Declan Rice has taken so much in his stride throughout his career but does admit that there were nerves when the extraordinary £105 million scale of his transfer from West Ham United to Arsenal became a reality.
“When the transfer was going through I was very nervous because of the price tag,” he says. “It’s natural to think about that. You’re a human being bought for £105 million, it doesn’t feel very normal!
“But that was because of what I’d done at West Ham, what they valued me at. When I signed for Arsenal I just thought, ‘I just need to be Declan Rice’, be myself, don’t be any different, everything will go smoothly.
“The first three weeks of pre-season were really tough in terms of the change. When you’re at a new job you start to feel really settled after a few weeks. That really feels the case now. In terms of the price tag, I don’t really think about it, I just play the games and try to play as well as possible.”
Along with Jack Grealish and Harry Kane, Rice is one of three £100 million players in the England squad – which goes up to four when Jude Bellingham returns to fitness – and that is a quite amazing thought.
As with Kane and Bellingham, Rice’s move has appeared seamless but Grealish, the first English player to command such a fee when Manchester City triggered his release clause at Aston Villa in Aug 2021, has admitted in the past it weighed heavily on him.
“Yes, deffo,” Rice says, when asked if he understood that. “It’s £100 million, it’s a lot of money, I could understand the pressure that comes with it. Not only the pressure you put on yourself but there’s an expectation of being bought for that much money. People need to see performances straight away. I want to re-pay the club straight away, they have invested a lot of money in me, I need to prove why I can go there and change things. I can see why Jack struggled maybe at the start – mentally. He was a £100 million footballer but as he wasn’t playing as much, it was probably as bit different for him. Now he’s flying and it’s the same for me.”
Rice is flying. For club and for country where he will win his 48th cap for England when he faces North Macedonia in the final European Championship qualifier with a place in next summer’s tournament already secured. It places him level with Colin Bell and just one behind Sir Geoff Hurst in the all-time list and all by the age of just 24.
“You can see what it means as I am a bit speechless, to be honest,” Rice says. “World Cup winners, legends of the game. People who will be remembered forever... I need to keep working but those England caps are really special. They are the pinnacle and when I get to 50, I am going to aim for 100.”
Given how embedded Rice is in the England team it would be a huge surprise, now, if he does not reach a century of caps with the main question – as it has been all year – being who plays alongside him and Bellingham in midfield.
That debate has even been used a stick with which to beat Gareth Southgate who, as with all nations who win tournaments, tends to operate with two more defensively-minded midfielders rather than just one.
“I understand Gareth, how he works, wanting two holding midfield players,” Rice explains. “I know the public wants to see so much attacking flair, but as a manager I’d be the same in terms of wanting that security and protection, whether it is me or someone else who can get forward as well. The balance has been really good over the last few years.
“It is a tough one because like I said, because of the attacking players we have in the squad, everyone wants to see them on the pitch, but I know how managers think and I can totally understand the manager wanting to play two pivots.”
Rice has worked under several managers and his own football education has taken a new dimension since his move to Arsenal. “I had played for (Slaven) Bilic, (Manuel) Pellegrini and then worked for (David) Moyes (at West Ham) for such a long time and those three were totally different,” he says.
“And obviously I worked for Moyes for so long and then went to Mikel (Arteta), it was a completely different set-up and the way he sees football.
“Not in a bad way, at all, just that he had a different philosophy, a different mindset towards it. And that was something I had to adapt to really quickly. You saw Arsenal last year and how fluent and attacking they were. I had predominantly played in a side that was really good at counter-attacking so I had to make a change that I had to adapt to and I am still adapting to it now.”
That adaptation has involved playing “a slightly different role”. Rice explains: “There’s a lot of talk over whether I can play higher up the pitch as well. I’m kind of new to it in a way. The role I had at West Ham when I was more of a ‘box-to-box’ (midfielder), Moyes used to say to me, ‘Free roam, do what you need to do to get on the ball’.
“At Arsenal, it’s more structured and you’ve got to be more patient and waiting for the ball to come, moving the ball a bit quicker, getting on the ball a lot more. At Arsenal, we probably see a lot more of the ball so it’s about being a bit more aggressive.”
It has been a stunning year for Rice and not just because of his move. “I won the trophy (Europa Conference League) at West Ham, which was another level. It was incredible for me and the club,” he says.
“Now I’ve been playing on Champions League nights and been playing relatively well, but it’s something I always believed I could do. It was just waiting for my chance and my opportunity. Every game that’s coming now, I’m just trying to take it step by step and perform on the biggest stage.”
Now 2024, for Arsenal and of course England, promises to be even more exciting.