Declan Rice’s worth to Arsenal is already obvious. The price was steep, West Ham fetching £105m for a player they got for nothing, but Rice is value for money. Arsenal, who crumbled under the pressure of trying to beat Manchester City to the title last season, needed the midfielder’s resilience. When they were holding on to a slender advantage against Sevilla last week, they were grateful that Rice was there to sense danger and stamp it out.
There was none of the flimsiness that has held back Mikel Arteta’s side in the past. Arsenal have become sturdier since signing Rice. He was crucial to their recent win against City, making an early goalline clearance before repeatedly snuffing out promising attacks, and has given the team more structure and authority. Arteta, who likens Rice to a lighthouse because of how he makes his teammates shine, knew what he was doing when he began wooing the England international last year.
Not that Rice ever let his focus drop during his final season at West Ham. After helping David Moyes’s side to avoid relegation, he ended by captaining the club to their first major trophy in 43 years. The victory against Fiorentina in the Europa Conference League final was the perfect farewell. It allowed Rice to depart as a club legend – not since Bobby Moore had a player captained West Ham to European glory – and should ensure he receives a warm welcome when Arsenal visit the London Stadium in the fourth round of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night.
Assuming he is involved, if only from the bench, no bitterness should be directed at Rice when he faces his former side for the first time. The fact is that the 24‑year‑old had to leave for the sake of his career. Rice joined West Ham when he was 14 and still loves the club but it was time to move on. Nobody can begrudge his desire to compete for major honours and play in the Champions League every season.
It was never going to happen at West Ham. They remain in mid‑table even after being given the chance to invest £105m in squad renovation. After an encouraging start their form has faded and familiar complaints over Moyes’s cautious tactics have resurfaced. Poor against Everton last Sunday, West Ham have endured three consecutive defeats in all competitions and Moyes could do with a response against Arsenal.
Whatever happens against Arsenal, the concern for the people who have to decide whether to extend Moyes’s contract at the end of the season is West Ham’s recent performances have underlined why Rice left. Once again the focus is on the failure to develop an attacking philosophy. The weaknesses were glaring against Everton. Sean Dyche’s side knew that West Ham would struggle to create if given more possession and denied space to strike on the counterattack.
It was a game that suggested opponents have worked out West Ham’s approach. The pragmatic, counterpunching template that brought wins against Brighton and Chelsea in August does not seem a viable long-term path to success. Their only victories in the league since then have come against Luton and Sheffield United – not exactly hard – and although West Ham remain ninth their fans have grown envious of teams who are playing more exciting football with similar resources.
Moyes, remember, can count on the creativity of Lucas Paquetá. He has Jarrod Bowen on the right wing and signed the Ghana forward Mohammed Kudus in the summer. It is not unreasonable to think that someone with fresh ideas would be getting more out of these players; look at how Aston Villa are playing under Unai Emery.
However, while the focus is on West Ham’s predictability in possession, there are also structural issues in midfield. Rice’s physicality and energy have not been replaced. West Ham brought in two midfielders, Edson Álvarez and James Ward-Prowse, but are easier to play through. The back four is more vulnerable without Rice’s protection.
The consequence is that Moyes has moved Paquetá to the left, away from the central position favoured by the Brazilian, and often used a solid midfield trio of Tomas Soucek, Ward-Prowse and Álvarez. It is a system that can work against better sides but it means West Ham lack width. If they are going to give up possession Paquetá does not have the speed to relieve pressure by charging up the flank when West Ham counterattack.
It also leads to a lack of dynamism. But with Saïd Benrahma, Pablo Fornals and Maxwel Cornet out of favour, Moyes’s options are limited. Against Everton he tried to be more expansive, dropping Soucek and starting Kudus in the No 10 position, but it did not work. Kudus did not press well enough and Everton overwhelmed the worryingly slow partnership of Álvarez and Ward-Prowse. Álvarez, who is suspended against Brentford on Saturday after five bookings, is still adjusting to the pace of the Premier League.
Arsenal have no such worries in the engine room. Earlier this season there was a suggestion West Ham were not missing Rice and were more balanced without him. It was nonsense then, and looks even more silly now. While Arsenal are reaping the benefits of buying Rice West Ham are beginning to feel the loss more keenly.