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How Man Utd target Declan Rice became West Ham's elite anchor man

7:00 AM GMT 28/04/2022
Declan Rice West Ham GFX
The Irons are set for their Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt with their outstanding defensive midfielder to the fore this season

The same sentence is heard on every football podcast and radio programme whenever a West Ham match has recently been on television.

Inevitably the talk moves to Declan Rice and someone will say: “I knew he was good, but I didn't realise he was that good.”

Presumably at some point everyone will have watched Rice play a couple of games and finally this cliché will end, but given the revelation seems to hit a new pundit every week, perhaps it will take Rice moving to one of the biggest clubs in the world for his talent to be fully recognised.

And Rice is undoubtedly ready for that move. GOAL understands Manchester United have long been admirers of Rice, or at least they were prior to Erik ten Hag's appointment, and with good reason.

He has all the qualities they need for a modern defensive midfielder: an anchor man with the progessive technical ability to be the fulcrum of a shift towards contemporary Premier League tactics.

Rice has always been widely seen as a defensive destroyer, and although his tackling and intercepting stats are excellent, this assumed profile relates more to his wide English frame and presence at the heart of a David Moyes team.

In reality, Rice is much more than a defender, although these qualities should not be overlooked.

Few midfielders have his positional awareness and anticipation, the sort that allows him to snaffle up 50-50s and pinch the ball away from opponents in crowded areas.

He ranks fourth in the Premier League (and second among midfielders) for combined tackles and interceptions this season (154), yet many of his defensive actions are not captured in statistics. The way he sweeps up loose balls and blocks off pathways preventing passes being made do not get logged.

But Rice has far more to his game than that. He possesses the rare quality of creating forward momentum from the base of midfield.

Fabinho and Rodri are the leaders in this field; the archetypes of a new brand of elite number six who must be adept at shunting the ball forward whenever possible.

This means vertical, line-splitting passes, but also receiving and releasing the ball under intense pressure from the opposition – especially immediately after winning the ball.

What separates Fabinho and Rodri – as well as Rice – from the rest is how a well-read header or clean slide tackle, preventing an opposition counterattack, leads to pushing the ball back in the other direction, often in the same motion.

It is the difference between a good defensive midfielder and a truly elite one, and it has never been more important than in 2022.

The Premier League is all about the transitions, both defensive and attacking; in an age of highly-organised and tightly compressed blocks, the space is found primarily when the ball turns over and players can hurtle forward.

Therefore having a player like Rice - who can intercept a ball; use his strength to hold off the counter-press; and cut a pass into the forwards with just a couple of touches – is priceless for the kind of high-octane attacking football Ten Hag will bring to Manchester.

It cannot be underestimated how rare and special a talent that is; how rare and special a talent Rice has become.

Tellingly, Rice has the third-highest total pass distance in the Premier League among midfielders (34,187 metres), behind Rodri and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

Rice is also a brilliant dribbler of the ball, regularly striding forward in possession to break the lines all on his own – again, a vital skill of the modern number six and precisely what Ten Hag will need to get United through a defensive blockade.

He ranks ninth in the Premier League for total carries (1575) this season and is fourth for progressive distance (6315m), which measures forward movement while carrying the ball. The three above him are all centre-backs.

So, when put together, what we have is an elite anchor man with a world-class ability to pass and dribble through the pitch.

It is only surprising that more clubs are nott interested, and that Manchester United have not already acted in getting him to Old Trafford. Then again, Rice is getting better all the time and there is perhaps just a slight delay in the world catching up.

His numbers for carries, touches, and dribbles are all rising year on year, and in each category Rice has already posted a season high – with six Premier League matches to go.

He will also get more attention should West Ham go all the way in the Europa League, where they play Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final first leg on Thursday.

Rice has been instrumental to their success so far, holding the fort in Moyes' deep defensive line and triggering the majority of the team's counterattacks, most notably in the quarter-final victory over Lyon.

Rice made eight interceptions across the two legs and was particularly influential in the 3-0 win in France, scoring the second goal.

That performance will have put him on the map, helping scouting departments at Europe's elite clubs look past his gait and his build to see the ridiculously elegant, consistent, and intelligent footballer developing in east London.