For the last 18 months the biggest question coming out of east London has been when, not if, will Declan Rice be leaving the club?
Vice-captain at just 21 years old, Rice has come through the West Ham academy and been their shining light during a tough period where relegation seemed like a genuine possibility at times.
He was heavily linked with a move to Chelsea and while it didn’t materialise then, the links have persisted and there’s now talk of a potential move in January. Manchester United have also reportedly shown an interest in the past, but is Rice actually a good option for one of the top clubs in the country?
It’s an interesting question and one that we see banded about regularly about players performing to a high standard for lesser teams in the league.
We’ve seen the likes of Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota, Ben Chilwell, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Ngolo Kante and others make the step up and perform admirably.
We’ve also seen the likes of Danny Drinkwater and Morgan Schneiderlin make the step up and drown because of the extra quality needed at the top level. So where does Rice fit in?
Likely somewhere in the middle.
As a defensive midfielder, we’ve seen Rice is very effective for West Ham. He reads the game well, tackles well, intercepts well and is smart enough to know his strengths and play to them. He’s also pretty good in the air at 6ft tall and copes well with all the physical demands of Premier League football.
At West Ham, where they often set up to sit back and soak up pressure those attributes are perfect for him to shine and stand out since he’s their best player when it comes to those things.
But those things become a little less important at the top clubs, because they have the ball in those games. That’s when your on the ball attributes become so key, and Rice’s aren’t the greatest.
He’s a competent passer and carrier of the ball but he’s not one to excel at it. He keeps passes simple and we see in the England team that with lots of possession, Rice becomes a hinderance against a low-block defence.
Chelsea seem to have the right idea with Rice, as many reports suggest that they want to sign him and move him back into his central defender role. That would allow him to still use his strengths from midfield in terms of winning the ball back and being physical, while he can keep his passing relatively simple by just passing it on to the midfield players to let them unlock opposition defences.
If that is indeed the long-term plan for Rice, then the answer to the original question is likely to be a resounding yes – although a reported £80m fee is wild and highly inflated.
If not, then maybe teams should hold fire on making him their first-choice defensive midfielder for a little while longer. He’s still young, there’s no harm in letting him develop elsewhere and keeping an eye out.
That is what scouts are for after all, isn’t it?