Before the Everton match last Sunday, West Ham’s midfield had looked lost on several occasions. With three points desperately needed, most Hammers supporters were wondering what Manuel Pellegrini would do to solve this issue, especially following the news that Jack Wilshere would be out injured. The Chilean’s answer was to go with three in the midfield with Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang deployed with Declan Rice just behind them.
With three defensively minded players in the centre of the pitch, many supporters were left wondering how things would work going forward. However, the team looked incredibly balanced, with Rice being the central cog which kept the team’s machine ticking over for the full 90 minutes. He screened the defence brilliantly throughout the match, covered his midfield partners if they were caught in possession and distributed the ball well whenever he had it at his feet.
With Rice playing such a disciplined and protective role, it allowed others around him to thrive. Noble and especially Obiang created a lot more than they normally would do going forward. However, with them still being defensively aware players they were also able to fill in when needed. When looking at the shape of the midfield when Everton were in possession, they were always a unit; close enough to support each other and double up but far enough to ensure that if the point of play was switched they could go out and cut out the opposition’s options. One thing that was always clear though is that everything centred around Rice.
This also helped Felipe Anderson, Marko Arnautovic and Andriy Yarmolenko to wreak havoc on the Everton defence. There have been games since his £42 million summer move where Anserson has looked ineffective, playing too deep so that he could help Arthur Masuaku defensively. This is partly because the number of attacking minded players Pellegrini had been using also forced them to focus on defensive duties. However, with Rice covering his team mates all the time, it gave the Brazilian and his team mates in the front three more freedom to focus on threatening the opposition. It is clear that this paid dividends, with Yarmolenko getting two goals, Arnautovic getting a goal and assist, while Anderson had Jonjoe Kenny pinned back for the majority of the game.
Rice got a lot of praise after the game, but what makes his mature performance even more impressive is the turbulent start to the season he had before this. He had started the first game of the season, but with the midfield being overrun by Liverpool’s, the 19-year-old was the man hauled off at half time with the side 2-0 down. Things didn’t improve after the substitution as the team ended up losing 4-0. He then didn’t even make the bench against AFC Bournemouth and was an unused substitute against Arsenal and Wolves. The only match he played in during that period was the 3-1 Carabao Cup victory against AFC Wimbledon.
Added to his lack of game time, he was at the centre of a media storm, which was whipped up after he decided to take time over deciding his international future. With three Republic of Ireland caps under his belt, the London-born player took the opportunity to mull over whether he wanted to represent the men in green or England. However, this is something which many including James McClean and Kevin Kilbane took exception to. For the teenager to recover from his early season disappointment and block those criticisms from his head, putting in such an assured performance in the first game since the international break, is testament to his attitude.
The next test for Rice and his team mates is Chelsea, the club that the youngster was released by when he was 14-years-old. With the Blues still maintaining a perfect record in the league, it is clearly going to be a big challenge for the Hammers. However, having impressed so much against another side in blue, Rice will see this as another opportunity to show the slot in midfield he occupied at Goodison Park should be his on a permanent basis.
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