Arsenal’s Rice on taking set pieces, scoring goals and form

LONDON — The sheer speed of Declan Rice‘s evolution at Arsenal has taken many people by surprise. Just not the man himself.

The 25-year-old midfielder signed from West Ham United in the summer for an initial £100 million, with £5m in add-ons, and has been integral to the Gunners’ hopes of winning the Premier League title this season as they sit two points off Liverpool at the top of the table.

“I’ll be honest, some people might stand here and say ‘Yeah, I’ve surprised myself,’ but I haven’t,” Rice tells ESPN. “I was playing this well at West Ham, I feel like my levels at West Ham gave me so much confidence and belief in myself to have that belief I can be a top Premier League player.

“But the main thing was to be myself. Not to change anything. Just because I have been signed for £105 million, don’t do anything different, just be myself. Things can unlock and so far things have gone really well. I’ve signed for six years and there is still such a long way to go in my Arsenal career.”

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Rice is speaking after being named the Premier League Player of the Year at the London Football Awards, which is yet another indication of the significant impact he has made since leaving the Hammers in that club-record deal.

But it was a difficult decision for him. Rice joined West Ham aged 14 after being released by Chelsea and went on to captain the club and make 245 appearances, the last of which concluded with lifting their first trophy in 43 years as they beat Fiorentina 2-1 in the final of the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Rice had developed into one of England’s finest midfielders and despite a genuine affinity with the club where he turned from boy to man, the time had come to test himself at the top end of the Premier League. Playing against his old side was always going to be tricky and Arsenal made it unexpectedly harder, losing 3-1 in the Carabao Cup in November — when Rice was a 57th-minute substitute — and then succumbing at home in the Premier League with a 2-0 defeat in which he conceded a penalty in the final minutes.

That backdrop made last month’s league trip to London Stadium — his first start as an opponent in the venue he used to call home — all the more intriguing. But the collective response was emphatic. After receiving a mixed reception when taking an early corner (Yes, he’s on set pieces now, more of that later), the Gunners went on to win 6-0, with Rice refusing to celebrate a brilliant sixth goal which he curled in from 25 yards. And he hasn’t spoken about the emotions of that day until now.

“It was so tough,” he says. “We lost in the cup to them. We lost in the league at the Emirates; I didn’t play well and gave away a penalty. The West Ham fans bantered me and I can 100% take that; I played for West Ham for 10 years and I know how they work. When I went over to take the corner, there were a few boos, but there were claps as well.

“I know my love for them has never changed; their love for me has never changed. It is one of those things where you move on. Obviously I scored a great goal, it was really odd. Even speaking about it now, it is weird. A lot of the lads asked me afterwards, ‘How does it feel?’ It was a bittersweet feeling, really odd.

“I always said I would never celebrate against West Ham and I don’t think I ever will. They made me who I am. I spent 10 years there; I owe them a lot. I would never ever celebrate; I think that would be really disrespectful. Overall, [it was] a really good day to win and to score, but a bittersweet feeling.”

Rice has brought composure and class to Arsenal’s midfield, but there are new aspects to his game emerging all the time. He had ostensibly been labelled a defensive midfielder — critics arguing earlier in his career that his passing range was too conservative — but under Mikel Arteta’s tutelage, Rice has switched between playing as a deep-lying No. 6 or a more attack-minded No. 8, a change which has helped in part lead to some unexpected goal contributions.

The England international has already equalled his best-ever return in a Premier League season, netting four times, including some vital moments such as a stoppage-time strike against Manchester United and a last-second winner at Luton.

“To score that and watch the goal back, you can’t help but smile,” he says of his goal against United in early September. “Probably my best moment so far. My role has completely changed to what I was doing at West Ham and it has taken time to adapt, to improve, to ask questions, and I am really just trying to buy into it. I was bought for a lot of money, I want to ask questions and improve, and I want to win stuff with this club.”

In perhaps the most unexpected twist yet, Rice is now given responsibility for corners and set pieces — a trait first witnessed with a goal from his corner in Arsenal’s first game back after a warm weather training break in Dubai: a 5-0 win over Crystal Palace.

“We had actually been having conversations about it with Nico [Nicolas Jover], the set-piece coach, since the start of the season,” he says. “Obviously because of my height [6-foot-1], he’s wanted me in the box. I just feel like he wanted a switch-up. If I hadn’t got the assist [against Palace], I don’t think anyone would have been talking about it.

“Obviously I’ve been putting in good deliveries near middle, back post in games. I get excited by getting assists now. It is a big thing for me. Whereas before, goals and assists weren’t really my thing. But now I like getting assists, getting goals and I feel it gives me that extra energy on the pitch. I’m striving, I’ve got targets between the end of the season, what I want to hit.”

Arsenal’s ultimate target is to go one better than last season and win the league. They held an eight-point advantage at the beginning of April only to win three of the final nine league matches as Manchester City overhauled them.

Rice was just an onlooker for West Ham then, aware of the perception that either the Gunners ran out of steam or wilted when the pressure reached maximum intensity.

“I think Arsenal were the best team in the league last season, but they slipped up at the end,” he says. “What they say now is they can’t believe they lost the league from being eight points ahead.

“This year I feel like everyone in the team including the manager, the staff, want to learn from those mistakes. We’re stronger; we have the belief. If we go 1-0 down, we have that confidence and mental strength in us that we can push on and win games. The league is so strong this year anything can happen. There are 12 games to go but the main thing is we’re right in there. At Christmas we had a little wobble, we lost two games on the bounce which wasn’t good, but we’ve won big games at home recently which has been really important.

“Come the end of the season, we’ll see who wins it, but playing in it has been special, going head-to-head with the top teams every week and the pressure, it is so good and I know me and all the lads are really enjoying it. So we’ll continue and see what happens.”

play

1:45

Why Declan Rice is ‘worth every single penny’ of his Arsenal transfer fee

Shaka Hislop praises Declan Rice after his late winner for Arsenal against Luton Town.

So are there even greater levels Rice can reach?

“I have this conversation with the manager all the time,” he adds. “A couple of weeks ago he said, ‘You don’t realise the potential of how far you can go.’ Maybe sometimes I don’t, maybe sometimes I play it down and I don’t feel as confident as I seem. The next thing is winning trophies.”

Once Arsenal’s season is over, Rice will head to Germany where England are among the favourites to win Euro 2024. Gareth Southgate will hope to benefit from Rice’s progress at Arsenal, Jude Bellingham‘s elevation at Real Madrid and Harry Kane‘s consistent goal scoring at Bayern Munich. The high-class individual talent at the manager’s disposal will only heighten talk of whether, finally, England can end a 58-year wait for silverware.

“I feel like it is the conversation every time a tournament comes around,” Rice says. “A lot of players are obviously playing really well. So many players in the Premier League: Jarrod Bowen at West Ham, Ross Barkley at Luton, Cole Palmer [Chelsea], Curtis Jones [Liverpool], so many players playing well.

“[It’s a] big one in Germany; never been done on foreign soil. Gareth and [assistant coach] Steve [Holland] have reminded us of that. We’re confident. We’ve got two big games in March [against Brazil and Belgium] which will be a really good test. If we learn from the previous World Cup and the Euros, anything can happen. It is what happens on the day, you know? If you can perform and deal with the pressure. I really believe we can.”