Declan Rice’s career trajectory perfectly encapsulates the misconceptions and current importance of the holding midfielder in modern football. After initially leaving Chelsea as a young player, he has found stardom at West Ham and is now seen as one of a few guaranteed starters for England at the World Cup in Qatar. But even with the Hammers, where he has gone from strength to strength since making his debut in 2017, it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
It was a rather abrupt start to life in the Premier League for Rice; he started as something of an unknown quantity in a comprehensive defeat to Newcastle United at St James’ Park. Although he was hardly individually culpable on a day which really sparked the beginning of the end for Slaven Bilic as West Ham boss, the nature of the 3-0 defeat meant he didn’t exactly come away with glowing references, either.
But they would come over time, in some quarters at least. In two spells under David Moyes, sandwiching Manuel Pellegrini’s reign at the London Stadium, he has developed into the club’s most valued asset and the man who truly sets the tone at the base of midfield. For all his early promise and international recognition, not to mention links with big moves to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United at a cost that has seemingly been rising every week for the past two years in particular, there were many doubters he had to face up to.
While Rice’s ability to win and retain the ball was impeccable, regularly besting the league’s stats in those categories, as his positioning helped West Ham build from a solid, steady base in the middle of the field, his ability on the ball was subject to scrutiny. The suggestion was he wasn’t technical enough to run the engine room of a Champions League side, or even England considering their lack of creativity in deep-lying positions has cost them on numerous occasions over the past decade. There were those who subscribed to the view he’d be better as a centre-back, where he can also play, while some even went as far as to say they didn’t understand the hype surrounding Rice.
But since Moyes has turned West Ham into a modern version of his Everton side – physical, aggressive, quick and effective, with Rice at the heart of everything – there is much less scope for any negativity towards the 23-year-old. He truly became the man the Scot can rely on most, and then in the summer, he followed suit with England at Euro 2020, dominating games and helping Gareth Southgate’s side stay solid to grind important results out until the final, where they ultimately were beaten by Italy.
In the last year, Rice has truly completed his game; he’s as much a participant in attacks through driving runs and pinpoint passing as he is a defensive destroyer. It was back at St James’ Park in August on the opening day of the season that he really showcased his new level of competence going forward. Newcastle had taken an early lead and, although West Ham probably shaded things in the first half, the game was incredibly boisterous and end-to-end. But as the hosts tired and their levels waned, Rice took a hold of the game and bossed it from every angle as the Hammers we on 4-2.
His influence hasn’t stopped there, either. Although West Ham’s Champions League hopes are fading somewhat, the fact they have any at all is incredible in itself. Their run to the Europa League, just falling short last season, was a surprise, and with no very little serious improvement in the transfer window, added to the departure of Jesse Lingard, the man seen as their catalyst during a loan spell from Manchester United, it wasn’t expected to be built upon. But even while marching through their European commitments, they have stayed competitive; Rice is a huge factor in that.
We are approaching the end of the season, and that means awards are ready to be given out. Mohamed Salah’s form for Liverpool put him in prime contention for the Ballon d’Or earlier in the season and he is seen as the overwhelming favourites for the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards. But if Salah is to receive any competition, Rice has to be considered, not only because of his growing influence on West Ham, but also his desire to round off his game and prove doubters wrong.
It would be a disaster for the club were Rice to leave West Ham, but something they are looking increasingly likely to accept. Somebody with his ability deserves to play Champions League football, and you sense they’ll need to bring it to him if he is not to depart sooner rather than later.