Declan Rice, Man City and the £105m transfer that could decide the title race

Pep Guardiola chooses not to think about the ones who got away. Perhaps he prefers to concentrate on the players he does manage, rather than those he merely tried to sign. Perhaps it is just as well because, lengthy as the list of high-class players Manchester City have bought is, it is still shorter than the catalogue of the transfer targets that, for various reasons, eluded them: from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane via Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Harry Maguire, Lucas Paqueta, Marc Cucurella and Fred. It would occupy plenty of his time considering an alternative history if each of an eclectic group had been signed.

Yet one rebuffed bid feels more pertinent than the others right now. Guardiola has rarely had reasons to wonder what might have been and rue. Declan Rice, however, could be the exception. If Arsenal win a first Premier League in two decades, it will in part be because of a player City offered £90m for; if Guardiola’s side fail to become champions for a fourth successive season, it may be because of two games against Arsenal, against Rice.

“Sometimes here we have many players we wanted and they didn’t decide to join us,” shrugged Guardiola. “He’s not the first one. We have a long list. Basically, they don’t want to come or the price [is too high] or whatever, it could not happen. He took his decision, a good one, and good luck.”

Even if Rice’s preference for Arsenal may prove the choice that decides the title race, it’s almost certainly the move that gave us a title race to begin with. City have only lost three league games this season: the three that Rodri missed due to suspension. They included October’s 1-0 reverse at the Emirates Stadium when the Englishman impressed and Mateo Kovacic, the midfielder signed instead of Rice, struggled and was fortunate not to be sent off.

Rodri has completed a year unbeaten for club and country; he has gone a Premier League record 60 games without losing. Yet the importance of the man Guardiola has called the best midfielder in the world has been exacerbated by the lack of an alternative, with Kalvin Phillips first overlooked and then exiled, with no other defensive midfielder. Arsenal, in contrast, have the other finest player in the position in the Premier League.

But not just that position. When City tried to get Rice, there was a temptation to wonder why, to ask if he would have just been on the bench. Arsenal have provided an answer, one that indicates he could have coexisted and combined with Rodri. Rice is likely to line up at the Etihad Stadium as a No 8, a box-to-box presence who has contributed more goals and assists than in previous seasons. With the defensive midfield role filled by another City had wanted – the 2018 target Jorginho – it shows Rice could have been a Rodri-esque figure with more licence to get forward.

Rodri and Rice met in the Community Shield but the Spaniard was suspended in the league (The FA/Getty)
Rodri and Rice met in the Community Shield but the Spaniard was suspended in the league (The FA/Getty)

Each is a sizeable presence, a willingness to assume responsibility, with the talent to make a difference in the final third. Rodri sees similarities in their duties. “I’m Spanish, he’s English so of course [we have] different cultures and ways of understanding the game,” he said. “Physically, he’s such a strong player and the runs he makes. In terms of position, the things that Mikel [Arteta] and Pep demand from us [are] quite the same. He’s adapting his physicality and way of playing to that and I’m doing the same. I think we are different players playing the same role. He’s been sensational so far this season; it’s not easy to change team and doing the things he’s doing for Arsenal. He’s doing great so far.”

Part of the intriguing element is that while Rice has more in common with Rodri than Ilkay Gundogan, a man who is scarcely a like-for-like replacement for the former City captain could have been the ideal successor. City have instead spent £80m on Kovacic, a technician who sometimes combines well with Rodri, and Matheus Nunes, a substitute, but may well want a first-choice midfielder in the summer transfer market; Arsenal’s £105m investment in Rice bought them a cornerstone of the team for years to come.

‘Physically, he’s such a strong player,’ Rodri says of Rice (Getty)
‘Physically, he’s such a strong player,’ Rodri says of Rice (Getty)

And if that is unsurprising, Rice’s excellence at West Ham was scarcely a secret. Guardiola claimed no credit for identifying him as a player who could benefit City. “I think all the teams in the Premier League would have signed Declan Rice. He is an international captain for the national team from England and a young player playing a lot of games regularly,” he said. “That’s why Arsenal pushed the way they pushed.”

Arteta’s pursuit of Rice began sooner and brought success. One measure of it could be found in the trophy cabinet at the end of the season. Another may be found in the personal prizes: the four frontrunners for the Footballer of the Year awards are arguably Virgil van Dijk, Phil Foden, Rodri and Rice: two of them City players and a third who could have been. If City had three of the four outstanding individuals in the league, if Rice could have ensured they were unbeatable without Rodri as well as with him, if they had formed a dominant duo in a post-Gundogan midfield, then there might have been no stopping City. Instead, if they are halted, it may be by the player they saw as their second midfield destroyer.