Declan Rice is not a CB

I’m not going to go back and pick apart every aspect of Rice’s performance last night because:

a) finding a full replay would be more effort than I’m willing to put in

b) I don’t particularly want to sit through that game again

and

c) he was hung out to dry the catastrophic Snodgrass/Noble double pivot in front of him

…but, even without delving into a comprehensive analysis, a quick look over Everton’s goals last night highlights some of Rice’s shortcomings as a central defender, as well as the broader problems caused by shifting him back into the defensive line.

Everton 1–0, DCL 1st goal:

Rice starts off this sequence marking James Rodríguez but Rice passes him on to Cresswell and then checks over his right shoulder twice to see where Calvert-Lewin is.

Despite that check, neither Rice nor Balbuena take responsibility for marking the lone striker. As Keane moves past Lanzini’s press, Rice starts doing this weird forwards-backwards jockeying shuffle.

It’s like he’s trying to play Calvert-Lewin offside, but none of his team-mates aggressively push up in the same way, so it doesn’t appear to be a team instruction. Instead it almost comes across like a bit of indecision from Rice over whether to step out to engage with Keane as he dribbles forward. Rice is oblivious to Calvert-Lewin’s whereabouts and movement after that initial shoulder check; he only has eyes for the ball and reacts to Keane shaping up to pass, rather than DCL dropping short.

Calvert-Lewin takes a big step back towards his own goal to make sure he’s onside and then bursts in behind the defensive line. Keane’s pass sails over Rice’s head and he doesn’t have the agility or the change of pace to get back once he’s been taken out of the game like that.

The Everton forward takes a sublime first touch and tucks it away beautifully, to be fair to him, and Balbuena really should’ve anticipated the danger and covered across as he could see everything going on in front of him, but Rice’s tunnel vision saw him get dragged towards the ball which opened up the space in behind for Everton to exploit.

Everton 2–1, Richarlison 1st goal:

Although the shot eventually goes in off Rice’s arse, this one isn’t directly a result of him playing as a central defender — it’s more a knock-on effect of him not playing in midfield.

Richarlison opens up his body and then does the lazy chop back of all time, yet Noble still buys the dummy and takes a step out towards Rodríguez, leaving a chasm in front of our back 4:

Fabian Balbuena should be the one to apply pressure once Richarlison carries it inside, but he does absolutely fucking nothing. Watch it back. He ends up taking one pace inside into the D by the time Richarlison shoots. That’s it.

Snodgrass is likewise rooted to the spot. He stops his run, ends up flat-footed, and loses Sigurdsson, who runs off the back of him into the box, so it’s not even like his decision to not press the ball is vindicated.

Cresswell’s focus on what DCL’s doing prevents him from taking over Sigurdsson, which in turn would’ve allowed Snodgrass to cover across. There’s either no real communication going on here or our players have been told to stick to the player they’ve been assigned to.

Ben Johnson ends up having to do it as he’s the only one who thinks to engage with the player in possession and ends up following Richarlison all the way over from RB.

Everton got touches of the ball in this area of the pitch again and again and again throughout the game. Just contrast their touches in advanced central areas with ours:

It’s almost like moving your only destructive midfielder into your back line is a horrible idea, isn’t it?

Everton 3–1, DCL 2nd goal:

There’s not a great deal Rice could’ve done about this one but, if we’re being really harsh, then we can say this is another instance where his tendency to ball-watch crops up and costs him.

Michael Keane pushes into the box late as Everton take a quick short corner and Rice picks him up. That’s fine, although it does leave Haller, Snodgrass, and Balbuena all marking Alex Iwobi at the front post and leaves Cresswell to deal with Calvert-Lewin at the back post, which was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

As the cross is swung in, Rice loses track of Keane, but he goes to attack the ball and heads it back where it came from, so it’s not a massive issue:

He then trots out and half follows Keane before thinking better of it. The ball doesn’t get cleared properly and it ends up at Iwobi’s feet. Aside from a quick glance towards the edge of the box, Rice’s eyes are glued on what Iwobi’s doing with the ball. Rice turns to watch as Iwobi’s shot rebounds off the post to Calvert-Lewin, who’s chucked in a smart spin move to get away from Cresswell for the tap-in.

Everton get a slice of fortune with the rebound falling into DCL’s lap inside the 6-yard box (when you’re hot, you’re hot) and it’s unfair to expect Rice to react to that (although watching the ball while on your heels in the box doesn’t help matters), but Calvert-Lewin vs Cresswell at the far post was always going to be a mismatch; between them, they should have got that issue sorted earlier to prevent this situation from arising.

Everton 4–1, DCL 3rd goal:

Calvert-Lewin joins the attack from deep by running behind Snodgrass. Rice clocks him over his shoulder and he adjusts his body shape to turn side on while he’s backpedalling. Iwobi starts to check inside with the ball, at which point DCL sprints into the box. Rice initially follows him, before stepping back up to hold the defensive line on the edge of the penalty area.

The ball’s played square into James and Rice shuffles across. DCL lurks behind him and loops round to stand in the middle of the D unattended. Balbuena decides to go tight to Sigurdsson this time, who receives a pass from Rodríguez just outside the penalty area:

Sigurdsson allows the ball to roll across his body, controlling the pass with his left foot and rolling Balbuena in the process. While all this has been going on, Rice has been watching the ball and is unaware of what Calvert-Lewin’s been doing.

Just have a look at the body positions of the two players as Sigurdsson is about to release the through ball — DCL is on the half turn so he can run onto the pass, whereas Rice is on his heels (again) and incredibly square:

Rice is a fairly slow at turning at the best of times but Calvert-Lewin’s already away from him before he’s even started to shift his feet. The Everton man completes his hat-trick with a tidy finish on his weaker foot.

The game is dead at this point and the stuff going on in front of him is little short of embarrassing, but Rice’ body positioning and decision making here is dreadful.

It’s entirely possible fatigue is a factor and he is, of course, still relatively unfamiliar with this position, but it’s stuff like this that makes me sceptical about his long-term viability at CB.

It’s important to frame Rice’s performance here the right way: it was ultimately a nothing game we weren’t especially interested in winning; Dom Calvert-Lewin is in scorching hot form and will make mugs of better defenders than Rice this season; and he was badly exposed by the dross in front of him.

Even so, it’s clear Rice is incredibly ball-focused as a player. That’s fine, and even a strength, when he’s playing in midfield — he can chase around to win tackles and break up play with a safety net behind him. And he excels at that side of the game.

But his tendency to ball-watch becomes an issue if he’s the last line of defence while having to deal with runners around him. If you’re not constantly alert to your surroundings and disciplined in your positioning, it’s so easy to get exposed. Getting caught square and flat-footed is a recipe for disaster.

The first goal in this game is enough to raise doubts over his ability to defend in space — our defence pushed relatively high up and, although it’s unclear whether it was a failed offside trap or not, Rice is taken out of the game with a ball over the top and has no hope of getting back. It’s a great pass and a great take, but his lack of agility and change of pace would give me pause about sticking him into a team that regularly defends with a high line.

Rice’s tackling technique is so clean and he’s genuinely excellent at recovering the ball; it seems a shame to stick the shackles on him and put him in a position where he doesn’t have license to go and hunt the ball. It’s one thing throwing yourself into tackles when your defence can mop up behind you but it’s another to do that when you’re playing in the defensive line yourself. If you gamble on a tackle and miss, you’re totally disrupting your team’s defensive shape. I think it’s a waste to force Rice into a more restrained style of play. I struggle to see the benefits of playing as a CB at all but even if they’re there, they’re surely not worth the trade-off.

From a West Ham perspective, we saw the effects of that last night in Everton’s ability to get on the ball in front of our penalty area and their subsequent ability to move possession into the box. It’s the same story with the shots:

The majority of our shots were headers, the majority of their shots were 1vs1s from through balls. They also popped off several uncontested shots from just outside the box like the Richarlison goal.

Using Rice as a centre-back is a bad idea. Using Rice as a centre-back without another screening midfielder in the team is a terrible one.

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Cast Iron Tactics

I write long, boring, and increasingly deranged articles about football tactics and West Ham @CastIronTactics on Twitter