It’s official — the Declan Rice era is over in East London and instead shifts north to the red portion of the capital. Rice is a unicorn, two-way player who will succeed at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. He is just that talented. It is therefore more productive to project how the future will unfold for the 24-year-old’s former club, West Ham United. The Hammers approach the new season with a handful of question marks floating over them.
Fresh from winning the Europa Conference League in Prague, David Moyes — himself a question mark — will now be forced to re-augment his roster in relatively short order. At the time of writing, there are 28 days until the Premier League returns and West Ham fans are still awaiting their first arrival of the summer. While Rice’s departure presents its own questions, his exit is not the only order of business at the London Stadium.
Uncertainty casts a dark shadow over Gianluca Scamacca, whose debut Premier League season was derailed by injury and wonky form. The Italian was also a poor stylistic fit under Moyes, a point laboured by Michail Antonio just days before the Conference League final. Tomas Soucek also endured a bumpy campaign last time around. The Czech midfielder burst onto the scene as a Premier League newcomer, crashing the offensive penalty area to save West Ham from the drop in 2020-21. Since then, his goals have dried up and deficiencies in possession laid bare.
For the first time in 58 years, West Ham have won a major European trophy after beating Fiorentina 2-1 in the UEFA Europa Conference League Final.
Today, we're shedding light on some of the heroes behind the Hammers' epic European campaign: pic.twitter.com/1VJBPNw3XF
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) June 7, 2023
Kurt Zouma and Nayef Aguerd lacked chemistry in their first season as a defensive tandem, while the battle for control of the six-yard box continues. West Ham, even before the loss of Rice, already had plenty on their plate this summer. Helpfully, Moyes will be supported through the transition of recently appointed technical director Tim Steidten and midfield stalwart turned sporting director Mark Noble. With that, let’s break down the biggest question facing the Hammers this summer – their response to the departure of their captain.
How Should West Ham Retool in Central Midfield?
Any midfield in world football would be worse without Rice in it — which presents a daunting task to West Ham this summer. The Hammers cannot substitute him with the £105 million they acquired from Arsenal and will instead be forced to replace him by committee. Tottenham Hotspur proved how difficult that task can be with their post-Gareth Bale splurge, so how should their East End rivals proceed? West Ham should start by answering two simple, yet often elusive, questions:
- Tactically, how will they approach this season?
- What exactly about their former captain’s play style will they miss the most?
Let’s work on the assumption that Moyes will return to the approach he tried — and failed — to implement at the start of last season. Rather than sitting in a deep/mid-block, the Hammers tried to press aggressively and exert more control over possession – which marked a complete departure from the counter-attacking style that had previously delivered success under Moyes. There were three main reasons why this tactical pivot failed:
- Lucas Paqueta was mistakenly thrown into the No. 10 role and found himself isolated as a result
- Soucek and Jarrod Bowen — to name two examples — started the season poorly
- Aguerd’s preseason injury removed vital pace from the backline, making West Ham extremely vulnerable on the transition.
Moyes — we assume — has learned from this experience and will adapt by placing Paquetá in the middle to create a 4-3-3. From there, he will be left with vacancies to fill in the No. 4 and No. 8 positions, with external candidates preferable in the context of Soucek’s recent struggles.
It is here where West Ham will be forced to decide what they will miss the most about Rice. Is it his ability as a ball-winner or spirited runs along the left flank? And what about his physicality, especially if 6-foot-4 Soucek is removed from the equation? If they are smart, the Hammers will prioritise the defensive intelligence and ball-retention qualities they lose as part of the transfer.
In 2022-23, Rice produced standout results at both ends of the pitch, averaging 5.35 interceptions, 51.14 passes, and 10.07 ball recoveries per 90. Unlike in his formative years, the England international used possession efficiently and that improvement is reflected in his competition metrics:
- Passes: 90.7%
- Passes to the final third: 85%
- Forward passes: 83.6%
- Backward passes: 95.3%
The Hammers should therefore recruit two midfielders this summer – a defensive screen to protect their back four and a box-to-box option to complement Paquetá.
Denis Zakaria would fill the void at the base of West Ham’s midfield and is linked with a move to the East End. The Swiss international is an enabler – a positionally aware talent who happily undertakes dirty work so that his more offensively-minded teammates can create in the final third. He was a livewire performer for Borussia Monchengladbach and would benefit from increased first-team exposure after quiet spells with Chelsea and Juventus.
While Sofyan Amrabat is unlikely to fall into the clutches of West Ham, with a myriad of other suitors already in the race for one of the stars of the last FIFA World Cup, he would fit perfectly alongside Paquetá. The Moroccan shines as a midfield tempo setter, finishing last season with an impressive 92.5 percent pass completion rate. His involvement in build-up play is crucial, as he frequently drops into deeper areas to receive possession and kickstart attacks. Paquetá would also benefit from the 26-year-old’s defensive discipline.
Alex Scott is another prime candidate for the Hammers, though the 2003-born creator has also attracted interest from AFC Bournemouth. The England youth international enjoyed a breakout rookie season with Bristol City last term, drawing attention for his excellent ability as a ball-carrier, and is ready for life in the Premier League.
West Ham will be different without Rice in their side. But they don’t have to be worse. If the Hammers invest smartly, there is a path for them to reshape their squad and a take forward step in the season ahead. The Hammers have excelled in transitional moments on the field in recent months – will they enjoy similar success in the transfer market?
Luke James (@LukeJames_32) is a freelance sports writer from London, England. In addition to his work for Breaking The Lines, he reports on ice hockey for British Ice Hockey and The Hockey Writers. He is currently the marketing and communications officer for a professional women’s football club.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Glyn Kirk – AFP