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The story behind Arsenal beating City to signing of ‘transformer’ Rice

There is a word Mikel Arteta repeatedly plumps for during recruitment discussions: “reassurance”.

Sure, there are specific technical qualities he seeks from the transfer targets monitored, but Arsenal’s manager places an emphasis on how they react in testing situations, stretching from being given greater responsibility to facing a deluge of criticism.

‘You need to know what you’re going to get’ is his explainer, and it would point to why he has signed Gabriel Jesus and Alex Zinchenko from former club Manchester City.

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It was also significant in the pursuit of Declan Rice, who even at a cost of £105m was considered the greatest reassurance any club could get in midfield.

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Rice speaks to Melissa Reddy about England’s hopes to go one better at Euro 2024 after their final heartbreak against Italy three years ago

Arsenal’s move for the England international is often wrongly plotted to the winter window in 2023, when West Ham would not even entertain any conversations let alone offers for their captain.

By that point, the north Londoners already had over six months’ worth of work – financial plans, data reports, character reference checks, and how the rest of the squad could be shaped with Rice in it.

Outgoing CEO Vinai Venkatesham and sporting director Edu had run through the methodology of how Arsenal could secure Arteta’s centrepiece with the manager.

They then flew to Los Angeles to present the detailed plan to Stan and Josh Kroenke, who bought into the vision of Rice being a “transformer” and signed off the pursuit.

A full year before the midfielder agreed to add more steel to Arsenal’s swagger, his club-record-obliterating transfer had been sketched.

A complex and unprecedented deal in the club’s history was also helped by director of football operations Richard Garlick, who was promoted to MD at the turn of the year, building a strong relationship with the player’s father, brother and commercial advisor who take care of his career.

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Pep Guardiola spoke to Sky Sports in October about City’s failed pursuit of Rice

There was not even a flinch when City tried to muscle in on the transfer as Arsenal considered it done. Their only concern was settling on a fee with West Ham, not losing out to rivals due to the formidable work they had put into the move.

“Everybody knows that we wanted him,” Pep Guardiola said in October. “In the end, Arsenal pushed more and wanted him more.

“Maybe Mikel was more convincing than me or the club itself or the offer that they got we believed in that position we could not reach it. We could not afford it. We could afford it maybe less… that’s why.”

The truth is Rice had already decided on Arsenal and was committed to his destination. The feeling was mutual.

The club’s pivot to Moises Caicedo last January was on account of Rice’s unavailability and Arsenal rightly believing they needed to add a layer of solidity to last the distance in a title tilt.

Some sources suggest that even if Brighton had not rejected a series of offers, the last of which was circa £70m, for Caicedo, Arsenal would have still manoeuvred to get Rice as they did in July 2023.

His game-changing impact, ability to bring the best out of his team-mates, and how he has shifted the narrative around Arsenal even from the most hardened of pundits tells the story as to why.

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Ian Wright and Jamie Carragher analyse Rice’s new role at Arsenal this season

Arteta’s use of Rice as both his defensive screen and dynamic eight is a nod to how far away he feels the midfielder is from his ceiling.

It was interesting that when Frank Lampard presented the 25-year-old with a custom pair of Copa boots to mark his 50th England cap this week, when he captained the national team for the first time, Rice responded: “I thought special boots were only reserved for players who win the Ballon d’Or and stuff.”

Arteta believes Rice can be in the mix for that top honour and all the other major individual accolades. He is already among the favourites for Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year.

Rice allows Arsenal to dictate play as a controller in the six, and as a disruptor in the eight. Arteta has the luxury of switching between both those versions based on the opposition.

Arsenal's Declan Rice celebrates after scoring the opening goal
Image: Rice has scored six goals in the league this season playing further up the pitch

“The manager likes the fact that I can get around the pitch and disrupt play,” Rice told Sky Sports News in an exclusive interview.

“So when we’re pressing teams high up, he likes me in that more advanced role. And with the ball, I’ve been playing in a completely different position. I’ve been playing in a pocket. He’s been telling me about arriving in the box, body orientation, turning in pockets. It’s been completely different to what I would do in that No 6 role. So, it’s a lot to learn, but it’s something that I’m really enjoying because it’s making me a better player.”

In his first series of external interviews after joining Arsenal, Rice had told Sky Sports News he was “already seeing football in a completely different way. You think you know football growing up and when you play, but when you meet managers like Mikel, you realise you don’t really know anything about football. It will take some time to adapt.”

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Rice said the opportunity to work with Mikel Arteta was a big factor in his decision to join Arsenal

I remind Rice of how taxing he assumed his adjustment to an unfamiliar playing style would be and he does not waiver.

“The way Mikel wants to play and wants to attack opponents, the way he sees me playing in his team, it was very different to what I’d been used to, so it took a lot of time for me to get used to that.”

The reality is Rice has been immense from the off and has armed Arteta not just with reassurance but as someone who revels in responsibility.

In the summer, all the talk was about the midfielder’s head-spinning fee. “Obviously with the price tag, people are always looking at your performance,” he says. “People are always going to say something.”

They are saying that he turned out to be a steal. “That’s nice to hear,” he adds with a sheepish smile. “I’ve been in big-pressure situations this season, games where if we hadn’t won we’d be slipping away from the teams at the top.

“You feel that pressure before the games, you know in your mind that you have to go out there and do everything you can to win, get three points and really thrive off that moment. That’s where you learn the most about yourself and obviously as a team as well.”

The lesson, given he is in double digits for goal contributions, is that he needs to get more accustomed to celebrations. Mostly when I score, I just don’t know what to do to be honest with you,” he laughs.

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All angles of Rice’s superb strike against West Ham, which completed the Gunners’ 6-0 win over the Hammers

“Because I’m not used to scoring, I don’t have my own celebration. Maybe I should come up with one. So when I’ve been scoring, it’s just pure delight. Pure emotion, pure passion and, like I said, wherever I can help the team out and score goals, it’s a real bonus.

“Half the time, I’m watching my amazing attacking players score the goals, so it’s nice for me to chip in with some and I’ve got a nice target I want to try and get to and I’m gonna keep pushing for that.”

Four more goals to add to his six will do the trick. Is there anything like it? That buzz? “Look, that feeling, you can’t replicate it at all,” Rice says.

“When you score a goal, when you see the ball hit the back of the net and you hear 60,000 buzzing, it’s just such a special feeling. You have to be able to do it to understand it. It’s really hard to talk about, but that feeling is just so special and one I never wanna get bored of.”

Rice needs to also get familiar with lifting the top prizes even though he is too humble to perceive himself as a leading contender for them.

“I think there are so many good players in the Premier league in my position,” he says. There are so many good attacking players as well. It’s so good to be spoken about in that manner but we’ve still got such a long way to go.

“I think them awards, they’re nothing to me at the minute. The main things are the ones we want to get as a team and we’re right in it.”

In large thanks to him.

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