“I don’t think he’s been consistent enough. He doesn’t stay with runners. He’s sloppy in possession… I can go on.” Those were the cutting words of Roy Keane in November 2019. His criticism was aimed at Declan Rice. But less than two years on, the Irishman has dramatically changed his tune: “He’s 22 and I look at where I was when I was 22, and he’s way ahead of me.”
Rice’s performances of late have transformed the Irishman’s opinion, but what specific changes has he made to develop his game so substantially? It’s difficult to pin-down Declan Rice’s best role, and that’s testament to the varied quality of the midfielder. In previous seasons, Rice has been thought of as a deep-holding midfielder – someone whose primary job was to break up opposition attacks and then recycle the ball to a teammate.
This season, Rice has maintained his excellent defensive anchoring abilities. He’s made 25 interceptions, the most of any midfielder in the Premier League. Although it’s a smaller sample size to last season, Rice is managing 0.65 more interceptions per game compared to the 2020/21 campaign. Although Rice’s defensive work has been lauded prior to this season, it’s something that he has improved upon further since the summer.
“This season, one thing I can definitely say I have improved on is my play with the ball.” In his own words, Rice believes that the real progress he’s made has been with his work in possession. This is why it is now hard to pin down the English international’s best role – a box-to-box, or deep-lying playmaker? Rather than simply a defensive midfield anchor. Rice has transformed his passing ability of late. He’s completed 483 passes – the 3rd most of any midfielder in the Premier League.
Even more impressively, this has been achieved with a 91% passing accuracy, a figure 5% higher than last season. The West Ham vice-captain has for a long time been considered someone that plays the easy pass. However, that has not been the case this season. Rice has completed 60 passes that enter the final third – the 3rd most of any Premier League midfielder.
He also has the 2nd highest figure of Premier League midfielders for total progressive distance of passes. Compared to last season, Rice is making 1.5 more progressive passes (passes that move the ball at least 10 yards forward) per 90. So whilst Rice’s passing accuracy has improved from last season, he is actually making far more progressive, and therefore risky passes, making his improved passing accuracy all the more impressive.
Rice has also become much more dynamic in his ball-carrying. He’s completed 3.22 ball carries into the final third per 90 – nearly 1.5 times more than last season. It’s not just self-improvement. Like Rice’s progressive passing ability, his ball-carrying has become one of the best in the Premier League. No other player in the league has progressed the ball further up the pitch through carries – 1,900 yards!
Most notably, Rice’s ability to carry the ball up the pitch can be seen in his remarkable solo goal against Dinamo Zagreb. After intercepting the ball inside his own half, he shrugs off a challenge before marauding into the Zagreb box and firing past Livakovic. Rice’s headed goal against Rapid Wien signalled the Englishman’s newfound intent to break the lines and get into the box.
Compared to last season, Rice is managing more touches all over the pitch, even in the final third. Clearly, Rice is now intent on occasionally joining the attack, when Soucek sits in front of the defence. Everyone knew of the brilliant defensive that Rice could do coming into this season.
After all, he had done a brilliant job of anchoring the England midfield during the recent European Championships. However, so far this season Rice has elevated his game again. Not only has he built upon his screening work in front of the defence, but also his ball progression.
Whether it’s his powerful, driving runs or his crisp passing through the lines, Rice has developed his play on the ball considerably. West Ham now have a unique talent – a hybrid player who can seamlessly break down an opposition attack, drive the ball forward and pick a progressive pass, all in one instance.
By: Joseph Odell / @IncogFootball
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto