Declan Rice, a defensive No 6 fast becoming an attacking No 8 – The Athletic

By Art de Roché6h ago

Arsenal knew Declan Rice was a player with more upside than most when recruiting him last year.

There were few midfielders his age with a similar amount of experience for both club and country who could match his level of quality, making the West Ham captain truly unique in the summer market. On top of this, and regularly reported by The Athletic during Arsenal’s pursuit, Rice having the attributes to fulfil multiple midfield roles was always seen as a major benefit.

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Their initial plans were to use him deeper in midfield, but the possibility of pushing him further forward was always there. The detail and personalisation of Arsenal’s sales pitch to Rice in regards to his role if he joined them was one of the big factors which set them apart from the competition and allowed them to see off late competition from Manchester City for his signature.

The now 50-cap England international had been demonstrating his capacity to operate in a more advanced role towards the end of his time at West Ham last season. The way he has been used throughout his debut campaign with Arsenal has helped display sides of his game that may always have been there, but only seen in glimpses, and that has benefited Mikel Arteta’s team throughout the past eight months.

Rice is already having by far his best season for Premier League goal involvements (11 — six goals and five assists; his previous high was five combined, in both 2021-22 and 2022-23), and has admitted he is targeting an end-of-season tally of 10 goals. The 25-year-old has started all 28 of Arsenal’s Premier League games and although his output has risen in the most recent 14, with four goals and four assists compared to two goals and one assist in the first 14, it has only been slight changes of emphasis that have helped make that big jump.

Rice’s first competitive start for Arsenal was as a left-sided No 8. That is the position that has given him attacking freedom of late, but back in August he fulfilled a very different role from the same place, with more of an emphasis on the defensive side of that position. His job then was to support Kai Havertz and Martin Odegaard in a much more aggressive press than usual, moving from a pressing pair to a pressing trio. That tactic worked extremely well, and has become the blueprint for how Arsenal approach bigger games since.

The below sequence from the Community Shield game against Manchester City on August 6 is just one example of the impact Rice had on the day, and has continued to have when used in this way.

Rice spent most of the first half of the season as a No 6, with Thomas Partey injured and Jorginho used sparingly. Arteta did use him as a left-sided No 8 again at times, but the emphasis was very much on making Arsenal more physically dominant. In that period, Rice’s two goals came from a corner against Manchester United in September and a misplaced pass against Chelsea the following month.

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His sole assist, against Sheffield United on October 28, provides a more interesting look at how his role has evolved in the five months since.

Used as a No 6 behind Havertz and Emile Smith Rowe that day, Rice steps into the right-half space to receive the ball. From there, he arches a nice, low cross in to Eddie Nketiah, who controls and finishes excellently to launch what ended as a 5-0 win.

The pocket Rice received in and crossed from is an important area for Arsenal. It is where Odegaard and Bukayo Saka have done most of their damage for the past three seasons, and where Ben White also joins in at times. Rice creating a goal from that zone is not a negative. He created other open-play chances for Nketiah from similar locations, but it is an important snapshot in comparing Arsenal then to Arsenal now.

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Against Brentford three weeks ago in their most recent league game, that area is occupied by Saka and White. White receives and crosses from an almost identical spot, and who is making a run into the box to head in the opening goal of a 2-1 Arsenal win? Rice.

Jorginho playing more regularly has had a major impact too. There is the obvious chain reaction of Rice’s positional change, with the Italy international operating as the No 6. More importantly, Jorginho’s ability to take a game in the direction Arsenal want it to go allows Rice to be more free, because they have more time and space on the ball.

That feeds into a key part of the dynamic which is not necessarily measurable by stats: off-the-ball movement.

When asked for his verdict on the 1-0 away defeat against Porto last month in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, Rice told U.S. broadcaster CBS Sports: “We didn’t have enough threat. We didn’t have enough runs in behind, penetration, long balls over the top or wingers running in behind. Everything was pretty safe.”

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Arsenal have been threatening in every game bar that one in Portugal since returning from their winter break in the middle of January, and Rice has been key to that. That goal against Brentford detailed above was a result of being in the right place at the right time, but his performance at Sheffield United five days earlier was the forerunner for that.

He started the evening as Arsenal’s free man when attacking the left channel. With all their outfield players inside the United half for the majority of the game, he could push even further forward.

As the third man in a passing sequence which started by going outside to Gabriel Martinelli, that left him with space to exploit to set up Odegaard’s opener after five minutes.

Rice was not officially credited with the assist here, but his contribution was key.

His movement was just as evident in Arsenal’s second goal of the game, even if he did not touch the ball.

He is sprinting in behind as White enters the United half and shows his frustration when a ball is not played into the space for him. Despite that, he stays in that pocket and if it was not home defender Jayden Bogle who redirected Saka’s cross into the net, it could have been Rice scoring at the back post.

He did score late in the first half, and his movement was key once again.

Rice starts in that left channel, crashing the box for a cross from White. When that doesn’t come, he doesn’t stop. Instead, he continues running and shows for the ball from Odegaard on the edge of the box. That pass does not come either, but he is now unmarked in ample space, which is what Saka sees seconds later, before cutting back for his club and country colleague to make it 5-0.

While this side of Rice’s game is the latest to come to the fore, it is not the only attacking addition his signing has brought.

His deliveries from set pieces have helped break teams down since Arsenal returned from the winter break. Of his five league assists, the four to have come in 2024 have all been from set pieces (three corners and one free kick). Like Rice’s attacking threat from open play, this seems to have been something Arteta and his coaching staff were waiting to unveil during the season rather than utilising something they already knew about too early.

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“It is a quality we knew he had in relation to the players we have on the pitch and the players attacking the box,” Arteta said in February. “We believed we could be a real threat inside the box. But now we have other players there as well. For example, Jakub (Kiwior) has been playing there, which gives us an extra height, so Declan’s role can change.

“He’s been excellent, because he’s got the consistency and the quality with his deliveries, which makes it another way of threatening the opponent. It’s very important to open games, to finish games, especially against the amount of teams we play with low blocks, when there is a lack of space and the density is incredibly high.

“It’s a decision the team had in relation to how we have to attack the box in certain things — and because he had a delivery. Then they started to work, especially with Nico (Jover, the set-piece coach). They built that relationship, trust and timing. They said: ‘This can work’.”

This, alongside his growing ability to control the pattern of a game like Jorginho does, was best seen in the 6-0 away win against West Ham on February 11. A game where he started by being booed by his former supporters ended with him claiming two first-half assists from set pieces and having more touches (59) than any other player on the pitch by half-time (when Arsenal were 4-0 up) to help them ‘live’ the game as they wanted to.

With 10 Premier League games left, and potentially more than just another two in the Champions League ahead of a quarter-final against Bayern Munich next month, there is still room for Rice to build on this.

He hit the ground running with his new club in August, but he has grown with each stage of the season. He worked tirelessly to understand Arteta’s game model in those early months in north London and impressed many with his ability to grasp it so quickly, despite it being a slightly daunting task. Doing so has allowed him to show these other sides of his game.

“A lot of people see me as a disruptive midfield player, but I know I can do much more,” Rice told CBS Sports before Porto. “At the moment I’m playing in the No 8, which has allowed me to be more free, score goals and be involved in the play higher up (the pitch). It’s a completely different position to No 6. I’ve had to learn the way the manager wants to play it, but I’m really relishing it.”

Rice embracing that challenge added gears to Arsenal’s attack at a crucial point in the season and has helped put them in a position to be competitive at its climax.

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(Top photo: MB Media/Getty Images)

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Art de Roché began covering Arsenal for football.london in 2019 as a trainee club writer. Beforehand, he covered the Under-23s and Women’s team on a freelance basis for the Islington Gazette, having gained experience with Sky Sports News and The Independent. Follow Art on Twitter @ArtdeRoche

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