As “Rice, Rice, Baby” blared through the Emirates speakers on Sunday afternoon, Declan Rice had his head raised to the deafening screams of Arsenal fans.
It’s only been a little over three weeks since the season, but Gunners supporters are already aware that Rice will be truly pivotal if the title is at stake.
Rice, 24, was signed on to shield defense, spread play quickly to launch attacks and occasionally push forward.
Mikel Arteta isn’t too worried, publicly and privately, about how many goals or assists Rice will score this season. That’s not his main job. However, he already adds to that other side of his game that critics so often point to when reviewing him.
Graeme Souness wrote in his Mail Sport column last month: “Is Declan Rice a great player?” Not yet, but he could be if he can improve on those two very important aspects of a world-class midfielder.
Declan Rice has shown just how important he is to Arsenal after just four games of the Premier League season
The midfielder scored Arsenal’s second goal as they beat Manchester United 3-1 on Sunday
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“First, he needs to score more goals.” Second, he needs to play that nice, clever pass forward to create chances, rather than being content with playing direct and safe. I’m not sure if those are qualities that can be trained.”
But Arsenal’s numbers so far show a player desperate to change that. His four shots on goal so far this season are almost half as many as last year in 37 league games for West Ham (nine).
His shot attempts per game have also increased compared to last season (1.3 vs. 1), as well as the number of passes into the last third (10.3 vs. 8.7) and tackles (2.5 vs. 2.2) .
He made a concerted effort to get into the penalty area and create a goal threat. Against United he made quick attacks up front while Oleksandr Zinchenko moved from left-back to fill the space he had left vacant in the middle.
He already looks like the game changer Arteta was convinced he would be when he went after the midfielder. This hunt dates back to January, when Arteta put it at the top of the winter’s shopping list.
West Ham refused to do business so the Arsenal boss signed him for the summer – a transfer he was keen to land at any cost. £105m was the final number.
Gunners boss Mikel Arteta (left) has been stalking Rice for months and his patience is paying off
Arteta still needs to fix issues with his defense but Rice has helped with his solidarity in midfield
Of course, money isn’t always the answer. Just ask Todd Boehly, who has spent more than £1billion on a Chelsea squad in transition.
Rice’s strike in the 96th minute, after finding space at the back post from a Bukayo Saka corner, won the game for Arteta on Sunday. It’s game-changing moments like this that Rice brings forth, but also the composure in suspense-packed games.
In fact, there are still defense issues that need to be addressed by Arteta. But the solid lead Rice offers up the middle is already paying off.
As a 15-year-old academy candidate, he is said to have described himself as a leader. Just moments after coming on as a substitute in USA pre-season, making his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt, he was already putting the other midfielders in position. This came just days after completing his move to north London.
There is also a unique connection to Eddie Nketiah, the pair grew up together at Chelsea academy and were then released on the same day aged 14.
On the Los Angeles leg of her US tour, Rice revealed, “It was the worst[the release]. The way boys are fired from clubs can be a cruel world. Luckily, I managed to make my dream come true. “I’m at the top of the Premier League but that comes with a lot of hard work.”
Rice maintains a close friendship with club and country teammates Bukayo Saka (left) and Aaron Ramsdale
It is these experiences that shaped the player who he is today. He is said to have settled in well with his teammates and is particularly close to Saka and Aaron Ramsdale.
In fact, the pair were asked by Arteta for a debrief on Rice’s character and leadership skills before he attempted his signing.
Goals, assists and tackles aside, Rice has left West Ham in search of that title. As he said in Los Angeles, “Don’t judge me over a year, judge me over six years.” Hopefully I can repay it with some trophies.”
He definitely started off on the right foot.