Jack Pitt-Brooke: 'Declan Rice at the centre of West Ham’s revival that shows why he has such a bright future'
Five wins out of six. Three straight away from home. Comfortable ninth place in the table. West Ham United have discovered something that few expected them to show under Manuel Pellegrini, after their latest summer lurch and relaunch, new manager, new players, new director of football. And yet they are winning, showing nous, focus, intelligence, and game management.
And at the centre of it all is Declan Rice. This team has desperately needed a calm presence in deep midfield, someone to protect the back four, break up attacks, and get things going for West Ham. Mark Noble is a valuable asset but he is more of a scurrier and disrupter than someone who has the composure to take over and try to run things for his team.
Rice has been quietly impressive all season but Thursday night at Southampton was one of his best games yet. Away from home, at the busiest time of the year, against a side desperate to stay up and riding their new manager bounce into this game. They tried to overwhelm West Ham with their intense pressing in the first five minutes and it nearly worked.
But Rice was more important than anyone to West Ham getting a foothold in the game, holding off the Southampton surge and eventually turning the match their way. Because he so impressively won the physical battle with his counterparts. There was one moment in the first half when Mario Lemina drove forward in the inside-left channel and Rice held him off, beating him physically, keeping hold of the ball and carrying it away to safety. It was the supreme strength and cool of a top-level centre-back.
There were other moments that stood out, like Rice shrugging off a challenge from the powerful Oriol Romeu and leaving him on the floor. Or throwing himself into blocking shots. Or pinging crossfield passes to get West Ham through the Saints press and onto the offensive.
Most significant was the West Ham away end singing that the club should sign Rice to a new contract as soon as they can. He has become the most popular, important young British player at West Ham since the 1990s generation, all of whom went on to great things at other clubs. So the question now for West Ham is whether Rice will go the same way.
Rice has 18 months left on his West Ham contract but the club has another one year option on that deal which effectively means he is tied to the club until the summer of 2021. This takes the pressure off negotiations right now and means that the club is willing to wait until the summer before trying to agree anything new with the player.
By that point West Ham’s season may have tailed off, or they may have pushed up into the European positions. Especially if they make good additions in January. More wins like this in the second half of the season could be exactly what Rice needs to see to help him to make up his mind.
Independent News Service