Declan Rice: I watch football differently after 10 mind-boggling days under Mikel Arteta

Declan Rice #41 of Arsenal FC warms up prior to the MLS All-Star Game between Arsenal FC and MLS All-Stars at Audi Field on July 19, 2023 in Washington, DC

Declan Rice joined Arsenal for a league-record fee of £105 million – Getty Images/Tim Nwachukwu

On his first day as the most expensive footballer in Arsenal’s history, Declan Rice had a little word with himself. Starting a new job is never easy, especially when the entire footballing world is talking about you, but Rice made a conscious decision to present the best of himself from the moment he walked through the doors. If there were any first-day nerves, bubbling away inside that towering frame, then he was certainly not going to show them.

“I did not say this to anyone,” he says. “I was just thinking in my head that I was going to be as outgoing as possible. I wanted to go up to people, speak to people, speak to the physios and the chefs, speak to the players and get to know them, see Win [the club’s Labrador]. It was important for me to do that, to show my character.

“I have been at West Ham when new players have come in and they can be shy. You have to make them feel welcome. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to impose myself and let them know what I am like as a person. Already, after 10 days, I feel like I have known everyone my whole life. It’s really good that I did that. I feel at home now.”

That approach, and that personality, goes some way to explaining why Arsenal deemed Rice to be worth £105 million. Their move for the 24-year-old was about so much more than pure footballing ability and tactical masterplans. It was about character, attitude, personality — qualities that are harder to quantify but just as real. Earlier on this tour of the United States, Mikel Arteta described him as a “lighthouse” who can “put the light in others”.

Rice wants to be the same person he has always been, then, and Arsenal want that too. But that does not mean he wants to be the same player who patrolled the midfield for West Ham. Arsenal believe there is so much more to come from their record signing and Rice feels that, in time, he will reach new levels on the pitch.

This, above all else, explains why he chose to join the club. There was interest from elsewhere – Manchester City, Manchester United and Bayern Munich all wanted him – but Rice’s determination to get better, to unlock new levels in his game, pointed him directly towards Arteta.

“Speaking to a few of the lads at England, just asking what the general setup is like, what the manager is like, the first thing they all said was how much they improved,” says Rice. “When you hear that without seeing it, you think ‘that is interesting’. But when you get here and you see how he actually is, it is mind-boggling.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta with Declan Rice during a training session on July 21, 2023 in Washington, DC

Rice believes he will improve markedly under the tutalage of Mikel Arteta – Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane

“Genuinely, in the last 10 days I have been blown away by how he is constantly thinking about football, how he is so oriented to win. How everyone is all in the same direction to win, to be together.”

Leaning back in his chair, nestled in the shade away from the searing Los Angeles heat, Rice explains that he is effectively in the process of re-learning football. After just 10 days as an Arsenal player he is, he says, already seeing the game in an entirely new light.

“The positional sense of not being on the same line, not coming towards the ball too early, staying away from it and creating space for others,” he says. “It’s so much to take in.

“I genuinely feel like the next football match I will watch, I will watch it in a completely different way. Usually I just watch football for the fun of it. Now I am probably going to watch the tactical aspect.

“I am not going to learn it in two weeks. It is going to take some time but, once I have got it, and once I add the stuff he [Arteta] wants to my game, along with my qualities, hopefully I can improve tenfold.”

It helps that Rice has a natural eagerness to learn. He admits to always being the class joker but, whenever he has played football, he has tried to absorb as much information as possible.

“On the pitch I was like a sponge,” he says of his early years. “If I had to get told off, I would rather that and learn than not be told anything. With [David] Moyes at West Ham, I had so many hairdryers. He would give it to me after games, and I had it in training. But I needed those experiences.”

Rice’s new contract at Arsenal could run as long as six years, until the summer of 2029. It is a huge commitment by him, as well as by the club. He accepts that the expectations are enormous, but also hopes that fans do not jump to immediate conclusions at the start of this adaptation process.

“I know I was bought for £105 million,” he says. “But I have not thought about it once. I don’t decide the price. I just play football. What got me here is my quality, what I have done for West Ham, and that is not going to change. Don’t judge me over one year, judge me over six.”

Rice’s affection for West Ham and their supporters will never fade, and there was no better way of leaving the club than with the Europa Conference League trophy in his hands. That night in Prague, in June, will forever be lodged in his mind. “I genuinely felt the love of the fans,” he says. “That is how I see them as well. I never want them to think any different.”

Arsenal midfielder Declan Rice (41) kicks the ball against MLS during the second half of the 2023 MLS All Star Game at Audi Field

Rice will become Arsenal’s new midfield lynchpin – USA TODAY/Brad Mills

In the weeks that followed West Ham’s victory, Rice’s future dominated the headlines. The man at the centre of it all, though, did his best to remove himself from the situation. The Rice family is exceptionally tight-knit and his father, Sean, made sure that his youngest son was able to unwind in the off-season.

“I don’t think my mum and dad have missed a game in the last six years,” says Rice. “My brothers follow me up and down the country, home and away. They are so happy, so proud. My mum and dad came here to the hotel yesterday, they dropped off some moisturiser – it’s what mums are for.”

So much has changed in the past few weeks of Rice’s life but that family support remains a constant, as does the number on his shirt: 41. Record signings tend to have their pick of the most glamorous numbers but Rice had no desire to change. “Rice 41, it has such a nice tone to it,” he says. “I didn’t want to come away from that. Even my signature has 41 in it.”

Rice does not attempt to hide his ambition at Arsenal. He wants to win trophies, and he believes this team is capable of doing so. Otherwise, it is clear, he would not be here at all. “You see the improvements and the strides Arsenal are making,” he says. “To come here and try to help this squad achieve big things, it means a lot. Let’s see how this journey goes.”

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