After being unable to bring in a single player last summer due to a FIFA transfer ban, Chelsea have had a transfer window for the ages. After signing Hakim Ziyech from Ajax and Timo Werner from RB Leipzig, Chelsea have completed deals for Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva, Malang Sarr and Édouard Mendy. There’s less than one week remaining in the window, and yet, it appears Roman Abramovich isn’t done just yet: Chelsea are expected to attempt a last-minute push to sign West Ham’s Declan Rice.
In truth, Chelsea have been in need of a physically imposing midfield destroyer since the summer of 2017, when they sold Nemanja Matić to Manchester United. Danny Drinkwater and Tiémoué Bakayoko have both failed to fill the Serbian’s vacancy since their arrivals from Leicester City and Monaco. Mateo Kovačić and Jorginho have also been tried in the holding midfield role, but they lack the defensive acumen and physicality required in such a role.
This leaves manager Frank Lampard with just one viable option in the #6 role: N’Golo Kanté. Kanté has reached legendary status at Stamford Bridge since arriving in 2016, but at 29 years old, injuries have begun to take a toll on him over the past year. Chelsea are in need of a player who is capable of filling an understudy role to Kanté in the short term and eventually replacing him as a starter in the long term.
Whether this summer or next, it appears that Chelsea will continue to chase a deal for Rice, who began his development at Chelsea’s academy before being released at 14 years of age. Rice has operated both in midfield and in central defense, although the bulk of his games have come in the holding midfield role, with the Englishman establishing a formidable duo with Tomáš Souček in David Moyes’s 4-2-3-1.
Beginning with his tackling, Rice is quick to spot out potential threats and dangerous progressions of attack. Consequently, he reacts aggressively in order to eliminate dangers in his zone, as shown below in the example against Bournemouth.
Rice spots Dominic Solanke progressing through the middle of the field and realizes that he can dribble through the left or find a teammate in space.
As a result, Rice puts a foot in to win the ball from Solanke and neutralize his potential threat. His challenge allows West Ham to regain possession, as they can then drive into space and carry out the transition.
Aside from winning the ball through physical challenges on opposing players, Rice is an adept reader of the game and is constantly focused on cutting out passing lanes.
In this example, Rice lingers in the center of the field, reading the movement and actions of his opponent in order to react accordingly.
After the attempted pass is made, Rice quickly moves and cuts out the option for the opposing team. However, he simultaneously gears his blocking of the pass in the direction of three supporting teammates who look to regain possession, demonstrating his sound positional awareness.
Finally, Rice has more to offer than just the average physically imposing and defensive-minded player on the field. He understands the game well and possesses the qualities as a player to contribute and benefit the team in all phases of the game.
In this scenario against Tottenham, Rice has decided to move the ball forward from his deeper position in order to assist with his team’s build-up and offensive transition. He draws the attention of several opponents, leaving gaps on the flanks for his wider teammates.
He plays a well-placed ball over the top of the opposing players into the wide spaces, allowing him to relieve the pressure in the build-up and for his teammate to attack the open space.
It should be noted that while West Ham tend to sit back and hit on the counter under Moyes, Chelsea, a possession-dominant side, tend to face sides that utilize low blocks. It’s worth looking at how Rice does when coming up against teams that sit back and force West Ham to break them down.
In the first game of their Premier League campaign, West Ham lost 0-2 to Newcastle United, having dominated possession — 58% possession to be specific.
As noted in the heat map above, Rice primary areas of movement are in the center of the pitch on the left side. On the attack, he moves out into deeper positions of the left half spaces and occasionally on the left flank. In defense, Rice has shown to be all over the pitch at times, representing his ability to cover ground and width of the pitch effectively.
In terms of his distribution, it can be gathered from the map that against a team such as Newcastle, Rice played many more long and medium distance passes in comparison to short passes as a result of Newcastle’s low block system. According to FBRef, Rice actually attempted 25 long passes, completing 68% of his attempts, and he attempted 41 medium distance passes completing 92.7% percent of those attempts.
On top of this, he progressed the ball a total distance of 264 yards. Additionally, the direction and origin of his passes show that Rice often received the ball in central positions and distributed it towards both flanks to attack against a compact and deep defensive line.
While Rice’s weaker foot is his left, he still averaged 7.89 passes with his left foot per 90 last season. In relation to Chelsea, this is more than any of their right-footed midfielders according to FBRef. This makes him even more of a versatile asset to any team.
After discussing and analyzing Rice’s player profile and in-game tendencies, it’s worth gauging his statistical output. An analysis in certain metrics relevant to Rice’s role and position depict how much he tangibly contributes in the context of his team and his peers in the Premier League.
To preface this analysis, it’s important to note that the comparison being conducted is among deep-lying midfielders. However, players such as Mateo Kovačić and Jorginho have been included in the comparison in order to highlight different aspects of Rice’s game which may not be crucial to his position, but relevant to understanding his qualities.
Additionally, the data used was also filtered to only include players who have played at least 1,000 minutes in the Premier League. Taking a look into the stats of Declan Rice and analyzing them in context of his style of play, build, and in-game tendencies, it can be observed that he ranks quite well across a plethora of numerical categories.
Beginning with his ability to dribble and carry the ball, Rice has exceptional quality on the ball when compared with other defensive midfielders, completing 77.4% of his attempted dribbles and averaging 242.5 yards of distance carried per 90. Rice ranks 15th and 22nd in the Premier League respectively and is shown to be extremely comfortable on the ball with ample ability to positively influence his team’s build-up.
Moving onto his defensive measures, his aerial ability, interceptions, tackles, tackles won, and recoveries all rank within the top 10 in the league. Rice is aggressive in the air and capable of winning many aerial balls with his 60.7% success rate. This makes him a defensive asset in stopping balls played through the air but also an attacking threat on set-pieces.
Rice’s interception numbers per 90 are not only representative of his effectiveness in cutting out passing lanes but also his reading of the game. With 2.1 interceptions per 90, Rice ranks 7th in the league in this regard. Furthermore, he is a strong tackler, ranking 5th for tackles won and 8th for tackles attempted. In this facet, Rice shows his aggressive nature as a defender while highlighting his astute ability to win the ball off opposition players.
Moving onto his ability to pass the ball, Rice ranks comfortably relative to his peers. He attempts many passes to teammates that are medium distance or further. He accomplishes this at a high rate with a 91.7%, and 77.8% completion rate for medium and long passes respectively. Additionally, he possesses a high level of accuracy with all types of his passes as his completion rate the past season was 86%, ranking 15th in the league.
Finally, it’s important to note the statistical shortcomings of Rice and his game to see where improvement and growth could occur for the 21-year-old. Rice can assist in pushing further up the field with his physical frame to pressure opponents. However, this is not a common or strong aspect of his game, as his successful pressure rate stands at 28.9% which stands at 24th in the league.
Last season, Rice averaged 11.8 recoveries per 90, and while this number is not objectively high in rankings (23rd in the league) in a more attacking side which pushes further up the field, it’s likely this metric would increase as well as his pressures.
In this section, two variable plots will be presented under the same conditions as previously mentioned involving deep-lying midfielders who have registered at least 1,000 minutes in the Premier League last season. Beginning with Rice’s strongest attributes, the plot below represents tackles won per 90 and interceptions per 90, displaying who shows up well in this regard.
A brief evaluation of the plot shows Rice among the top in these categories. He easily surpasses the average of both categories and ranks among Fabinho and Yves Bissouma well in regard to tackling.
In terms of interceptions, Étienne Capoue, and Philip Billing show up well here too. However, only Wilfred Ndidi tops Rice in both categories, showing that Rice is amongst the best in the league when it comes to these defending attributes.
Building on Rice’s defensive capabilities, the plot below represents those who win their aerial duels effectively and recover in the defensive phase.
In both these categories Rice once again exceeds the average, albeit not by as much of a margin as in the previous measures. In aerial duels won, he stacks up similarly to Fabinho and Jefferson Lerma, and although Capoue, Paul Pogba, and Lerma show up the best here, Rice ranks well in this field and is clearly shown to exceed Kanté and Ndidi at least aerially, who both showed up strongly in the last plot.
Finally, the plot below compares Rice’s ability on the ball in terms of his pass completion rate and dribbling success rate. This will more accurately represent how his technical capabilities compare to his peers.
As can be noted from the plot, Rice is once again above average in both these categories and even matches up to the likes of some impressive dribblers and passers of the ball. Rice exceeds both Jorginho and Kovačić when it comes to dribbling completion rates.
Additionally, he does not fall too far below their pass completion rate either, proving that Rice has plenty to offer outside of his powerhouse defensive capacities. Although the best deeper midfielders to show up in these categories are Granit Xhaka and Rodri, Rice at 21 years old has plenty of time to build on an already strong foundation of skills. Further growth in the future would result in possibly ascending to one of the most complete midfielders in the world if it can be appropriately fostered.
Chelsea Potential Lineups and Influence
Finally, Rice’s role and lineup will be analyzed as well as the influence he could have in a potential move to Chelsea. This will come in the form of evaluating both how Rice could work in a double pivot as he currently plays in, or as a lone holding midfielder.
In the first line-up presented below, it features the same formation and position Rice played in at West Ham (4-2-3-1), while the second displays Rice in a 4-3-3 as the lone defensive midfielder, a formation that Chelsea have shown to favor in the past season.
On the left-hand side, it’s likely that Chelsea would line up in this sort of formation selecting both Rice and Kanté when Lampard is looking to produce a strong physical lineup that is defensively solid and disciplined in shape.
Rice, having experience playing on the left side of a double pivot and being comfortable with his weaker foot, is likely to retain the same position in this line-up. He and Kanté will be a significant upgrade on the defensive forefront and would therefore prove to be beneficial for Lampard in certain game scenarios depending on the opposition’s tactics.
On the right-hand side, a display of Chelsea in a 4-3-3 is displayed. According to WhoScored, this was the most frequently utilized formation under Lampard, and naturally, Rice lines up as the deeper holding midfielder of the midfield three, with Kanté as the main option, and Rice as the rotational and future starter to this position.
If Chelsea face a physical side that tends to play long, aerial balls such as Burnley, it’s possible we see Rice as the deeper midfielder even with a fit Kanté. As a result, this opens further options for Lampard to deploy Kanté in a similar role we saw under Maurizio Sarri in a box-to-box role.
Logistics and Conclusion
At 21 years old, Rice has solidified his status as not only one of the best ball-winners in Europe, but as a leader, having grown into the captain’s role at West Ham. He brings a character, mentality, and level of maturity many players develop much later in their careers, in addition to fulfilling the homegrown requirement, which will become even more crucial in the wake of Brexit.
Even if Chelsea are unable to complete a deal for Rice before the summer window closes, which seems a near certainty at this point, their interest certainly won’t fade away anytime soon. Lampard is a clear admirer of the player, and West Ham are well aware of his talent and potential — if reports are to be believed, they’re set to hold out for £80 million for their prized asset, well above their record sale of Dimitri Payet to Marseille for £25 million.
By: Michael Nazarian
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Arfa Griffiths / West Ham United