Premier League

West Ham must stop bean counting and give in to Rice

 • by Adam Newson
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Whether it is the uncertainty over his international future, the speculation around his West Ham United contract, or praise about his assured performances in the Premier LeagueDeclan Rice has often been in the headlines this season.

The off-field furores are not of his own making, for the most part at least. If Rice feels more English than Irish, and thus wants to represent the Three Lions instead of the nation he’s played three friendlies for, it is his choice.

If he opts to turn down a new contract with the Irons as he feels it would leave him underpaid compared to his team-mates, again it’s his prerogative and it’s up to West Ham to convince him otherwise.

On the latter issue, Rice has plenty of support, from both outside and inside the club.

Jamie Carragher, a Liverpool native who made 737 appearances for the Reds, appreciates the pressure homegrown talents are put under when it comes to negotiating contracts.

“Because I was a local lad at Liverpool I had to be seen to be grateful,” he explained. “Local players coming through at their football clubs are definitely treated differently financially.

“This is a lad who could be West Ham’s main man over the next five or six years so I think it’s unfair he gets the criticism for not accepting the first offer he’s given.”

Pablo Zabaleta, a Premier League veteran and the Hammers’ right-back, also sympathises with Rice.

“West Ham need to think about his situation because even though he is young he looks so mature and he is proving week in, week out he can perform for the team. As a team-mate, for me he is one of those young players that you like to look after and help with all the information you can give him.

“You try to help out as much as you can, but then, of course, there are people who make decisions in this club about contracts and all those things and there is nothing I can do about it.”

The stories go that Rice has been offered anywhere in the region between £15,000 a week and £20,000 a week. It’s a substantial raise on his current £3,000-a-week deal yet below the majority of the Irons first team. Given his importance to the side, Rice, somewhat understandably, feels he deserves more.

This is the big problem for West Ham because, if they want to stand firm, which they are entitled to do, and not give into Rice’s demands, there will be plenty of other sides who are.

The latest report is that Chelsea are ready to offer the defender, who was in the Blues’ academy until the age of 14, a £40,000-a-week contract if he decides to leave the Irons at the end of his current deal, which expires in the summer of 2020.

Yet the Blues would not be the only interested party. The Premier League’s top sides are always on the hunt for homegrown talent, especially those that are available for nothing, and Football Whispers understand Liverpool have been monitoring Rice since the summer.

So what is all the fuss about? Well, Rice has established himself as a vital component of Manuel Pellegrini’s side this season.

The 19-year-old, since his promotion to the first team last season, has often been used at the base of a midfield three. It’s not his natural position – he is a centre-back by trade – yet it’s one that he’s shone in.

His composure and decision making belie his age. While his ability on the ball stands out.

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Over the years countless central defenders have been pushed forward to play a holding midfield role, usually against strong opposition. And more often than not they appear ungainly and out of sync with the rest of the side. Rice is the opposite.

He balances the West Ham midfield perfectly and ensures the Hammers are never outnumbered in defence if attacks break down. Yet he is also an instigator for helping Pellegrini’s side move up the pitch.

In the Premier League this term, Rice averages 38.39 passes per 90 minutes and of those 38.6 per cent are played forward.

For context, Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s captain and often their defensive screen, plays 22.2 per cent of his 71.29 passes per 90 forward, while Jorginho, Chelsea’s midfield conductor, attempts 104.29 passes per 90 with 33.2 per cent forward.

The easy accusation as to why Rice’s numbers are higher is that he plays more long balls, and that may be the case as West Ham are not a possession-based side in the same mould of Chelsea or Liverpool.

However, the numbers suggest the Irons midfielder isn’t just hitting hopeful punts forward; he is instead finding team-mates. His long-pass accuracy this term is an impressive 75 per cent. Henderson’s is 57.1 per cent, while Jorginho’s is 62.1 per cent.

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Defensively, as you’d expect for a natural centre-back, Rice screens the back four effectively. He averages 1.92 interceptions per 90 minutes – the 18th-highest total of any Premier League midfielder – while making 2.46 tackles and winning 1.79 aerial duels.

Of course, the above doesn’t mean Rice is better than the duo. Nor does it mean he is worse. What it does highlight, however, is that despite being played in an unfamiliar role he has adapted to it excellently.

Another more intangible aspect that Rice deserves credit for is the mental strength he’s shown this term. He was hauled off at half-time during the opening game of the season, a 4-0 defeat at Liverpool.

Pellegrini then left him out the squad the following week, a defeat to Bournemouth, and Rice was an unused substitute for losses against Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers. But, with the Chilean under pressure, he reintroduced Rice for the clash at Everton.

West Ham claimed their first victory of the Premier League campaign, the 19-year-old stood-out and has since played 90 minutes in the following five top-flight games, which has included matches against Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.

That alone proves Rice is now a vital member of the Irons’ starting XI. And you can understand why he wants his salary to reflect that.

He knows what he is worth to this West Ham side and, more importantly, knows what he would be worth to the Premier League’s bigger fish. West Ham’s board may feel they are taking a stand but, if that is indeed the case, it’s the wrong player to do it with.

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