The English international, whose contract ends in the summer of 2024, is highly sought after; the Gunners are just the latest to publicly register his intent, with previous admirers including Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Rice has highlighted his desire to play in the Champions League and has reportedly turned down multiple contract renewal offers at the London Stadium. While the Hammers won’t come cheap, he’s taken his fate into his own hands.
However, it’s hard, with all of England’s football royalty making a beeline for the 24-year-old, not to think of Wilfred Ndidi.
The Nigerian international, two years older than Rice, recently regained his place in Leicester City’s starting line-up, but nothing sums up the abrasion of his influence better than the fact that he once lost it to begin with. Even after his recovery from injury in October, Boubakary Soumare was often used in his place; Only now, following the Frenchman’s hamstring injury, has Ndidi started two games in a row for the Foxes.
It’s a remarkable loss of prominence for a player who, not so long ago, topped the tackle and interception leaderboards in Europe’s top five leagues. Ndidi’s shares were so high that he was frequently linked to defensive midfield vacancies at clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid. As recently as last summer, Red Devils legend Paul Scholes was still talking about him as “very [fitting] the account of what Manchester United is looking for”.
All that rumored interest never materialized, of course. Now, Ndidi finds himself at something of a crossroads, as repeated injuries seem to have broken not only his body, but also his ability to dominate football matches. It also comes as a warning: When trying to maximize transfer potential, it’s important to hit while the iron is hot.
Clearly, it’s a lesson Hammer Rice is aware of.
Reinforcing the sense of a missed opportunity for Ndidi is the fact that, at the same age Rice is now, the Nigerian international had his last great year. 2020/21 now looks like the final season of the ‘octopus’ phase for him, the denouement of a four-season run in which he consistently finished in the top five for both tackles (won) and interceptions in the Premier League.
In that season, Leicester won their first (and only) trophy since their domestic title in 2016, triumphing in the FA Cup. That was the height of Ndidi convenience; It was also, by the way, the season in which he began to take persistent hits, a brutal workload finally beginning to catch up with him. A torn abductor muscle injury, sustained in September 2020, effectively spelled the end of his invincibility, even though he recovered for a final salvo that term.
It was arguably at that point that Ndidi needed a decisive next step. In the same way that Rice currently dominates the center of the park for West Ham, Ndidi was seen as a one-man breakwater, the rock on which the Leicester team was built. Underlining his talismanic presence was the fact that he was repeatedly rushed back into action after layoffs and almost never rested, even at the end of games with the sure result.
That the moment passed by Ndidi can, to some extent, be explained by a greater similarity between the two men which, ironically, also underscores the difference in paths. Both began their careers as central defenders before moving to the next flank and showing their aptitude there. It was only in 2018, at the age of 19, that Rice began playing regularly in the middle of the park, and even then it was hoped that he would return in time; The same goes for Ndidi, whose full conversion to midfield took place in Genk in the 2015/16 season when he turned, you guessed it, 19 years old.
However, while Rice’s repertoire continued to rise in the Premier League cauldron – so much so that using him in midfield is now seen as limiting his performance – Ndidi never quite came to function in quite the same way. Concerns about the Nigerian international’s ability on the ball have always been there, but tracking both players’ metrics at the same age reveals an unmissable pattern: while Rice clearly improved and became more expressive in possession, the work of Ndidi stayed pretty much the same.
It’s the sheer breadth of Rice’s functionality in possession that now sees him actively and publicly sought after in a way Ndidi never was. While getting the ball back will always have value (see the fanfare with which Casemiro’s effect has been received at Manchester United), there is a limit to the pure tackler who comes to the team through extension. He requires a teammate to take the load of playing, therefore limiting the numbers ahead of the ball with which to stretch opponents.
Against a deep block and an opponent with limited ambitions beyond keeping things tight, Ndidi’s talents would be moot; Rice’s would still find expression. That, really, is the main difference.
It’s one that gets not only to the heart of modern football, but also says something about the nature of opportunity. By optimizing for the present rather than the desired future, and with injuries now seeming to take their toll, the ship of a high-profile transfer may have already sailed for Ndidi.
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