Interview with Declan Rice: This is a new Arsenal – we’re ready to change what people say

Declan Rice came to Arsenal for occasions like this. A trip to the Etihad, first against third, challengers against champions. “These are the games you want to be at,” he says of Sunday’s meeting with Manchester City. “These are the matches you look back on at the end of your career.”

In a heavyweight match, Rice is the heavyweight midfielder who can make the difference. He has played against City twice as an Arsenal player, in the Community Shield and the Premier League, and won twice. Two games, two wins. In the previous sixteen games against Pep Guardiola, Arsenal had won just once.

The sudden improvement in results against City is a measure of Rice’s transformative effect since his £105 million move from West Ham United. But the improvement also speaks to a wider sense of determination within Arsenal, where Mikel Arteta’s players are keen to prove they are not as soft as their critics claim.

“You know what people say about Arsenal when they don’t win games or when they come close,” says Rice. “When they missed the top four for two years, last year when they lost the league. I think this is a new Arsenal now. I think this is an Arsenal that has learned from last year, a group of players who are getting older and more experienced.

“We brought in some great players last summer, all of whom have had a huge impact on the club. So look, I think we’re ready to break the barrier of what people say about Arsenal. But it’s up to us “We are the ones who have to get on the field and do it. It’s that mentality issue: how much do we actually want to do something and win something for this club.”

Rice was a West Ham player this time last year as Arsenal began to falter in the title race against City. According to him, it is not a regular topic of conversation in the locker room. He does see and feel that a psychological shift has taken place within the club.

Arsenal players during their 4-1 defeat at Man City last seasonArsenal players during their 4-1 defeat at Man City last season

A 4-1 defeat at the Etihad last April tilted the title race decisively in Manchester City’s favor – Getty Images/David Price

“She last year [the Arsenal players] were clearly gutted,” he says. “You don’t hear them talk about it much, but I think you can tell there’s a difference this year, in terms of mentality and mentality, how everyone is around, calm and taking it one game at a time. ”

Of course, not all games are equal, and Rice makes no attempt to downplay the significance of Sunday’s trip to Manchester. It is more intense in the build-up, he says, and the players know there is an extra layer of significance because of Arteta’s previous role on Guardiola’s coaching staff.

“There’s a lot more tactical information, tactical demand,” Rice said. “Just because of the way they play, the way they line up and the way they can hurt you. But also the way we can hurt them.

“With Pep and Mikel it will be the same on both sides. He knows Mikel, Mikel knows him. They will want to get those tactical wins and margins. But it is up to the eleven who take the field to really go out and show some balls, to show that we can perform at the highest level and in the biggest pressure moments.

It is put to Rice that the statistics are stacked before the Arsenal match. After all, City are unbeaten in their last 38 games at the Etihad and have won eight home games in a row against Arsenal. His response is defiant.

“Let them turn on us,” he says. “I would rather go there and be an underdog and prove to everyone that we can be the team we really want to be. I would rather have people say we are this and that, and we go out there and shock people and show them how good we are.

“It’s a football game. We are absolutely not inferior to them. We are Arsenal, they are City. We have some incredible players, they have some incredible players. It’s set up as a surreal game.”

Declan Rice celebrates his goal for Arsenal at Sheffield UnitedDeclan Rice celebrates his goal for Arsenal at Sheffield United

Rice has played a more advanced midfield role for Arsenal in recent games – Getty Images/Marc Atkins

Of all the individual battles, Rice’s midfield duel with Rodri is perhaps the most compelling. The Spaniard hasn’t lost a match in over a year. When asked about that record and Rodri’s absence from Arsenal’s victory over City in October, there is a mischievous gleam in Rice’s eye. “Do you love him?” he asks back at lightning speed.

Then the praise. ‘He’s a monster. If you speak to the City boys in England, they say that when Rodri doesn’t play, they feel the difference themselves. Visible, you can see that too.”

Rice joined Arsenal believing he had room for improvement as a player, and that Arteta could help him reach new heights. So far things are going as planned. This is the best goal-scoring season of his career and Rice, who now takes care of many of the set-pieces, has also contributed six assists.

“I’ve always had the option,” he says. “I don’t think people have probably seen enough of what I can actually do. I think I have a lot more to offer and that will certainly come true.”

It feels like a long time ago, but there were moments of concern in the first few weeks of his Arsenal career. For example, a pre-season match against Manchester United did not go well. “I had to sit down and go through some things,” he says. “To see what they really wanted from me.”

The connection came a few weeks later, when Rice excelled for Crystal Palace. It was the second competition match of the season. “From that moment on, my confidence went through the roof,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve looked back since.”

His first Arsenal goal, a late winner against United in September, earned him a place in the hearts of the supporters. “A huge moment. That will stay with me forever.”

Declan Rice celebrates his injury-time goal for Arsenal against Manchester UnitedDeclan Rice celebrates his injury-time goal for Arsenal against Manchester United

Rice celebrates his first goal for Arsenal in a 3-1 win over Manchester United – Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane

The day’s celebrations were among the loudest at the Emirates Stadium in recent years, although they will be nothing compared to the reaction if Arsenal manage to win the league or the Champions League this season. In such a scenario, Rice might even be encouraged to reconsider his approach to alcohol.

He revealed a few years ago that he had never had a pint of beer, and that remains the case – apart from one sip, arm in arm with David Moyes, after West Ham won the Europa Conference League last season. “That was literally the only time,” he laughs. Not after the Community Shield win over City? “I smelled the champagne bottle and said ‘urgh’ – and put it aside.”

This is a man dedicated to his profession, and a footballer committed to the cause of his team. Rice has made Arsenal stronger, physically and mentally, and now it’s time for him and his teammates to show how much they have improved. “All we can do is show up and be the best version of ourselves,” he says. “With ten games to go, we are going to give everything.”

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