Declan Rice and Chelsea: His exit, his role, his future (2024)

(Other contributors: Tom Worville and Liam Twomey)

It could have all been so different.

Rewind the clock to Chelsea’s match at Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday night and the home side are on the counter-attack. It’s the last minute of an intense Premier League game and most of Chelsea’s exhausted players have been caught up field, looking for the winner. Vitinha plays the ball toward Pedro Neto and… Declan Rice intercepts. The final whistle goes and the game ends 1-1. Mini crisis averted.


But of course, Rice wasn’t wearing blue that night. Instead, Neto capitalised on the visitors’ naivety to hand Chelsea their second successive defeat. Rice is still at West Ham, whom Chelsea meet on Monday under huge pressure to avoid a hat-trick of defeats.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Rice is the missing piece in Chelsea’s jigsaw. The club aimed to make him their last big signing in the previous window, but no bid was forthcoming because they were unable to sell the fringe players required to raise the revenue for his signature. After spending over £200 million on five players, even multi-billionaire owner Roman Abramovich has a cut-off point.

But the month of January will present Chelsea with another opportunity to renew their interest and West Ham fans have already begun anxiously counting down the days until the deadline on February 1.

Chelsea would not be in the position of having to collate “Bank of England” money, as West Ham manager David Moyes put it, for Rice’s signature had they not released him from the academy at the age of 14. It’s a mistake they rue to this day.

“You looked forward to Declan arriving in the evenings, because when you went out to train, he’d be wanting to play one-touch with the coaches. Then it’d be, ‘Come on, let’s play crossbar challenge’, then, “Come on, let’s play two-v-two’. He was like a Duracell Bunny, he just didn’t stop.”

Coach Michael Beale knew Rice, who he says first started training with Chelsea at six or seven, was something special from a very early age, especially once he started working with the youngster while in charge of the under-10s in the club’s academy.

Rice was surrounded by talent in his age group and as has been well documented, one of his team-mates was close friend and current Chelsea regular Mason Mount.


But Beale, who is now a first-team coach at Rangers under manager Steven Gerrard, saw enough in Rice to feel like he stood out in his own right.

“I remember once we were playing Arsenal away at Hale End,” he says to The Athletic. “We were in the changing room with the boys who had travelled on their own, and then there was the bus outside with the other lads. There was a massive downpour and they delayed the kick-off, so there were the under-10s, the under-12s and the under-14s. Declan was in the under-12s at the time and he entertained the under-10s and the under-14s in the dressing room on his own, doing impressions, doing jokes, dancing and singing. He was an 11-year-old boy without a care in the world.

“He made going to work a joy. He used to take the mickey out of the coaches as well, in that lovely, cheeky chappy way. Training was better for Declan being there, so I’m glad I didn’t experience Chelsea without him. The players in the under-16s knew him when he was an under-10. He was always mucking about with the older kids, the life and soul of the party.”

Being told he was no longer wanted by the club he adored was no laughing matter, though. It was his father Sean who broke the news to him when he returned from school one day. The news had been delivered over the phone, was completely unexpected and little explanation was provided. For a family of devoted Chelsea fans, it was devastating. Declan wasn’t the only family member to cry that day.

So what went wrong? Well, for starters, it should be noted these things happen, especially at a club with an academy as successful as Chelsea’s. Sometimes, nothing “goes wrong”. Eddie Nketiah, now at Arsenal, is another one from the same age group that they allowed to slip through their fingers. Given the competition ahead of them, neither were deemed good enough. Other teams will have similar examples.


But Rice’s cause wasn’t helped by not having one specific position. He started in midfield and was later dropped back into centre-half. In his final year, family members were frustrated at seeing him played in a variety of roles. “One week he was left back, the next he was at right wing,” a source tells The Athletic. “It got to the stage where it seemed like the only position he didn’t play in was in goal.”

Another source has revealed how the sports science department told the staff that he was still going through a growth spurt just a few weeks before he was released and that patience was required. Either communication was an issue or their advice was simply ignored.

In fairness, Rice was aware of his own physical shortcomings at the time. Reflecting on what happened in an interview while on England duty last year, he said: “I was like Bambi on ice — I was all over the place. My body just wasn’t used to itself, so I wasn’t running properly.”

Mason Mount and Declan Rice flank then-senior striker Franco Di Santo, with Reece James on the far left

Another insider has suggested that the acquisition of Sweden Under-16 defender Joseph Colley from Brommapojkarna had something to do with it. He arrived soon after Rice’s departure.

“Perhaps it was just too much traffic,” he said. “In academies, there is a danger of just looking for the next best player and forgetting what you have already. I know one of the coaches, who I obviously won’t name, felt they made a mistake when it happened. I’m sure others will accept it was one too now but hindsight in football is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to players who are that young.”

Beale had already left for Liverpool when he heard what had taken place. He couldn’t believe it. “It hurt me,” Beale admits. “That’s how much I felt for the kid.

“It was a shock. He was going through a growth spurt, but I thought the club would stick by him because of everything he gave in terms of his personality. When you looked at the size of his dad and his brother, I always felt Declan would have the growth spurt.


“Whether he would have kicked on at Chelsea, whether his pathway would have been stunted and he wouldn’t be the player he is today, no one will ever know. But one thing for sure is that I was certain when Declan left that he would go on to be a footballer.”

Luckily for Declan, Beale wasn’t the only one to think that way. Fulham were on the phone to dad Sean within hours of Chelsea’s decision and he was training with them that very evening.

It wasn’t long before West Ham were making a call, though. Dave Hunt was West Ham’s head of academy recruitment at the time and appreciated Rice’s qualities better than Chelsea did.

“There were always a lot of good games between West Ham and Chelsea at that level and in my job I would always be there to watch,” he explains to The Athletic. “Dec always stood out for me. Whenever we played Chelsea I watched him closely.

“He was so elegant. He would always be a leader, even at the age of nine. He also played with fun and enjoyment. That sticks out. It wasn’t just because he was a good player. He always gave a level of performance no matter whether Chelsea won or West Ham won. He was consistent.

“I actually found out Chelsea had let him go from Declan’s cousin, who we had at West Ham. He just told me one night, ‘My cousin has been released’. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Are you sure?!’ I couldn’t understand it, but I wasted no time in talking to the family and got him a trial at West Ham.

“On the first day he was involved in a session, he was the best trialist I’d seen. A trial player normally comes from the park, this kid was from Chelsea. He had a better understanding of the game than most because he’d been coached at a very high level in the game.”

One might assume that the heartbreak of seeing his dream disappear would have taken some getting over and be carried into the next phase of his career. It would be understandable.


Tony Carr, West Ham’s director of youth development, suggests it wasn’t too much of an issue. “When you’ve been told by your boyhood club, ‘You’re not good enough for us’, it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s going to knock your confidence massively. But it is a credit to his determination that he wanted to prove he had what it took to be a professional player.

“I saw a little bit of shyness at first. We didn’t go into much detail when we spoke about Chelsea because you don’t want to go over old wounds. It was up to us to make our own decisions, to go by what we saw rather than be influenced by what had happened before.

“Part of what we did was to rebuild his confidence and give him praise when it was due. He covered a lot of the basics. He was good in possession, had a good eye for a pass.”

However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing at West Ham either. They too had their doubts about a lack of physicality. When he turned 16, Hunt had to argue the case just to keep him on as a scholar while nine others in his age group were handed professional contracts. Then there was a significant turning point one summer.

Carr adds: “I remember Declan had a period where he was playing for our schoolboy teams and when he came back for pre-season, he’d grown three or four inches and looked tall and slim. One of the coaches said, ‘He might make a centre-half as well’. We played him there and he did very well there too.

“He just grew in stature and couldn’t be ignored. He’s been fast-tracked ever since. Before he made his professional debut aged just 18 for West Ham (against Burnley in 2017), I sent him a text wishing him good luck. I told him, ‘Don’t be fazed by it. Be natural. Do what you’re good at’. He sent a text back saying, ‘I will, don’t worry’. There was real confidence in his reply and I remember thinking, ‘Good on you’.

“He is an example for any young player that gets released by a big club, that it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. I bet Chelsea will be kicking themselves. But it’s been to West Ham’s benefit. We took the chance.”

One of the regular questions asked by readers whenever Chelsea have been linked with Rice is: why? A key factor is his versatility, that experience of being employed as a centre-half in his youth as well as a defensive midfielder.

When Rice was on the wishlist in the previous window, the plan was to use him primarily at the back. But now that Thiago Silva has arrived and made such a big impact there, the desire is to use him, mostly, in front of the back four.


As explained in September, playing as a holding midfielder is not regarded as N’Golo Kante’s best position because of his desire to go searching for the ball on occasion. Coach Frank Lampard wants someone to sit and constantly offer that protection, which would allow Kante to disrupt opponents further up the pitch.

However, Rice is used to operating in a two-man midfield at West Ham, in either a 5-4-1 formation or 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1. He has been combining well with Tomas Soucek in particular. He hasn’t played on his own in Lampard’s preferred 4-3-3 system.

However, Chelsea try to have one of their more attacking midfielders drop close to Kante to help provide support, so you could see the France international and Rice being used in the same way. A 4-2-3-1 formation would also work for the pair and allow Kai Havertz to be used as a No 10.

Chelsea have had issues with injuries so Rice’s record of featuring in more games than any West Ham player since the start of the 2018-19 season is clearly a plus. Over the same period, only Wolves captain Conor Coady (7,920) has more minutes than Rice (7,594) among Premier League players.

Statistics that compare him to other central and defensive midfielders in the Premier League since the start of last season (there are 101 of them) show that Rice might not stand out in one particular department, but he is a good all-round player, which is a positive given his age and scope for improvement.

Declan Rice and Chelsea: His exit, his role, his future (1)

Rice and Kante could be Chelsea team-mates (Photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

Here are just a sample of them, which were compiled before West Ham’s victory over Leeds on December 11. He’s a pretty good reader of the play when it comes to interceptions and blocked passes: his return of 4.0 per 1,000 opposition touches ranks him 28th out of those 101 midfielders, though he trails the Chelsea figures of Kante (6.3) and, interestingly, the much-criticised Jorginho (5.4).

You’d probably expect to see a boost in those numbers should he move to Chelsea because the team as a collective is looking to apply more pressure to opponents than West Ham do. Per Statsbomb data on, West Ham apply pressure to just 14 per cent of opponent touches in the middle and defensive thirds of the pitch — the lowest figure in the league — whereas Chelsea do so on 20 per cent of opposition touches, the eighth-best in the competition.


Rice’s tackling ability is elite, as we can see using data from smarterscout, a site which gives detailed analytics on players all over the world, producing a score between 0-99. According to their data, Rice is rated 98 out of a possible 99 for duels out of possession for a defensive midfielder, a criterion that considers how good a player is at one-on-one tackles given the quality of players he’s duelled with before. That’s backed up by his “true tackle” win rate (59 per cent), which is the proportion of tackles he wins cleanly without getting shrugged off or committing a foul. It is the ninth-best figure (out of 101) for those in his position.

In the air, he’s pretty good too. As per smarterscout, his aerial duel ratings — which, again, are adjusted for the quality of opponents he’s had to go up against — is 64 out of 99 from set pieces and 76 out of 99 from open play.

It’s actually fairly unique to find a player who is above average in the Premier League in terms of winning duels from set pieces and in open play, out of possession and in possession. Rice is rated 60 out of 99 for dribbling ability too, so is not bad on the ball either. Looking for players with similarly consistent figures across so many departments on smarterscout, the list is small: Nemanja Matic, Rodri, Sergio Busquets, Emre Can and Tiemoue Bakayoko, who is on loan at Napoli from Chelsea.

Rice’s passing is also impacted by the style of the team he plays for and the role he performs. He very rarely steps over the halfway line, receiving the ball in the final third just 4.1 times per 90 minutes (86th out of 101 players). He also passes into the final third six times per 90 minutes (54th out of 101 players). His strength is in his tidiness in possession: his turnover percentage — the proportion of times that he loses the ball when he has possession — is just 14.8 per cent (26th out of 101 players).

There is plenty of room for improvement and moving to a leading side like Chelsea, who are theoretically packed full of superior players, should help him fulfil his potential even more.

So now we have examined what he could bring to Chelsea, what are the chances of him arriving at Stamford Bridge soon?

There has already been perhaps a significant development for Rice personally. The Athletic has been informed by multiple sources that he has changed agents and is now represented by his father. Given Sean is a season ticket holder at Stamford Bridge, you might think that will hand Chelsea a clear advantage in any negotiation.


But such thoughts would be premature. Besides, West Ham’s stance hasn’t changed. If anything, their positive start to this season — they are separated by just one point and one place in the table — has stiffened their resolve. One contact suggested that even if Chelsea match West Ham’s £80 million valuation in January, it will be rejected.

Chelsea’s first task will be to find the funds to give West Ham any kind of quandary. Their priority is to reduce the size of the squad significantly and players on the periphery will be made available to buy. But January is a much tougher month to get the kind of prices director Marina Granovskaia demands. It will be even harder this season due to the impact of COVID-19 on football teams’ finances.

Declan Rice and Chelsea: His exit, his role, his future (2)

Rice has shown he is a threat in attack to go with his defensive skills (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Several people, including one agent with a close connection to Chelsea, suggest that because of all this, a switch is much more likely to happen at the end of the season than in January, if at all. Transfer targets can always change.

It is believed West Ham have offered Rice a new long-term contract and are encouraging him to sign it rather promptly. But it is understood Rice is in no rush.

Another insider toldThe Athleticthat the England international will take some convincing to sign an extension to his current deal, which expires in 2024. Not only do Chelsea have the obvious emotional pull, but the source claims Rice wants to join a club that can challenge for silverware regularly. West Ham won the last of their three FA Cups 40 years ago. In contrast, Chelsea have lifted 16 trophies in the last 17 years alone, including five Premier League titles and a Champions League.

One thing is for sure, Rice is unlikely to force the issue by handing in a transfer request. He has too much respect for the West Ham fans. But as one associate suggested: “There is no easy way to leave West Ham for Chelsea. There is no such thing as a perfect exit. West Ham supporters will never be fine with him going there. If he really wants to go to Chelsea, it might be a case of short term pain for long term gain. He may have to just rip the Band-Aid off.”

Inevitably, the former coaches who helped him progress have mixed feelings on the matter. “I’m a West Ham fan and I’d be devastated if he went,” Carr says. “But sometimes that’s the nature of the game. You develop someone and the big guns are going to come calling.It will be a massive profit if it happens, the biggest the club have ever made. If Chelsea throw silly money at you, it’s tough to resist.”


Even while trying to help Rangers win the Scottish Premiership for the first time since 2011, you get the impression Beale is willing for Rice’s story to come full circle.

“It’s very rare that a boy leaves and goes on to make the club wish they had him and I think that’s the scenario Chelsea are facing now. They let a boy go, he’s gone away and really kicked on.It’s worked out for Declan in the long term and if he goes back to Chelsea, that would be amazing.”

(Top image: Tom Slator)

Declan Rice and Chelsea: His exit, his role, his future (2024)


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