GRAEME SOUNESS: Declan Rice might end up as a defender

GRAEME SOUNESS: Declan Rice doesn’t score or create enough goals, he might end up as a defender… you need three qualities to be a top midfielder and West Ham’s captain has only one

  • Declan Rice is crucial for West Ham and one of the league’s best off the ball
  • But he doesn’t create enough in the attacking third, and may end up a defender
  • Chelsea spent £105million on Enzo Fernandez and he takes on Rice on Saturday 

I’ve always felt that the importance of my old position on the field – central midfield – is overlooked, despite the huge valuations we’re currently seeing put on players, including West Ham’s Declan Rice, who’ll be up against Enzo Fernandez, Chelsea’s new £105million British record transfer this weekend.

This role is a vital part of any team because in an ideal world, it’s multi-dimensional. You are creative, you chip in with goals and you’ve got a defensive head at all times. Even when you’re on the front foot, you are thinking: ‘We are vulnerable if we lose possession.’ If you’ve got all three of those attributes, you’re worth your weight in gold. For me, Rice has just one of them.

Judge him on the defensive aspect alone and you would have to say he’s the best in the country in that position. He’s mobile and athletic. He covers the ground very easily and snuffs out a lot of the danger before it becomes a big problem for West Ham.

For the centre-halves he plays in front of, he will be fantastic, because he’s preventing that dangerous, killer-ball played into the striker or strikers. In that sense, he’s a 10 out of 10. But ultimately, I think he might be a centre-half.

It’s when you comes to the other two important parts of being a central midfield player that I do think Rice is a bit short. Factor those in and I would have to say he’s not the best in that position. He doesn’t score enough goals and he’s not terribly creative. He influences games by preventing West Ham conceding, not because of the creative pictures he has in his head as he plays. His numbers – seven goals and ten assists in 188 Premier League games – tells us a lot.

Declan Rice has an exceptional defensive record, but does not offer the same quality in attack

He kills danger and shields West Ham’s back four but doesn’t offer the same going forward

I scored 55 goals and assisted in 36, in 359 games and six years at Liverpool but with the quality of pitches we now see, I’d like to think that if I were playing today I would get twice as many goals as that.

I didn’t learn what the central midfield position was all about until I arrived at Liverpool in 1978, by which time I’d been in the professional game for a decade. I could do a bit of everything by then but I was less disciplined. I was 24, the same age Rice is now.

There was no watershed moment for me. No big talking to from Ronnie Moran, Joe Fagan or Bob Paisley. That just wasn’t their way. I learnt from the straight-talking, simplified way they had of putting it. It wasn’t: ‘You did that wrong.’ It was just: ‘Maybe you’d do it this way next time.’

My reality check came nine months after arriving at the club. We were losing 1-0 in a European Cup first round away leg at the City Ground and I went to close down on the halfway line. The ball was played back towards the left-back area, I followed it there and left a big gap in central midfield. The ball was played through that space to the left hand side, which led to us conceding a second goal. I was the first at fault.

Joe Fagan waited until I’d got to the dressing room and said, in a disappointed voice: ‘I hope you’ve learned something tonight, son?’ That night taught me a lesson, about when to go and when to hold, which I never forgot.

I scored 55 goals in six years for Liverpool, but would hopefully double that on today’s pitches

My priority in every game was to make sure that my centre-halves were protected. You don’t go to ground too readily, which means you’re always in the game. When we were attacking and lost the ball, a big part of the job was to hold up their attack and make them pass it square, which allowed our attacking midfield players time to get back into defensive shape.

At Liverpool, I also had to factor in the way that the full-backs were joining in the attack, which made me very conscious of someone losing possession and us being outnumbered. They were often further up the field than me. You listen to all the geniuses talking about football today and you’d think that attacking full-backs were a new thing but I played in three European Cup finals and in two of those two full-backs scored from open play. I’m sorry to tell you that the full-backs joining in nothing new.

Rice brings this defensive aspect though for me, Casemiro at Manchester United is currently the best central midfielder around because he defends, chips in with goals and has the smart pass. Roy Keane and Manchester City’s Fernandinho were the best I’ve seen in the Premier League of that type. I’m now seeing Casemiro operating at this level.

Manchester United’s Casemiro is currently the Premier League’s best central midfielder

As Chelsea spent £105m to gain the services of Enzo Fernandez, Rice’s value must be higher

The talk since Fernandez arrived at Chelsea for £105million has been: ‘Does this mean Rice is suddenly at least a £110million player’ and the answer has to be ‘yes’ – because Chelsea have inflated the market. If you’re taking a £100million gamble on either Fernandez or Rice, you’re taking Rice all day long because you’re removing the biggest question mark, about whether he can deal with the Premier League’s intensity.

West Ham will be asking Rice to do what he does best at the London Stadium on Saturday/today by shielding the defence and minimizing Chelsea’s threat. Can he add those other two dimensions? I don’t really know if you can learn a cuteness of pass or an eye for a goal but time will tell. He is a young, talented footballer and can only get better.

I grieve so much for the people of Diyarbakir in south-east Turkey. We went down there for a pre-season friendly when I was manager of Galatasaray and had an unimaginable welcome, with warmth and gifts. 

Now we’re thinking of people there being people buried under rubble and trapped alive for days. Those people and those places are in my thoughts every day.

I travelled to Diyarbakir in south-east Turkey for a friendly when I managed Galatasaray

It’s been good to remember the greatness of Jimmy Greaves – the greatest goalscorer this country has ever seen or is likely to see – as Harry Kane has surpassed his Tottenham scoring record.

Harry Kane broke Jimmy Greaves’s Tottenham goals record last weekend

I arrived at Spurs as a 15-year-old in 1968 and Jimmy was the life and soul of the dressing room when I and the other apprentices put our heads around the door to collect kit. 

I didn’t have lengthy conversations with him but he gave you the time of day. It was enough that he and a few others just acknowledged that you were actually alive!

During pre-season, we would run through in the lanes of Cheshunt in leafy Hertfordshire. He and Alan Gilzean, our Scottish forward, were always looking to take shortcuts. 

Jimmy had these big thighs, and when he scored his goals, the vast majority seemed to be right place, right time. Just him just picking his spot and passing the ball into the net. A short back, back-lift and whack.

In my four or so years at Spurs, I reckon I was responsible for wheelbarrowing maybe two tons of sand out on that White Hart pitch. 

As apprentices you had to muck in and help them get games on, because during the winter months the pitches were waterlogged. What I remember, on top of his goals, was the way Jimmy used to glide over that sand while the other players were plodding through it.

The response of Nathan Jones to Southampton’s defeat at Brentford – blaming his players for forcing him to change his methods – was a bit mad. 

I think he’s obviously feeling the pressure. Digging out a few players in public has to be the option of last resort and not something I would expect from a manager after four months. 

He was also talking about ‘them.’ When ‘they’ lost. I think the word ‘we’ has to come into it, in times of adversity.

Nathan Jones was a bit mad for slating his players after Southampton’s defeat at Brentford

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