Declan Rice is the face of a new Arsenal as Mikel Arteta learns Anfield lesson

The £105m midfielder has transformed the Gunners and could give the Premier League leaders staying power as they look to maintain their title challenge

Arsenal are in the same position as they were last year. But they are also in a worse position. And yet, evidently, in a much better state. They are the Premier League’s Christmas No 1, just as they were in 2022. But, with a game to go to reach the halfway stage, they will get there on 40, 41 or 43 points, all well short of the 50 they posted from the first 19 matches last season, and that near-immaculate start still could not propel them to the title.

But Arsenal have improved and upgraded in other respects. “They are really physically strong,” said Jurgen Klopp, a particular compliment considering the priorities that underpin his team-building. Metaphorically as much as physically, Arsenal appear to have three giants in their centre-backs, William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes, and their defensive midfielder, Declan Rice. “Those three were phenomenal,” Arteta smiled after Saturday night’s 1-1 draw at Anfield.

Rice has become the face of progress, the sign of a new Arsenal: more battle-hardened, more streetwise, more pragmatic. Rice can seem a throwback figure, to the days when midfielders were defined by force of personality more than pass completion rates, by the capacity to grab a game by the scruff of its neck rather than just slotting into a system, by the defining contributions of his late goals, and not just simply setting the tempo.

Dec has brought a lot to our team,” Bukayo Saka said. “He has definitely made us better. In games like today, you can see he is there breaking up the play, covering so much ground and he wins the ball back and plays it forward so quick.”

That sense of Rice turning back time is exacerbated by the reality that this is Arsenal. Rice appears to be the heir to Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva, a line that seemed to have died out at the north London club. Maybe it made the Invincibles feel more mythical when Gunnersaurus lived on at Arsenal – Mesut Ozil helping the Arsenal mascot stay alive by offering to pay his wages during Covid – but high-class defensive midfielders have been absent from the club in recent times.

In Arsene Wenger’s last decade in charge, arguably he did not buy a defensive midfielder (Granit Xhaka was supposed to be one, Wenger decided he was not and Arteta ended up reinventing him as an attack-minded No 8). Arteta made Rice Arsenal’s £105m record signing, three years after paying £50m for Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian was abject at the business end of last season but excellent for three-quarters of it. Arteta sought an upgrade anyway.

And while it did not produce the victory at Anfield that has eluded Arsenal since 2012, it represented a more convincing strategy – if a more expensive policy – than blasting out “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over the speakers at their Colney training ground.

If Arsenal managers are destined to be compared with Wenger, there may be echoes of a more distant predecessor in Arteta’s quest for toughness. George Graham was a passing midfielder himself; the nickname of “Stroller” felt less appropriate when he was drilling his famous back four in management. Arteta was an elegant figure who read the game but lacked Rice’s power.

Go back to 2014 and an Arsenal team with title aspirations arrived at Anfield with a midfield featuring Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had sufficient running power, to the point that Klopp later signed him, and the four technicians: Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Ozil and Arteta. They were blown away 5-1.

A 1-1 scoreline nine years later was less spectacular. In the broader perspective, it may prove insufficient. The spectre of Manchester City looms over both Liverpool and Arsenal. The Gunners still have to improve their away form in the toughest tests, with draws at Liverpool and Chelsea, and defeats at Aston Villa and Newcastle this season, with no wins on the road against the current top 10.

But no team has conceded fewer goals. As David Raya’s form has been inconsistent and Oleksandr Zinchenko has defensive deficiencies at left-back, that owes much to the axis of solidity that is Saliba, Gabriel and Rice.

There are two curiosities amid the trio. Saliba was loaned out for years when Arteta scarcely seemed to rate him until he returned, immediately looking fully formed as one of the division’s best defenders, and Gabriel was omitted at the start of the season and then recalled to reestablish a terrific centre-back partnership.

It gives Arsenal a platform. They and Liverpool may wonder if there is the basis of a title-winning team between them – Arteta’s side would look far stronger with Alisson in goal, Klopp’s with Rice in midfield – and one possibility is that adding the £105m man merely takes Arsenal from second to second in the eventual standings. But they might not have had such solidity since the Invincibles were playing.

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