Declan Rice, Man City and the £105m move that could decide the title race

Pep Guardiola chooses not to think about the ones who got away. Perhaps he prefers to focus on the players he manages, rather than those he has tried to sign. Perhaps it’s just as well because, as long as the list of world-class players bought by Manchester City is short, it’s still shorter than the catalog of transfer targets who, for various reasons, didn’t: from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane via Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Harry Maguire, Lucas Paqueta, Marc Cucurella and Fred. He would spend a lot of time thinking about a different history if every eclectic group had signed.

However one rebuffed offer feels more relevant than the others right now. Guardiola rarely had reasons to think about what might have been and his rue. Declan Rice could be an exception, however. If Arsenal win their first Premier League title in two decades, it will be partly because of a player City offered £90m for; if Guardiola’s side fail to be champions for a fourth consecutive season, it could be down to two games against Arsenal, against Rice.

“Sometimes we have a lot of players that we wanted and they didn’t decide to join us,” shrugged Guardiola. “It’s not the first. We have a long list. Basically, they don’t want to come or the price [is too high] or whatever, it couldn’t happen. He made his decision, a good one, and good luck.”

Even if the choice of Rice at Arsenal is the one that decides the title race, it will almost certainly be the move that gave us a title race in the first place. City have lost just three league games this season: all three Rodri missed through suspension. They included October’s 1-0 goal at the Emirates Stadium when the English dominated and Mateo Kovacic, the midfielder signed to replace Rice, struggled and was lucky not to be sent off.

Rodri has had an unbeatable year for club and country; he has reached 60 games in the Premier League without losing. But the importance of the man Guardiola called the best midfielder in the world has been undermined by the lack of alternatives, with Kalvin Phillips first out and then in exile, with no other defensive midfielder. In contrast, Arsenal have the next best player in the Premier League.

But not only that position. When City tried to get Rice, it was tempting to wonder why, to ask if he would just be on the bench. Arsenal have given a response, a response that suggests he could be in line with Rodri. Rice is likely to line up at the Etihad Stadium as a No. 8, a box-to-box presence who has contributed more goals and assists than in previous seasons. With the defensive midfield role that another City wanted – 2018 target Jorginho – it shows that Rice could become a Rodri-esque figure with more license to go forward.

Rodri and Rís met in the Community Shield but the Spaniard was suspended in the league (The FA/Getty)

Rodri and Rís met in the Community Shield but the Spaniard was suspended in the league (The FA/Getty)

Each is an impressive presence, willingness to take responsibility, and the talent to make a difference in the final third. Rodri sees similarities in their duties. “I’m Spanish, so of course he speaks English [we have] different cultures and different ways of understanding the game,” he said. “Physically, he is as strong a player as the running he does. In terms of position, the things that Mikel [Arteta] and Pep demand from us [are] much the same. He’s adapting his physicality and his style of play to that and I’m doing the same. I think we are different players playing the same role. It’s been great so far this season; it’s not easy to change a team and do what he’s doing for Arsenal. It’s going great so far.”

Part of the interesting aspect is that, although Rice has more in common with Rodri than Ilkay Gundogan, a man who is not much like the former City captain could be his ideal successor. Instead, City have spent £80m on Kovacic, a technician who sometimes combines well with Rodri, and Matheus Nunes, a substitute, but who may need a first-choice midfielder in the summer transfer window; Arsenal’s £105m investment in Rice bought them the cornerstone of the team for years to come.

'Physically, he's such a strong player,' Rodri says of Rice (Getty)'Physically, he's such a strong player,' Rodri says of Rice (Getty)

‘Physically, he’s such a strong player,’ Rodri says of Rice (Getty)

And if that doesn’t come as a surprise, Rice’s excellence at West Ham was hardly a secret. Guardiola took no credit for identifying him as a player who could benefit City. “I think all the teams in the Premier League would have signed Declan Rice. He is an international captain of the England national team and a young player who plays a lot of games regularly,” he said. “That’s why Arsenal pushed the way they pushed.”

Arteta started chasing Rís earlier and succeeded. One measure of him could be found in the trophy cabinet at the end of the season. Another is to be found in the personal awards: Virgil van Dijk, Phil Foden, Rodri and Rice are arguably the front four for the Footballer of the Year awards: two City players and a third could be. If City had three of the four in the league, if Rice had been able to ensure they were unbeaten without Rodri as well, if they had formed a dominant midfield duo post-Gundogan, there might have been no stopping City . Instead, if they are stopped, he may be the player they saw as their second midfield destroyer.

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