As a mainstay in the midfield of both West Ham and the first English team to reach a major tournament final in 55 years, Declan Rice has been attracting plenty of suitors in recent times. He’s been linked to both Chelsea and Manchester United for fees that could reach upwards of £100 million, and it’s clear to see why he’s so high in demand. At just 22 years of age, he’s yet to reach his peak as a player, and could potentially be the fulcrum of a Premier League midfield for at least the next 10 years. On top of that, he is already the vice-captain of West Ham and frequently wears the armband due to Mark Noble’s limited game time, highlighting his clear leadership qualities. If he were to move, the Hammers would need an adequate replacement who can replicate the qualities that Rice brings to the team and, in this article, we will explore 4 possible options for this role, using both data and video scouting.
To start, let’s investigate what Rice brings to West Ham. Throughout 2020/21, Rice most frequently played in a midfield double-pivot alongside Tomáš Souček, sitting slightly deeper and screening the back four to allow the Czech international to push forward and attack the opposition penalty area. This required him to cover a lot of ground, especially in transition, and whilst not particularly athletic, he did this job comfortably. Once in shape, Rice was tasked with protecting the area in front of the defence, whilst still looking for opportunities to win the ball back so West Ham could then attack in transition. He made around 5.3 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 minutes, and was also strong in ground duels, winning 54.8% of them. Also, as you would expect from a player in a David Moyes midfield, he was very strong in the air, winning 58.3% of his aerial duels, making him useful both defensively and when attacking set pieces.
Rice also showcased his on-ball abilities when West Ham were in possession. When playing out from the back, he looked to drop either side of the centre backs to help facilitate deep build-up, often tucking in to allow one of them to potentially carry the ball forwards. As the ball progresses up the field, Rice sits deep and looks to win loose balls, recycling play out wide to the full backs in order to maintain pressure and prevent counter attacks. His passing isn’t particularly progressive, but safe and accurate, and most often into feet. This is backed up by the data, which shows that Rice plays just 3.0 progressive passes per 90 – which ranked in the 25th percentile for all midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues. However, he is still able to progress the ball effectively through his ball-carrying, which enables West Ham to break the opposition press and kickstart forward moves — averaging 5.16 progressive carries per 90 (76th percentile) last season.
Overall, our replacement would have to be comfortable performing a similar deeper-lying midfield role to Rice – which means excel in their ability to cover ground and win back, facilitate and recycle possession, and advance the ball forward by way of ball-carrying. A more refined and confident progressive passer would be an added benefit, which still remains a weakness in Rice’s game.
Option 1: Alex Král, Spartak Moskow
Currently plying his trade in the Russian Premier League for Spartak Moskow, Alex Král has already been of interest to West Ham, being linked with a move for £14 million that reportedly collapsed earlier in the summer. However, he would still be a fantastic addition to West Ham’s midfield should talks recommence between the two clubs. At Spartak, Král frequently plays in a similar midfield two to West Ham’s, operating as the deeper, screening midfielder, tasked with winning the ball back to prevent transitions and progressing the ball up the field, both of which he does very effectively. He also plays this role for the Czech national team, alongside Souček, and should therefore already understand the midfield balance required to get the best out of his countryman.
|Constantly scans to intercept passes||Could be stronger in the tackle|
|Frequent and effective ball-carrier||No experience in a Top 5 league|
|Quick and incisive passing|
His main strength is his anticipation, or ‘reading of the game’, which he does through regular scanning of the area around him. This allows him to step up and pressure opponents before they can turn away from him, or even win the ball before it reaches its destination. This means Král makes an impressive 8.54 PAdj interceptions per 90, making him extremely effective at shielding his defence. To complement this, Král is physically gifted, being both tall and strong enough to hold his own in the air, winning 51.5% of his aerial duels. Furthermore, in situations where a player gets the wrong side of him, he usually has enough pace to get back and recover, making him very adept at protecting large areas of space as would be required at West Ham and in the Premier League as a whole.
On top of this, he is also a very technical footballer. Although he doesn’t tend to drop in with the centre backs, he is still comfortable when facing his own goal, often positioning his body to receive on the half-turn before carrying forward into space. He also doesn’t tend to hold onto the ball for very long, making him adept at both maintaining his team’s tempo and recycling possession effectively, just as Rice does for West Ham. Unlike Rice however, his passing isn’t always safe, and he often looks to play forwards, making 7.83 progressive passes per 90. This, alongside his ball-winning ability, could help create even more counter attacking chances for West Ham and improve their ball progression into the final third.
One thing to be concerned about Král is he isn’t the strongest in ground duels, despite competing in them frequently, only winning 49.6% of those that he competes in. Whilst this isn’t terrible, it’s a definite downgrade on Rice and a key skill that defensive-minded midfielders need to be strong at. There are also potential questions about the leap in skill required between the RPL and the EPL, and whether Král would be able to replicate his ball-carrying and progressive passing in a league that gives you less time on the ball, or his ability to read the game in a league where attacking movement is even more difficult to track. However, given that he is only 23 and would cost a modest sum, he is definitely worth taking a gamble on.
Option 2: Khéphren Thuram, Nice
Nice’s Khéphren Thuram is the youngest player on this list, and with just a season and a half of first team football under his belt, the 21-year-old seems like a big gamble for West Ham to make. However, his qualities and potential makes him a very intriguing prospect to replace Declan Rice. Last season, Thuram played most of his football as the deepest midfielder in a three, and also spent time as the deeper of two in a midfield pivot.
|Powerful progressive dribbler||Poor in the air for his size|
|Strong in ground duels||Frequently commits fouls|
|Defensively active and reliable screener|
Thuram’s stand-out quality is his exceptional ball-carrying. He looks to drive forward at every opportunity, making 4.62 progressive runs per 90, and once he gains momentum he’s incredibly difficult to stop. Due to his size and close control, he can force himself through tight spaces on the pitch, pulling players out of position as they move across to tackle him. He is also very composed on the ball, able to release passes to teammates both under pressure and/or on the move, helping to maintain tempo or create attacks. His ability to progress the ball from deep through his passing can improve – he’s capable of executing such passes, but he’s yet to find consistency in doing so – averaging just over four per game. He instead relies on simpler, easier-to-execute lateral passes in order to facilitate possession. In defence, Thuram reads the game very well, taking up good positions to protect important areas and potentially intercept the ball. His long legs allow him to cut out passes that others wouldn’t be able to and, whilst not particularly energetic, he can get up to a good speed when required, allowing him to cover significant ground.
Whilst Thuram’s defence can be a strength, he is occasionally a bit too aggressive, giving away cheap fouls by going through the back of players. He also tends to struggle in the air, especially for a player of his size, winning just 48% of his aerial duels. He’s a player that’s still clearly growing into his frame — but when he does, the combination of his size (6’4) and on-ball ability means he could develop into a really effective deeper lying midfielder.
Option 3: Denis Zakaria, Borussia Mönchengladbach
Similarly to Alex Král, Denis Zakaria has been the subject of frequent transfer rumours this summer, being linked to both Arsenal and Manchester City. However, should West Ham get the opportunity to sign him themselves, they should definitely consider the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder. Zakaria usually operates as the deeper of a pair in a double pivot, tasked primarily with screening and protecting the back-line before winning and recycling possession. Zakaria is not as active on the ball than other midfielders in Gladbach’s team, but his powerful ball-carrying is noteworthy, and often really effective in breaking a press or progressing play into more advanced areas.
|Very effective ball-carrier||Not incredibly progressive with his passing|
|Strong tackler||Injury prone|
|Capable in multiple midfield roles|
His ability to manoeuvre around the pitch is vital to this. Although he looks leggy, he is able to cover ground extremely well, and will frequently use this to his advantage. He often looks to step up and challenge players before they can turn with the ball, using his frame and length to pressure opponents. He is fairly effective at this as well, winning 53.3% of his ground duels. On the ball, Zakaria isn’t massively involved, but will often show glimpses of his quality. He has nimble feet for his size, which he can use to move out of trouble, looking to turn and bring the ball forward into space whenever possible. He makes forward runs often, as is secure when doing so – completing 73.7% of his attempted dribbles. As Gladbach look to build from the back, Zakaria is very comfortable receiving in deeper positions, although he doesn’t often drop in with the centre backs. However, given that he has worked under such a tactically fluid coach in Marco Rose, it would be surprising if Zakaria couldn’t adapt and receive the ball in these areas more frequently if required. Once he has the ball, his passing is usually quite safe, but when allowed he will look to play more aggressive passes, executing 4.5 progressive passes per 90 last season.
The signing of Zakaria would be a real statement of intent from West Ham, with Zakaria having played in the Champions League as recently as last season, and, with Gladbach missing out on European football this year, West Ham could persuade the Swiss international that the club have ambitions further up the league.
TBT’s Pick: Ibrahim Sangaré, PSV Eindhoven
Our pick for West Ham’s Declan Rice replacement is PSV’s 23-year-old midfielder Ibramim Sangaré. Whilst he’s probably the least similar to Rice out of the players on this list, Sangaré’s obvious quality was just too difficult to ignore. Comfortable playing on the left-hand side of a double pivot, he operates as a deeper-lying midfielder, tasked with screening the back four for a team that like to control possession, making him very adept at playing out from the back whilst disrupting opposition attacks.
|Frequently looks to pass the ball forwards||Prone to conceding free-kicks|
|Incredibly strong in both air and ground duels||Doesn’t consistently carry the ball|
|Capable of reading passes to intercept the ball|
Sangaré’s game is the perfect blend of technique and defensive acumen. He’s consistent in his ability to progress play, dropping deep in between the centre backs to pick up the ball and dictate the tempo. His preferred way to do this is through passing, and he’s very effective at it, executing 9.7 progressive passes per 90. Even under significant opposition pressure, he consistently locates teammates, maintaining the flow of possession and effectively advancing play. Additionally, although not a recurrent part of his game, making just 1.1 progressive runs per 90, he has shown the ability to carry the ball forwards effectively and therefore could do this more frequently if required, in addition to his impressive passing.
On top of this, Sangaré has a very strong all-round defensive game. He predicts passes very well and, whilst not particularly mobile, he can cover a lot of ground, allowing him to make 9.13 pAdj interceptions per 90. When trying to win the ball off an opponent, he often tries to sweep the ball away using his long legs and, whilst this is effective, with Sangaré winning 57.8% of his ground duels, it can be more prone to conceding free kicks, something that he does 1.92 times per 90. He is, however, very useful at defending set pieces due to his aerial prowess, winning 62.7% of his duels in the air.
The only doubts about Sangaré would be whether he could make the step up to a more competitive league but given that he has previously played in Ligue 1, and the fact that PSV made it to the Europa League Round of 32 last season, it would be fair to say he has more than enough quality. It should be worth noting that, whilst Sangaré is our pick, all of these players would be fantastic additions, not only to replace Rice, but also, given Mark Noble’s decline, potential challengers for a first-team role to bulk out West Ham’s squad.