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Declan Rice vs Rodri: The world’s best defensive midfielder is…

Sam McGuire
Declan Rice, Rodri, 2023-24
© IMAGO

Rodri cemented his place in history last season after playing a key part in Manchester City’s treble success.

The 27-year-old defensive midfielder has been a difference-maker and a match-winner for Pep Guardiola’s team over the years but anchoring this all-conquering City side to success in every competition has etched his name into the history books. He even claimed a fifth-place finish in the 2023 Ballon d’Or rankings. He was sandwiched between club teammate Kevin De Bruyne and Real Madrid star Vinicius Junior.

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Despite winning, well, everything, his level hasn’t dropped. With him in their team, City are a different beast entirely. In fact, the reigning champions are unbeaten in 12 months when the Spain international starts. From February 2023 to February 2024, Guardiola’s men have a win success rate of 80.4% across all competitions when their No16 is in the starting XI.

This season he ranks first for passes completed, passes between the lines, final third passes completed, defenders bypassed using passes and he’s second for possessions won in the middle third across all players in the Premier League. There’s an argument to be made that he’s more important to this City team than Erling Haaland or De Bruyne.

The £62 Million signing from Atletico Madrid is now into his fifth season at the Etihad and he’s only just coming into his prime. He is widely acknowledged as the best-holding midfielder in world football, and rightly so. And yet some believe his crown is already up for grabs.

Declan Rice has made quite the impact at Arsenal this season. The former West Ham United skipper made the move to the Emirates this summer in a deal worth in the region of £105m. Rice reportedly rejected the advances of Manchester City and had his eyes firmly set on joining the Mikel Arteta project at Arsenal.

The Gunners are currently joint-second in the Premier League, two points off the top having put together an impressive run of four wins on the spin over recent weeks.

Declan Rice was in brilliant form against West Ham
© IMAGO – Declan Rice was in brilliant form against West Ham

Rice was instrumental in the 6-0 win over West Ham on Sunday, assisting two goals and scoring a goal-of-the-month contender. Arteta heaped praise on the powerhouse midfielder during his post-match press interview, saying: “ He had to focus on the task and what he had to deliver. Set-pieces were one of those because when we have certain players on the pitch, he is a better threat outside the box than inside the box.”

Rice assisted the opener – curling in a free-kick that Gabriel headed home. He then assisted William Saliba for the third goal. The showing against West Ham took his goal involvement for the season to eight in the Premier League – the same number as Rodri.

The difference is Rice has split his evenly with four goals and four assists whereas the City man has five goals and three assists.

When looking at the individual numbers of the two players, there are some similarities. Obviously, they have different roles for their respective teams. Yet both have found a teammate over 90% of the time with their attempted passes this season, for example. The big difference here are that Rodri attempts 112 to Rice’s 72, so, of course, has a greater progressive distance when looking at passing yards. Another differentiator between the two are long passes – Rodri completes 84% while Rice only completes 68%.

Rodri is more progressive in possession. It is why he’s racking up 4.82 shot-creating actions and Rice is only averaging 2.36. Again though, they have different roles within their teams.

Defensively, they’re posting almost identical numbers – tackles, interceptions, challenges won. Rodri is much more dominant in the air, winning 73% of his aerial duels compared to the 43% won by Rice.

This was never going to be about the individual, was it? It is very much about their impact and influence on the team. Rice has had a significant impact on Arsenal. For context, last season, the Gunners had the third-best Expected Goals Against total (42.5) behind Manchester City and Newcastle United. This season, they have the meanest defensive unit with the lowest Expected Goals Against total – just 18.1 from 24 matches.

This doesn’t mean Rice is better than Rodri but you can confidently make the argument that he’s as important to Arsenal as the Spaniard is to City. For Rice to replace him as the best in the world, he needs to keep this up for a few years. For now, Rodri reigns supreme.

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