The 2021 January Transfer Window continues to heat up, with more and more clubs splashing the cash to resolve their issues before the end of the season. And with that, we’re continuing to take a look at clubs with a bit of a blackhole in their team, that desperately needs to be covered before the end of next summer. We’re going to match that blackhole up with one player who could potentially fill that void if a move were to be made in January, by assessing and analyzing a player that is a perfect match for the team’s style of play. While today’s player would be perfect for virtually any European elite, from Chelsea to Manchester City to Bayern Munich, this man had to top our list of defensive midfielders for Manchester United. Today, it’s all about West Ham United’s Declan Rice, and why he’d be a perfect fit for Ralf Rangnick’s Red Devils.
RANGNICK’S MIDFIELD DILEMMAEmbed from Getty Images
Before jumping to conclusions about the potential fit between Rice and the Red Devils, we first must analyze Ralf Rangnick’s style of play. After all, any transfer needs to fit the team’s principles of play, and not only that, but be able to outperform what United currently has at their disposal.
Rangnick wants his team to press high and intense, and so the central midfielders need to be sound ball-winners. Scott McTominay and Fred have that side of the game down, each providing defensive solidity and a fair amount of mobility to get around the pitch. If a new man enters the frame, it would be beneficial for that player to have greater speed, and greater awareness in defensive transitions. While Fred is excellent at pressing high and McTominay’s positioning is often sound, they both lack the necessary verve and intelligence in transition. It would also help for the midfielder to be a better ball carrier. McTominay’s shown great ability to shoot from range, and Fred can make nice diagonal passes. But ball carrying from midfield areas into the opposition’s half or final third would provide a greater link in Rangnick’s narrow 4-2-2-2. Bruno Fernandes could be deployed in a deeper role to create that healthy mix of ball carrying and progressive passing in midfield, but that would put the Portuguese in fewer goal-scoring / goal-creating positions. Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek could also be useful options, but both haven’t proven themselves to be any more capable than Fred and McTominay. In fact, when given minutes they’ve usually fared worse.Embed from Getty Images
In possession, Rangnick could also do with a midfielder who knows how to play out from the back and frequently finds pockets of space to help their team progress. Neither McTominay or Fred have ever looked fully comfortable out from the back, and the two are often bypassed altogether as centre-backs go direct into Bruno Fernandes, or pass sideways between each other. Declan Rice demonstrated a great ability to help a team build out from the back at this summer’s Euros with England, and so this is another area in which he would be an excellent fit.
Finally, since width in Rangnick’s system will come from the fullbacks, the defensive midfielders in question should be good 1v1 defenders, and intelligent with their positioning when covering for advanced players. A midfield man who has previously played as a defender, like Declan Rice, would therefore be an extraodinary fit.
So in short, when finding a defensive midfielder to fit United’s style, we’re essentially looking for defensive midfielders who do four things exceptionally well:
- Pressing from the front, and in the middle third, with the ability to win the ball on either a tackle through careful timing, or on an interception through sound positioning.
- Progressively carrying the ball to break lines in the opposition, and intelligence of when to dribble versus when to pass.
- Capable playing out from the back, and facilitating the build-up.
- Recovery speed in transition, and sound defensive positioning to provide extra support in behind advancing fullbacks.
DECLAN RICE’S KEY CHARACTERISTICSEmbed from Getty Images
Rice, still only 22-years-old, has been a stalwart for Gareth Southgate’s England and David Moyes’ West Ham since the the 2018-19 season. An exceptional passer of the ball and remarkable defensive presence, Rice has stepped up his ball carrying to extreme heights in the past two seasons, becoming a near-complete central midfielder. No player completed more of their dribbles than Rice in the Premier League last season, with the West Ham man dancing his way successfully around nearly 90% of the players he attempted to beat. He’s also completed the fourth most carries into the final third, and boasts the fifth highest total carrying distance this season.
From a defensive perspective, Rice always knows where to be. His 55 interceptions at the halfway point of the 2021-22 Premier League season sees him rank higher than any other player. He’s also improved on the timing of his tackles with each and every passing season, with a league high of 89 tackles won back in 2019-20. Importantly for United, his pressure success percentage also vastly outperforms Fred and McTominay, and he showcased many moments back in 2020-21 where he would excellently provide cover for an advancing Aaron Cresswell – West Ham’s most dangerous deliverer. Given West Ham’s sound defensive structure and overall lack of possession, Rice hasn’t been challenged quite as much in the defensive transition department for Moyes’ team. However, he brilliantly positioned himself at the Euros for England, with Kalvin Phillips acting as the more adventurous midfielder.Embed from Getty Images
Rice’s ability to change how he plays for his club and country is particularly promising. In 2020-21, he held a more reserved role for the Hammers, with Tomas Soucek often tasked with making late runs into the box. This season, he’s been the one driving forward and carrying the ball up the field, as Soucek sits deeper. But even in that time, he’s continued to be the holder for England, allowing other players to work their magic further up the pitch. What this means is that Declan Rice can be versatile in adapting to however his next manager wants him to play. That, above all else, is a remarkable skill for a 22-year-old to possess.Embed from Getty Images
In short, Declan Rice is the total package. He has every single quality United could ever ask for and more, and would not only fit Rangnick’s style of play, but completely surpass the expectations set by Fred and McTominay. He is undoubtedly the best defensive midfielder in world football that does not already play for one of Europe’s elite (i.e. Rodri, Jorginho, Kimmich, Kante, Casemiro, Fabinho may be ahead of him). As a result, West Ham United would be completely unwilling to do business in January, probably at any starting price. But if United are willing to wait to the summer (and none of their rivals make advanced talks for a July contract start), United should aim for a fee of around £80 million the day the 2021-22 season comes to a close.
PLAYER COMPARISONSEmbed from Getty Images
When looking at the strengths of Declan Rice in contrast with Rangnick’s United, it’s a match made in heaven. But the Red Devils need to identify a midfielder who can not only fit their style, but can outperform the team’s current options. So let’s take a look at how the West Ham captain compares to Manchester United’s current starters in the position – Scott McTominay and Fred.
POSSESSION & ATTACK
When looking at Declan Rice’s in-possession stats this season, it’s clear just how much of an improvement he would make to United’s midfield. Fred failed to beat Rice on any single category we studied, and McTominay only surpassed the West Ham captain on long pass percentage and dribble success percentage, two areas where he’s attempted far fewer numbers than the Brit. Rice’s pass completion rate is also through the roof despite being put under significantly more pressure this season. His progressive carry numbers meanwhile nearly double McTominay’s, and triple Fred’s. Without even watching one of the world’s most talented midfielders, the numbers speak for themselves.
OUT OF POSSESSION & DEFENDING
If you haven’t bought into the idea of how remarkable of a footballer Declan Rice truly is yet, look no further than his defensive output. While West Ham are a team who have more defending to do than Manchester United, Rice’s numbers stand out when compared against just about any midfielder in the league. His interception numbers are in fact the highest in the league, and when you look at things like percentages instead of volume, he still outperforms his competitors. Tackling nearly 50% of those trying to dribble past him would be a welcomed addition to the team, especially when compared to Fred’s abysmal ratio of 18%. Moreover, his pressure success also shows the signs of a player fully capable of playing in a high pressing team. He’s also proven to be more disciplined than the often overzealous Fred and McTominay, picking up only 0.26 yellow cards per 90. Despite being a tall lad, the only category he fails to win in our data search is ‘aerial duels won percentage’, but he’s competed in nearly triple the amount of Fred, who somehow wins the category from having won 12 of his headers.Embed from Getty Images
A beast in all areas of the game, Declan Rice would be the perfect replacement, and would likely go on to be an even better player than, dare we say, the likes of Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera – who impressed in different eras.
TRANSFER LOGISTICSEmbed from Getty Images
Declan Rice should be on the radar of every top club in the world, and it’s insane to think a top club like United has not already made a bid for him after so many fantastic seasons at West Ham. Firmly now the team’s stand-in captain for Mark Noble and on his way to another fantastic 2021-22 campaign with the Hammers, his stock is only rising. West Ham are currently challenging for European football for the second season running, and Rice and his teammates will back themselves to finish ahead of United this campaign. This presents the first dilemma in acquiring the services of Rice, for any club at all, let alone a team struggling like United.
Transfermarkt currently lists Rice’s fee at a whopping £67.5 million. We realistically think it would cost a club like United around the region they paid for Harry Maguire – £80 million. So this is not a cheap option. In fact, it would cost United twice as much as any other option we’re going to throw out into the world as we complete this series. That said, Declan Rice is worth way more than his market value would suggest. He’s invaluable for West Ham United, and a genuine contender for best defensive midfielder in the world right now. So as United compete with the likes of City and Chelsea for his signature, they need to be willing to splash the cash.
The scarier thought to consider is just how blissfully unaware United seem to be when it comes to this massive mineshaft. Rangnick dropped Fred after the abysmal draw to Newcastle United, but the Brazilian has performed well in his other games and is now back in the team again. Meanwhile, Scott McTominay has been excellent, even stepping up his leadership under Rangnick. So United might be fooled into thinking they don’t still desperately need an upgrade. Don’t get us wrong. We love Scott McTominay and Fred and think they are two of the most underrated players around. But they are not Premier League title-winning central midfielders. Declan Rice on the other hand, definitely is.. United just need to wake up and smell the coffee.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Declan Rice remains one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, and it’s shocking that no top club has come in with a massive bid for the 22-year-old. For now, the English midfielder continues to lead West Ham back into Europe for another season. But surely his time with the Hammers can only last so long before he makes a move to a European giant. Manchester United need to be one of those giants making an offer for his services as soon as possible. If they are willing to splash the cash, one thing is for certain. Declan Rice can and will massively improve Manchester United’s gaping hole in midfield.
So there it is! Why Declan Rice is a perfect fit for Manchester United. Be sure to check out more of our Player Analyses, and stay tuned for more in this January Transfer Window series, including a discussion about other potential options for United’s midfield. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
More in this series…
-> Why Jonathan David is perfect for Arsenal
-> Why Nathaniel Phillips is perfect for West Ham United
-> Why Raphinha is perfect for Manchester City
-> Why Manuel Akanji is perfect for Chelsea
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