Declan Rice impact at Arsenal shows how far Manchester United have got it wrong in pursuit of midfield balance

Declan Rice impact at Arsenal shows how far Manchester United have got it wrong in pursuit of midfield balance


Declan Rice was voted second behind Phil Foden as the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year; Arsenal midfielder has seven goals and 10 assists this term; watch Man Utd vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 3.30pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

“Declan Rice.”

It was the two-word answer David Moyes gave in the final press conference before it was announced he would be leaving West Ham at the end of the season as to why his side have been defensively more open this season.

From the bowels of Stamford Bridge, it was the forlorn response of a man whose future had been the subject of much speculation. Naming the one player who became the poster boy of Moyes’ successful second spell as Hammers boss would suffice.

Lifting the Europa Conference League was Rice’s fairytale ending in claret and blue, his final act as the club’s captain. Nearly 12 months on, Arsenal fans now sing – “Declan Rice, we got him half-price” – making a mockery of those who balked at the £105m fee.

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Moyes has seen his side fall out of contention to qualify for a fourth successive European campaign after a run of one league win in nine, and the Scot pointed to the loss of Rice last summer as the reason for his team’s defensive frailties.

“When you’ve got the best midfield player in the country (Rice) protecting, making sure to limit 50 per cent of the attacks, when you get that it makes you a much better defensive team,” he further explained.

“We’ve lacked protection in front of the back four, we’ve lacked good enough defending. We’ve just not been good enough at those things.”

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The Premier League is on track to see not only the fewest goalless matches in a season, but also the smallest proportion of them over a single campaign. There have only been 11 to date.

With an average of 3.27 goals per game, we are also on course for the highest number of goals scored, underlining the importance of having a solid defensive structure.

Everton’s surge to Premier League survival was thanks in no small part to three wins in the space of seven days which saw Idrissa Gana Gueye return to the starting line-up having missed the 6-0 drubbing at Chelsea.

Idrissa Gueye's recall as a natural defensive midfielder sparked Everton's resurgence
Idrissa Gueye’s recall as a natural defensive midfielder sparked Everton’s resurgence

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Conversely, Chelsea’s spring resurgence has coincided with the midfield axis of Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo being broken up. Finding the right balance is essential.

West Ham have conceded 70 league goals in 36 games since Rice was sold to Arsenal, including five in each of their last two away outings.

His role at Arsenal under Mikel Arteta has evolved into one where he is expected to contribute more to the attack, aided by the presence of Jorginho or Thomas Partey in more recent games.

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West Ham United boss David Moyes says the club’s heavy losses this season are a result of the Hammers losing Declan Rice to Arsenal

The 25-year-old has started 182 of a possible 197 Premier League games since the start of the 2018/19 season; the only outfielder to start more is James Tarkowski (189).

Rice has also retained possession with 91.3 per cent of his touches with Rodri the only midfielder with a better ratio (93.7 per cent).

It is a balance that Arteta has settled on, having moved away from an experiment at the start of the campaign which saw Partey used as an auxiliary right back.

Arteta has provided Rice the perfect midfield balance to flourish
Arteta has provided Rice the perfect midfield balance to flourish

Speaking after Rice capped another complete display with a goal in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth last weekend, Arteta admitted his impact in the final third had surprised him.

“We thought it was going to be very related to the spaces he was going to occupy on the pitch but it’s something else to then do it in this league,” he said.

“He’s done it – even when we’ve changed him from position to position… it’s not easy to adapt to that.”

Rice was brought in for a specific job – to provide greater solidity – but he has seven goals and 10 assists in all competitions this term.

His 17.3 touches in the final third per 90 for Arsenal is significantly higher than his average of 11.9 for West Ham last season.

His athleticism has enabled him to shine in both boxes, and it is clear to see why he ran Phil Foden close as the Football Writers’ Association (FWA) Player of the Year.

It wasn’t so long ago that Casemiro was being described as having as much of a transformative effect on United, but there is now a debate to be had over whether the old adage Jamie Carragher has referenced “leave the football before the football leaves you” applies to the Brazilian.

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Highlights from Crystal Palace’s win against Manchester United in the Premier League

That is what makes a good manager; the ability to detect what works well and to allow it to develop on the pitch. It is also the ability to discard tactical approaches which fall short, and personnel when they are either going through terminal decline or a crisis of confidence.

Arsenal head to Manchester United on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, and while Arteta has honed his midfield having acknowledged the importance of the protective screen that Moyes points out, the same cannot be said of his opposite number Erik ten Hag in recent weeks.

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Jamie Carragher is scathing in his criticism of Manchester United’s display in the 1-1 draw with Burnley

Speaking on Monday Night Football before United’s humiliating 4-0 loss to Crystal Palace, a 13th league defeat – their most in a Premier League campaign – Carragher said: “We know United like to leave space in midfield.

“They like to adopt a man-marking system. Kobbie Mainoo likes to press high as does Christian Eriksen, but it leaves so much space in behind them to the defence.

“We know that Jason Wilcox is coming into the club as the new technical director, and the term ‘game model’ was mentioned in Gary Neville’s recent interview with Ten Hag. There’s no way that the people who are coming into the club are saying that this is the game model.”

Carragher points out that when in possession, teams have learned to latch onto a man-marking system that has forced Andre Onana to go direct with over 50 per cent of his distribution. Effectively, it has meant missing out the midfield.

That has come in games against Burnley and Palace, so imagine how United will approach counteracting a midfield with Arsenal’s pedigree.

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Jamie Carragher urges Casemiro to leave Manchester United and continue his career outside of the Premier League

It may be that the Gunners fall just short in their quest for a first Premier League title in 20 years.

Should they miss out by a point, Arteta’s decision to revert back to playing Rice at the base of his midfield in last month’s 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa could be viewed as his most significant misstep in charge.

Ten Hag: Rice would’ve fitted here at Man Utd

Erik ten Hag was asked if he regretted not signing Declan Rice in the summer. He said: “He’s a very good player. He would absolutely have fitted here.”

Ten Hag insisted his praise of Rice was by no means an admission of feeling regret about signing Mason Mount.

“It’s not that I am not happy with Mason,” he added. “He is also a very robust player, you see in his profile. In the last four seasons before this, he only had a small issue in the end of his Chelsea career.

“Before that, he played all the games for three seasons. He’s had very bad luck and he’s a really good player. We’ve really missed him this season.”

That day, Rice was reunited with Martin Odegaard and Kai Havertz in a midfield three as Jorginho and Partey were named on the bench.

Reflecting on Arteta’s team selection, Paul Merson said: “Arsenal have been so consistent all season, but I didn’t like the team he played. Arsenal were rolling along with Jorginho as the sitting midfielder.

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Paul Merson admits Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta got his team wrong last time out after they lost 2-0 to Aston Villa, putting a pause in their Premier League title race

“Everyone has gone on about the two centre-backs [William Saliba and Gabriel] but they’ve had a holding midfielder sat in front of them every single week. All of a sudden, he decided to change it. Why try to fix something that’s not broken? The shape went wrong.

“He did it last season against Southampton [a 3-3 draw in April 2023, a third draw in a row which left Manchester City five points behind but with two games in hand]. It’s easy to say after the game but I did call it at the time. I said it was a mistake.”

Even with United’s midfield problems, it is unlikely that Arteta will be tempted into going down the same path.

Michael Olise’s opening goal during Palace’s 4-0 win on Monday showcased what can happen against a lifeless midfield as Ten Hag’s reign reached a new nadir.

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Jamie Carragher was less than impressed with the behaviour of Antony, Mason Mount and Andre Onana following Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to Crystal Palace

The fact United were without 11 first-team players, including captain Bruno Fernandes, five centre-backs and both left-backs, offers some mitigation.

At just 19, Mainoo has shown a maturity beyond his years but there is no denying that part of this is down to him having to learn on the job when surrounded by too many injuries and underperforming players in a side lacking the hallmarks of a well-coached team.

United have suffered an eye-watering 62 different cases of injury or illness this term, but the lack of ability to strike a balance and stave off wave upon wave of attacks has raised legitimate questions over Ten Hag and his staff.

Casemiro's form has dropped off this season
Casemiro’s form has dropped off this season

Carragher said that United were “one of the most poorly coached teams in the Premier League” – and part of that is down to his apparent inability to focus on the basics in times of strife.

Ten Hag had the option of starting Sofyan Amrabat but instead handed Mason Mount a first league start since October in place of Fernandes. It smacked of sacrificing pragmatism in honour of trying to uphold the United Way.

It was only after Palace scored their third that Amrabat was introduced, with the game long since having slipped away. Ten Hag admitted to Neville that the failure to sign ready-made stars has derailed progress.

Frenkie de Jong was a vital component of his vision for his midfield make-up, but issues with recruitment have plagued his tenure.

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Jamie Carragher says Manchester United are one of the most poorly coached teams in the Premier League

He wanted De Jong and he wanted Harry Kane, but had to settle on Christian Eriksen and Rasmus Hojlund.

“We haven’t always been able to get the players we wanted but you have to then accept that you get talent in instead of those who have already proved it in the past,” said the United boss.

“Harry [Kane] would have got us 30 goals but Rasmus will get there. It’s not fair to compare him to Kane.”

The same logic can be applied to other areas of the pitch. Eriksen and Casemiro are in the twilight of their careers. Mainoo has shown himself to be a talent, but he is far from the finished article.

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Reflecting on his interview with Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag, Gary Neville suggests that giving the Dutchman at least another season in charge at Old Trafford is in the best interests of everyone at the club

“You have to accept the process is going slower,” added the Dutchman.

Arsenal have undergone a process whereby young players have been allowed to grow but it has been supplemented by the arrival of Rice, who is entering his peak years.

Ten Hag remains “absolutely” convinced he is the right man for the job and vowed to fight on with three league games to go before the FA Cup final against Manchester City.

Quite whether Ineos agrees remains to be seen, but there is no doubt Arsenal and Rice will add to their 18 defeats in all competitions if they perform anything like they did at Selhurst Park again.

Has absence of Fred been behind Casemiro decline?

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South American football expert Phil Vickery believes Fred’s departure from Manchester United might be a contributing factor towards Casemiro’s poor form this season

South American football expert Tim Vickery:

“Casemiro will already be sweating over his place in the Brazil squad for this summer’s Copa America but there is one key absence both with club and country which I feel has been significant in the player’s apparent decline.

“That’s the absence of his much-maligned former team-mate Fred, who I saw as his lungs. He was the running power and one of those players who may frustrate you on the ball, but he gets through so much work.

“I think it’s been really apparent this year, both in World Cup Qualifiers with Brazil and with Man Utd how easy those teams have been to play through when you only have Casemiro without Fred as the two of them formed a partnership.

“You take Fred out, and Casemiro’s advancing years, his lack of pace is exposed.”

Man Utd’s remaining fixtures

May 12: Arsenal (H) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports

May 15: Newcastle (H) – Premier League, kick-off 8pm, live on Sky Sports

May 19: Brighton (A) – Premier League, kick-off 4pm

May 25: Man City (N) – FA Cup final, kick-off 3pm

Arsenal’s remaining fixtures

May 12: Man Utd (A) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports

May 19: Everton (H) – Premier League, kick-off 4pm

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