Declan Rice Interview: This is a new arsenal – we’re ready to change what people say

Declan Rice joined Arsenal for occasions like this. A trip to the Etihad, first against third, protests against champions. “These are the games you want to be in,” he says of Sunday’s meeting with Manchester City. “These are the games you look back on at the end of your career.”

In a heavyweight competition, Rís is the heavyweight midfielder who can make all the difference. He faced City twice as an Arsenal player, in the Community Shield and in the Premier League, winning both times. Two games, two wins. In the previous 16 matches against Pep Guardiola’s side, Arsenal had won just once.

The sudden rise in results against City is a measure of Rice’s transformative effect since his £105 million move from West Ham United. But the improvement also reflects a wider sense of teething determination within Arsenal, where Mikel Arteta’s players are keen to prove they are not as soft as their critics claim.

“You know what people say about Arsenal when they don’t win games or come close,” says Rice. “When they lost out on the top four years, last year when they lost the league. I think this is a new Arsenal now. I think this is Arsenal who have learned from last year, an aging group of players, more experienced.

“We brought in some great players in the summer, who have all had a huge impact on the club. So look, I think we’re ready to change that barrier about what people are saying about Arsenal. But it is down to us. We are the ones who have to get on the field and do it. It’s that mentality thing – how much we really want to do something, and win something, for this club.”

Rice was a West Ham player this time last year, when Arsenal began to slip away in their title race against City. It’s not a regular topic of discussion, he says, in the dressing room. He can see and feel, however, that a psychological change has taken place within the club.

Arsenal players during their 4-1 win at Man City last seasonArsenal players during their 4-1 win at Man City last season

Etihad won the title race decisively in favor of Manchester City last April 4-1 – Getty Images/David Price

“Last year they passed [the Arsenal players] they were obviously devastated,” he says. “You don’t hear them talk too much about it but I think you can see there’s a difference this year, in terms of mentality and attitude, the way everyone is around the place, being calm and taking one game at the time. “

Not all games are equal, of course, and Rice makes no attempt to downplay the importance of Sunday’s trip to Manchester. It’s tougher in the build-up, he says, and the players know there’s a significant extra layer because of Arteta’s previous role in Guardiola’s coaching staff.

“There’s a lot more tactical intelligence, tactical demand,” Rice says. “Just because of the way they play, the way they create and the way they can hurt you. But also in the way we can hurt them as well.

“With Pep and Mikel it will be the same at both ends. He knows Mikel, Mikel knows him. They will want to get those tactical gains and margins. But it’s up to the 11 that goes on the field to go out there and show some balls, show that we can perform at the biggest level and the biggest pressure hours.”

Rice has been told that the pre-match statistics are stacked against Arsenal. City are winless in their last 38 games at the Etihad, after all, and have won eight consecutive home games against Arsenal. His response is defiant.

“Let them be hanged against us,” he says. “I’d rather go there and be a youngster and prove to everyone that we can be the team we want to be. I’d rather people say we’re this and that, and let’s go out there and impress people and show them how good we are.

“It’s a football game. We are not less than them at all. We are Arsenal, they are City. We’ve got incredible players, they’ve got incredible players. It’s set to be an unreal game.”

Declan Rice celebrates scoring for Arsenal at Sheffield UnitedDeclan Rice celebrates scoring for Arsenal at Sheffield United

Rice has played a more developed midfield role for Arsenal recently – Getty Images/Marc Atkins

Of all the individual battles, the battle between Rice and Rodri’s midfield is perhaps the most poignant. The Spaniard has not lost a game in over a year. When asked about that record, and Rodri’s absence from Arsenal’s league win over City in October, there is a mischievous glint in Rice’s eye. “Do you love him?” he asks back, quick as a flash.

Then, the proposal. “It’s a monster. When you talk to City boys in England, they say when Rodri doesn’t play they feel the difference themselves. Seen, you can see that too.”

Rice joined Arsenal believing he had an opportunity to improve as a player, that Arteta could help him reach new heights. So far, it’s going as planned. This is the best scoring season of his career and Rice, who now takes many of the set pieces, also has six assists.

“I always had the ability,” he says. “I don’t think people have probably seen a lot of what I can actually do. I think I have a lot more to come and it will definitely come out.”

It feels like a long time ago now but, in the first few weeks of his Arsenal career, there were anxious moments. A pre-season game against Manchester United, for example, did not go well. “I had to sit down and go through some things,” he says. “To see what they really wanted from me.”

The click came a few weeks later, when Rice defected to Crystal Palace. It was the second league game of the season. “From there my confidence skyrocketed,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve looked back since.”

His first Arsenal goal, a late winner against United in September, secured him a place in the supporters’ hearts. “A huge moment. That will stay with me forever.”

Declan Rice celebrates scoring in stoppage time for Arsenal against Manchester UnitedDeclan Rice celebrates scoring in stoppage time for Arsenal against Manchester United

Rice celebrates scoring his first Arsenal goal in a 3-1 win over Manchester United – Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane

The celebrations that day were some of the loudest at the Emirates Stadium in recent years, although they will be nothing compared to the response if Arsenal manage to win the league or the Champions League this season. In such a case, even Rice could be encouraged to rethink her approach to alcohol.

He revealed a few years ago that he had never had a pint of beer, and that remains the case – apart from one sip, hand in hand with David Moyes, after West Ham won the Europa League last season. “That’s literally the only time,” he laughs. Not after the People’s Shield victory over City? “I popped the champagne bottle and went ‘urgh’ — and put it to the side.”

This is a man dedicated to his craft, and a footballer dedicated to the cause of his team. Rice made Arsenal stronger, physically and mentally, and now is the time for him and his teammates to show how much they have improved. “We can only come up and be the best version of ourselves,” he says. “With 10 games to go, we’re going to give everything.”

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