Declan Rice interview: This is a new Arsenal – we are ready to change what people say

Declan Rice after Arsenal's penalty shootout victory over Porto

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

In a heavyweight contest, Rice is the heavyweight midfielder who can make all the difference. He has twice faced City as an Arsenal player, in the Community Shield and the Premier League, and he has twice been victorious. Two games, two wins. In the previous 16 games against Pep Guardiola’s side, Arsenal had won just once.

The sudden upturn 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 teeth-gritting determination within Arsenal, where Mikel Arteta’s players are eager 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 if they get close,” says Rice. “When they missed out on the top four 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 learnt from last year, a group of players who are getting older, more experienced.

“We brought in some great players over the summer, who have all had a massive impact on the club. So look, I think we are ready to change that barrier about what people say about Arsenal. But it’s down to us. We are the ones who have to go on the pitch and do it. It’s that mentality thing — 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, when Arsenal began to falter in their title race against City. It is not, he says, a regular topic of discussion in the dressing room. He can see and feel, though, that a psychological shift has taken place within the club.

Arsenal's players during their 4-1 defeat at Man City last season
A 4-1 defeat at the Etihad last April swung the title race decisively in Manchester City's favour - Getty Images/David Price

“Last year they [the Arsenal players] were obviously gutted,” he says. “You don’t hear them speak too much about it but I think you can just see there is a difference this year, in terms of mentality and mindset, how everyone is around the place, being calm and taking one game at a time.”

Not all games are equal, of course, 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 is way more tactical information, tactical demand,” says Rice. “Just because of the way they play, the way they set up and the way they can hurt you. But also the way we can hurt them as well.

“With Pep and Mikel it will be the same at both ends. He knows Mikel, Mikel knows him. They will be wanting to get those tactical gains and margins. But it is down to the 11 who go on the pitch to really go out there and show some balls, show we can perform at the biggest level and the biggest pressure moments.”

It is put to Rice that the pre-match statistics are stacked against Arsenal. City are unbeaten in their last 38 matches at the Etihad, after all, and have won eight consecutive home games against Arsenal. His response is defiant.

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

“It is a game of football. We are not inferior to them at all. We are Arsenal, they are City. We have got some unbelievable players, they have got some unbelievable players. It is set up to be an unreal game.”

Declan Rice celebrates scoring for Arsenal at Sheffield United
Rice has played a more advanced midfield role for Arsenal in recent matches - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

Of all the individual battles, Rice’s midfield clash with Rodri is perhaps the most enthralling. The Spaniard has not lost a match for more than a year. Asked about that record, and Rodri’s absence from Arsenal’s league win over City in October, there is a mischievous gleam in Rice’s eye. “Do you love him?” he asks back, quick as a flash.

Then, the praise. “He is a monster. When you speak to the City lads at England, they say when Rodri doesn’t play they feel the difference themselves. Visibly, you can see that, too.”

Rice joined Arsenal in the belief that he had room for improvement as a player, that Arteta could help him to reach new heights. So far, it is going as planned. This is the best goalscoring season of his career and Rice, who now takes many of the set pieces, has also contributed six assists.

“I have always had the ability,” he says. “I don’t think people have probably seen enough of what I can actually do. I think I have got so much more to come and it is definitely coming out.”

It feels a long time ago now but, in the first few weeks of his Arsenal career, there were moments of concern. A pre-season game against Manchester United, for example, 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 click came a few weeks later, when Rice excelled away to Crystal Palace. It was the second league game of the season. “From there my confidence went sky-high,” he says. “I don’t think I have looked back since.”

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

Declan Rice celebrates scoring in stoppage time for Arsenal against Manchester United
Rice celebrates scoring his first Arsenal goal in a 3-1 victory over Manchester United - Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane

The celebrations that day were among the loudest at the Emirates Stadium in recent years, although they will be nothing compared to the response if Arsenal manage to win the league or 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 — aside 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 victory over City? “I smelt the champagne bottle and went ‘urgh’ — and put it to the side.”

This is a man dedicated to his craft, and a footballer dedicated to his team’s cause. Rice has made Arsenal stronger, physically and mentally, and now is the time for him and his team-mates to show how much they have improved. “All we can do is turn up and give the best version of ourselves,” he says. “With 10 games to go, we are going to give everything.”