s goal against Tottenham Hotspur this month as he took three players out of the game with one touch. Whether that can be replicated will be another question posed to Rice, or any other Arsenal midfield target.
As with line-breaking passes, this isn’t something Rice does on a weekly basis, but he has shown glimpses of it at the international level.
Again, the France game provides an example.
Harry Maguire goes to him halfway…
… Rice moves to the ball but controls on his back foot, opening himself up to shoot.
Antoine Griezmann jumped at the first move and Reyes was able to pass into France’s half unchallenged, before setting up an England attack on the right.
If Arsenal’s interest was to end in a transfer, Arteta will want those attributes to become more visible.
As far as targets go, Reiss is a logical one for the Premier League leaders.
On the pitch, he excels in areas that not all midfielders can, while his limitations look like they could be improved. Off the pitch, he fits the direction in which Arsenal are heading, with room to perform in the short term but also to improve in the long term.
January will certainly be too soon for any concrete developments. Even the player and the club are closer to their shared aims of playing in the Champions League and figuring out what will be required of them at this level.
For Arsenal, that means a competitive squad with depth. For Rice, it would be an opportunity to continue to elevate his game.
(Top photo: George Wood/Getty Images)