Football Features

Rodri vs Declan Rice: The stats and quotes behind the Premier League’s epic midfield battle

By J Smith

Published: 19:45, 29 March 2024

Manchester City host Arsenal this weekend in a Premier League title six-pointer and one of the key battlegrounds will undoubtedly be in the midfield. 

Separated by just two places and one point, with Liverpool sandwiched between, it’s the Gunners that currently hold the narrow advantage at the summit, but Pep Guardiola’s men are once again offering a fierce defence of their title. And on show in Sunday afternoon’s meeting will be arguably the top two No.6s not just in the Premier League right now, but in world football.

We’re talking, of course, about Rodri and Declan Rice. The former has been the conductor for City in recent years, firing them to a host of honours, including a famous Treble last season. The latter, meanwhile, captained West Ham to Europa Conference League glory last year and has truly shown his elite qualities since his £100m+ summer move to the Emirates.

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They’re the only two players in the Premier League this season to have registered: 25+ clearances, 25+ chances created, 25+ tackles made, 25+ aerial duels won, 25+ touches in the opp. box, 5+ goals and 5+ assists.

Rodri vs Rice could be one of the most influential clashes on the pitch this Sunday, akin to Roy Keane vs Patrick Vieira back when Arsenal were challenging the other Manchester giant for the title. So, who is the superior operator? Everybody has their opinion, but let’s take a look at the stats to help settle the debate.

Passing

Manchester City’s 65.3% average share of possession is, unsurprisingly, the highest in the Premier League. Arsenal are themselves third in that regard but sit over 3% further back than their title rivals. What’s more, City have played almost 1,000 more passes than any other side in the English top flight this season.

With that in mind, it’s no shock to see Rodri come out ahead of Rice in the passing department in terms of sheer volume. But, of course, the Spaniard remains the Premier League’s ultimate pass master and still outperforms his English counterpart when it comes to overall pass accuracy (92.18%-91.02%), while he’s leagues ahead for long pass accuracy (80.65%-56.2%). Rodri has averaged 7.3 successful long passes per 90 minutes so far this season, compared to just 2.6 from Rice, who much prefers to either keep things short or drive the ball forward himself, rather than going for a big switch of play.

Of course, none of this is to say that Rice is a bad passer of the ball. In fact, the opposite is true. He’s one of the best in the game right now and that is only further exemplified when you add other Premier League midfielders like Dominik Szoboszlai and Casemiro into the comparison.

But when it comes to dictating play and spreading the ball around, nobody quite does it better than Rodri.

“He’s the best midfield player in the world currently by far because he is able to do everything,” Guardiola said of Rodri in February. “What a signing. It’s difficult to understand how we could have done what we have done in recent years without him.”



Defending

Given their deeper roles, defending is arguably the second-most important function carried out by Rodri and Rice. It’s these two that break up opposition attacks and keep the back door closed on the rare occasions Manchester City and Arsenal don’t have the ball and use it to carve defences open.

Manchester City (84) and Arsenal (65) have faced the fewest shots on target in the Premier League this season and, as mentioned, tend to dominate the ball and, therefore, territory. So, despite both being elite defensive presences, Rodri and Rice offer low raw numbers in this department.

It’s Rice who tends to be busier defensively, averaging more interceptions, blocks and clearances than Rodri, though the Spaniard makes slightly more tackles and has more success in the air; the latter not coming as news to anyone given he’s two inches taller. Be sure to make note of Rodri’s 1.4 fouls conceded per 90 minutes compared to 0.8 for Rice. Some of Guardiola’s famous tactical fouling?

Perhaps the biggest commendation we can pay Rice is that Arsenal have gone from conceding 1.13 goals per match last season to just 0.86 this campaign, with their tackles (14.95-15.61), interceptions (6.24-7.25) and expected goals conceded (1.12-0.70) per 90 all significantly improving as well.

Attacking

Both sitting on six goals and five assists in the Premier League this season, Rodri and Rice are once again closely matched when it comes to the offensive side of their game. And given the dominance of the two sides they play for, it’s a very important aspect.

But it’s Rodri who comes out on top for the volume of chances created, outperforming Rice 1.4 to 1.1. And perhaps surprisingly given Rice’s skill at driving the ball through opposition lines, it’s Rodri who easily edges it when it comes to dribbling.

Rice does more with his shots than Rodri, scoring the same amount of goals despite attempting 0.9 shots per 90 minutes compared to 1.6 from the Man City midfielder and registering 60.87% shot accuracy compared to 45.95%.

But credit must also be given to Rice for adding an attacking edge to his game in the first place. After all, the England international — two years Rodri’s junior — had never scored more than five goals across all competitions in a single season until joining Arsenal last summer.

“It’s brilliant for him. We know he’s a brilliant finisher. We know he can play it in a more advanced role. He’s improved so much in that role and is working so much with his club,” England manager Gareth Southgate said recently.

Following a resounding win over Sheffield United at the start of March, Rice said: “I want to keep scoring goals. There is no better feeling in the world than assisting and scoring. I am striving for more every day. I think I am on double figures now for the season, I think it is my best season. Listen, I want way more than what I’ve got at the minute.”

What have the pundits said?

It’s safe to say the Rodri vs Rice debate has split opinions. Jamie Carragher, for example, stated back in December he’d rather have Arsenal’s No.6 than City’s.

“There is no bigger compliment I can give to Rice than this: I would rather have him in my team than Rodri,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “I feel the same way about Rice that I felt about Roy Keane when he joined Manchester United for a British record fee in 1993, and Alan Shearer when he joined Newcastle United in 1996. Harry Kane is another; he was a guarantee for Bayern Munich this summer.

“From the moment he joined Arsenal, you knew that Rice would be brilliant. He has been probably the most influential player in the Premier League this season and, every time I watch him, he reminds me of Keane. He has that same presence, and he has a passing ability that is incredibly underrated.”

No points are given for guessing who disagrees with Carragher’s assessment.

“I think Rodri’s been sensational for City for a couple of years now. The development in his game over a three, four, five-year period has been special. And he’s the best in his position by a mile,” Carragher’s Monday Night Football counterpart Gary Neville said in September.

Interestingly, Rice himself believes he’s below Rodri in the No.6 rankings.

“You look at the best number sixes in the world; Obviously Man City, Rodri is arguably the best,” Rice told reporters at a recent press conference. “How he plays, how he’s always central, how he always connects the back line and the forward players, how he’s always in the middle of the pitch.”

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