Let’s get one thing straight: no, Manchester City are not trying to sign Declan Rice just to prevent a title rival from getting him. In a world of increasingly absurd football statements, one is up there.
It was only a few months ago that City were criticized for strengthening Arsenal sold them Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko last summer, so the idea that they would now spend £100m on Rice in an attempt to stop Arsenal from driving them even closer next season does not stand up to scrutiny.
City also have the smallest squad in numbers in the league, and that’s by design – Pep Guardiola doesn’t want to have too many top players left on the bench wanting game time. They wouldn’t sign a £100m player frivolously.
And believe it or not, there is actually a plan at City for how Rice would fit into Guardiola’s squad.
In fairness, it can be difficult to understand on the face of it.
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Rice is a regular midfielder and not only do City already have one of those in Rodri, but they consider him to be the best in the world at it. But they see Rice and midfielder Mateo Kovacic, who has now signed from Chelsea, as multi-purpose players capable of multiple positions for them – the type that has become so important to the team in recent years.
Mateo Kovacic will take Ilkay Gundogan’s place, but they are different players
Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne, Jack Grealish, Julian Alvarez, Nathan Ake, Manuel Akanji and John Stones are all players already on the books who can fill various roles. City also want to sign RB Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol (he has agreed personal terms), who can also play in at least two positions: central defense and left-back.
Rice is being pursued to replace Ilkay Gundogan, showing that City see him as more than just a permanent midfielder. Of course, if Rodri needs a rest, they can use him in that role, but they believe he can play anywhere in midfield, as Gundogan did. Maybe not quite as seamless at first, but there is certainly potential to do so. It’s the same with Kovacic.
Kovacic and Rice like to run with the ball more than Gundogan, who was more about short passes, and Rice in particular can play direct passes between the lines. Neither are as complete players as Gundogan, but if both are at the Etihad Stadium next season they will be asked to adapt and in a sense City would adapt to them.
Gundogan would almost always be in the team during his seven seasons at City and you knew roughly what area of the pitch he would be operating in, but you could never be sure what he had actually been asked to do that day. He could drop back next to Rodri and then move up the field, or if Stones was next to Rodri, the German could go higher. He could move out to the left or he could run into the box.
He could do it all, but he didn’t have to do it all at once, and it shows us that while Kovacic and Rice will/will have to add elements to their game as City players, they don’t have to do it all once, either.
Gundogan, Bernardo and Grealish didn’t arrive as the complete players they are now, and while it may take the usual season for any newcomers to look their best, there is plenty of precedent for such adaptations.
Given the importance of their midfielders to City’s game, it’s a bit of a mystery how the whole squad would look during that adjustment process.
The big question heading into next season is the motivation levels of the players – having won everything there is to win, will they be hungry to go again? That is the first thing Guardiola has to figure out. But there will be another big topic to watch: How will City go about controlling matches with midfielders who are more box-to-box than “control”?
The story of their 2022-23 season was that they found the right balance in the team, given that summer signing Erling Haaland is such a destructive force, but one who cannot play as a false nine anything like those who had that for City over the previous two years.
That’s why Guardiola chose Grealish and Riyad Mahrez (and then Bernardo) on the wings, alongside Gundogan and Rodri in midfield. They are players who take a lot of touches, know when to slow the game down and value the ‘pause’ quality that the City manager has always prized. It was by no means a perfect solution, but it helped City ensure they were organized as they tried to figure out how to play with Haaland up front.
In very broad layman’s terms, everyone else on the pitch pulled together to ensure the team remained compact and patient, allowing De Bruyne and Haaland to run wild – at the right time.
Guardiola only played Foden or Alvarez in an attacking midfield role if it was instead of De Bruyne. He never played them together because that would have affected the balance of the midfield and therefore the whole team – without someone like Gundogan or Bernardo to offset their attacking instincts, City could have attacked too quickly, left gaps between their lines and been more susceptible to counter-attacks.
So how will it work now that there isn’t going to be a Gundogan-like player in the engine room? That was one of the mysteries surrounding City’s pursuit of Jude Bellingham, another box-to-box player who has ended up at Real Madrid.
Well, how last season went provides some clues.
Things began to click into place when Guardiola started using defender Stones in midfield, creating an extra man next to Rodri while allowing a midfielder (usually Gundogan) to get higher, helping City create overloads both deeper in midfield and in more advanced areas. It allowed Gundogan to play different roles and reduced the reliance on his “control” abilities.
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Kovacic and Rice may not be up to Gundogan’s standard in those terms, but they are more apt to do so than Foden and Alvarez, who are also going through the process of adjusting their approaches.
And City got extra control from Grealish and Mahrez/Bernardo on the wings because they helped dictate the pace of games as they like the ball to their feet and take a lot of touches. That explains why Guardiola has moved on from wingers like Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane who liked to burst forward in space.
Guardiola plans to stick with a four-back approach next season instead of bringing in traditional full-backs, and that will often mean Stones moving into midfield again. It also means City have a solid set-up at the back, meaning if there is a relative lack of control (as there was at times last season while adapting to Haaland) they are at least well equipped to handle counter attack.
Ultimately, they don’t need to rely so much on one player – Gundogan or David Silva before him – to dictate the tempo.
Over time, Kovacic and Rice, if he signs, will gain a better understanding of how to control games and how to operate in different areas of the pitch – to be more careful with the ball in deeper areas, to take more risks in the final third – but they will also be able to play to their strengths and City believe they can contribute goals as Gundogan did.
As they learn, the team is well placed to provide a strong support network. After all, City did not have as much control of games last season compared to previous years because they had Haaland as a traditional striker rather than playing with a false nine, but his threat on the break and the defenders’ ability to defend “properly”. as Guardiola puts it, meant they thrived in the relative uncertainty and won the treble.
It may not always look like a well-oiled machine in the coming months, but then neither did it for much of last season.
Regardless of how this plays out, it’s clear that more thought has gone into this bid than just City trying to keep Rice out of Mikel Arteta’s clutches.
And Arsenal can still buy him anyway.
Everyone can win from the Rice transfer – even West Ham
(Top photo: Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)