When Declan Rice headed in Arsenal’s last-second winner against Luton, he not only proved that the Gunners are the comeback kings of the Premier League this season, having won more points (nine) with injury-time goals than any other club in England. He also proved that despite joining the club just a few months ago, he is already their most valuable player.
Declan Rice Is Already Arsenal’s MVP
Declan Rice Becomes The Main Man at Arsenal
So well has Rice settled in at The Emirates that in the wake of his latest and so far greatest contribution to a match, Arsenal fans were joking that he will prompt another investigation into the club by the Premier League and the FA on the basis that the Gunners clearly underpaid West Ham for him. Given that Rice is the club’s record signing, at £105 million, that joke is probably the best indication of how he has adapted so brilliantly to a new team and a weighty price tag.
Indeed, it is hard to think of another signing in recent Arsenal history who has settled in so quickly and apparently effortlessly, especially when they have come with a hefty transfer fee. Nicolas Pepe, the Gunners’ previous record signing at £72 million, finally left the Premier League for Saudi Arabia this summer, having completely underwhelmed in his four seasons in London. Mesut Özil arrived with great fanfare from Real Madrid but was only ever able to help Arsenal to FA Cup glory rather than inspiring a league title challenge; and even the club’s greatest ever striker and No.10, namely Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, took several games to settle in.
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To find another player who has made such an impact at Arsenal so quickly, to the point that he looks absolutely indispensable almost immediately, you would probably have to go back to Patrick Vieira, Arsène Wenger’s first proper signing, who actually arrived at the club before Wenger did. From his first game for Arsenal, Vieira looked like a real midfield general, and so he proved to be over the next decade. And it is appropriate that Rice evokes memories of the great Frenchman because he already looks like he could be the best Arsenal midfielder since Vieira.
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Rice Has Replaced Both Xhaka And Partey
That is all the more impressive when you consider Rice was brought in by Mikel Arteta – to replace Granit Xhaka. However, he has effectively replaced two men, or a whole midfield, in Xhaka and Thomas Partey. So far, a combination of Arteta’s tactics (bizarrely playing Partey at right-back rather than central midfield at the start of the season) and Partey’s own recurring injury problems have meant that Rice has not partnered the Ghanaian in central midfield. However, he has played so supremely well that Partey has hardly been missed – due to effectively doing the work of two midfielders.
Two Midfielders In One
In that respect, Rice is the ultimate modern midfielder, or, more precisely, the ultimate modern central defensive midfielder. That is because in addition to all the defensive duties expected of a CDM, the very best, like Rice, are also expected to get forward, attack and score goals themselves. And that is why the CDM is probably the most important single player in 21st-century football.
That is evident from examining Manchester City this season. The major reason they have struggled, relatively speaking, is not because Kevin de Bruyne has been missing through injury but because Rodri has been missing so often through suspension. The Spanish midfielder was again absent against Aston Villa during the week, and in his absence, City again looked far more vulnerable than they ever do when he is on the pitch.
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It was probably Pep Guardiola himself who began the trend of the modern super central midfielder, who can both defend and, when required to do so, attack. He did so not as a player, fine player though he was, but as a manager, with his first super-team at Barcelona. There, for all the outstanding attacking qualities of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta et al, the whole team was anchored by Sergio Busquets. And Busquets was similarly integral for Spain as they won their first ever World Cup (in 2010) and their second European Championship in succession (in 2012), having replaced Marcos Senna, Spain’s Brazilian-born lynchpin when they won the first of their hat-trick of major trophies at the Euros in 2008.
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Midfielders such as Rice, Rodri and Busquets are arguably even more important than strikers now. After all, Manchester City have still had Erling Haaland on the pitch during their recent troubles. But without Rodri in the side, they have struggled and often failed to establish the midfield domination that is so crucial to their creating chances for Haaland.
Lack of Strength in Depth
If anything, Rice is even more important to Arsenal than Rodri is to Manchester City. They may not be as good as Rodri, but at least City have nominal replacements in Kalvin Phillips and the recent acquisition from Wolves, Matheus Nunes. In Partey’s continuing absence through injury, which increasingly looks like it will continue until at least the new year (when he will go away with Ghana for the African Cup of Nations), Arteta and Arsenal have nothing like a like-for-like replacement for Rice. If the Englishman should get a serious injury and miss an extended number of games, Arsenal will struggle to replace him. So it is no wonder they have already been linked with many other central midfielders ahead of the January transfer window.
For now, at least, though, Rice is undoubtedly Arsenal’s single most important player, i.e. the one player they cannot replace. He’s not just “Rice, Rice Baby!”, but “MVP, Baby, MVP!”