A quality defensive midfielder is hard to find, which is why West Ham United’s Declan Rice is attracting plenty of attention.
Rice, 21, has been linked with Chelsea and Manchester United in recent months due to his fine performances for the Hammers and his ability to play either in midfield or at centre-back.
Chelsea, who will come up against him in the Premier League on Monday night, spent over £220 million on new players in the summer, though their interest in Rice remains. Sources have told ESPN’s James Olley that Frank Lampard is hoping to convert the midfielder back into a centre-back and “now recognises a need to strengthen in that area.”
But the England international will have many suitors when the transfer window opens. Here is our scouting report, revealing what you can expect to see from a player rated at around £80m.
Where has he come from?
Ironically, given all the recent speculation about a move to Stamford Bridge, Rice’s first club was actually Chelsea. He joined their academy at the age of seven but was released at 14, whereupon he travelled across the capital to make his name at West Ham.
Now the Blues would love to take the defensive midfielder back to West London and head a growing list of suitors from Europe’s top clubs, though a valuation of around £80m means that no move is a foregone conclusion — especially as his contract lasts until 2024 with the option of another year. At the tender age of 21, Rice has taken over the captain’s armband at the Hammers when Mark Noble is on the bench, which shows how highly he is rated at the club.
While Chelsea and Manchester United may go head-to-head for his club services in the future, Rice was the subject of an international tug of war too. Qualifying to play for the Republic of Ireland through his grandparents, they approached him first, initially at U16 level, and then handed him three senior caps in friendlies from 2018. But, having not had a “No. 6” of such quality for years, England realised his potential and convinced him to switch allegiance. He made his full debut in March 2019 against the Czech Republic and is expected to be a part of the Euro 2020 squad this summer.
Having predominantly featured as a centre-back at youth level, Rice’s initial appearances for the West Ham first team saw him come off the bench as a defensive midfielder. Then-manager Slaven Bilic saw the teenager’s potential and understood that using him in midfield would be the most sensible way to fast-track him into the first-team as centre-backs are rarely substituted for tactical reasons.
His full debut came in August 2017 and, after alternating between the two positions during the 2017-18 season, Rice finally made the holding midfielder role his own at the start of the following campaign and has never looked back. He was shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of The Year award in 2019, has hardly missed a game since and is now a regular fixture as a defensive midfielder for both club and country.
Declan Rice has all the attributes to be a superstar in his position. Getty
Rice’s style is very much ‘what you see is what you get.’ Before anything else he’s a stabilising midfielder who brings balance to the core of the team and, though still only 21, he seems to know when a counterattack might be looming and where the potential dangers of an opposing attack are. Indeed, he is excellent at finding the right spaces and positioning himself accordingly, while his ability to read the game is highly impressive for one so young.
Being such a tactically disciplined player, he’s obviously not flashy or extravagant in any way, just exceptionally efficient. Once in position, he’d much rather give the ball to a more creative player or simply keep possession with a backward or sideways pass. Though he might be seen as a somewhat ‘unadventurous’ player, managers love his consistency and know even at his minimum he’ll be at least a 6/10 performer.
Fans may miss a lot of what he does under the radar, but his play is backed up by some pretty impressive numbers. Last season he was among the top ball-winning midfielders in the Premier League — either from directly winning challenges or picking up loose balls — finishing fourth on the Tackling list with 116. His 94 ball recoveries so far this season is particularly impressive when you consider Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante has 101 and Southampton’s Oriol Romeu leads the way in the league with 108, putting Rice in 8th place.
Added to being dominant in the air, he’s got an aggressive edge — though he concedes relatively few fouls, only 10 this season — and rarely thinks twice about going for a challenge, even one that he might not be favourite to win. Moreover, Rice is one of the most consistent players in the Premier League; he hardly ever misses a game and almost never gets substituted.
Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting.
Rice should not be confused with a deep-lying midfield playmaker and his lack of forward passing, assists or key contributions in the final third should not be counted as weaknesses or held against him. In fact, for what he is — a disciplined, stabilising, positionally aware, ball-winner — Rice certainly possesses the necessary qualities to become one of the best in Europe in his position. And he’s not far off that right now.
As with most defensive-minded midfielders of his size, he’s not among the quickest in moving around the pitch, though he does cover a lot of ground and his stamina often makes him even more noticeable when the game opens up late in the second half.
Where he fits in
Tactically Rice is best suited to playing alongside a more creative, ball-playing central midfielder — although that’s not necessarily the case at West Ham, where the creativity usually comes from wide areas or from “half-positions” further up the pitch.
He prospers as a second, deep-lying “sitting” midfielder who can leave the attacking aspects to somebody better suited to picking out gaps for a pass between the lines and dictating the pace of the game.
At long-term suitors Chelsea, where he would team up with best friend Mason Mount, he would perform similar duties to Kante, providing Jorginho or Mateo Kovacic with defensive support by protecting the centre-backs, in a similar vein to how Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg does it at Tottenham. Although Rice is more static than Kante, he’s got more of an aerial presence and tends to be slightly more reliable in possession.
Ever since Claude Makelele made the defensive midfield role his own at the start of the century for Real Madrid and Chelsea, clubs have been falling over themselves to find someone who could have a similar impact. Of all Europe’s elite, Chelsea know better than most what such a player can bring and, though they will have to pay a lot to sign Rice, it would certainly be a worthwhile investment for the future.