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Declan Rice ready to return Arsenal to Premier League summit

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WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — Declan Rice takes a look behind him at the mountainous Californian landscape in a quiet corner of Arsenal’s team hotel in Los Angeles and says, “It’s mad, the whole thing is mad.”

The 24-year-old’s circumstances certainly have changed. Rice has always been hugely respectful of West Ham United, the club where he transformed himself from Chelsea reject to club captain and England international over a 10-year period.

Released by the Blues aged 14 amid concerns over his physicality, Rice was snapped up by the Hammers and rose through the ranks to captain the side at the age of 20 and lift the club’s first trophy in 43 years earlier this summer as West Ham beat Fiorentina to the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Transfer speculation was his permanent backdrop for his final two years in east London as his burgeoning quality increasingly made a move to a club with greater resources and bigger ambitions an overtly logical step. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea were among the clubs interested in Rice at one time or another, but it was Arsenal who eventually struck a deal with West Ham earlier this month.

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The final transfer fee could be £105 million, eclipsing the £100m that Man City paid Aston Villa to sign Jack Grealish in 2021, the record fee for a British footballer. That figure sits just short of the all-time British transfer record for a player of any nationality: the £106.8m that Chelsea handed Benfica for Argentina’s World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez in January.

The Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, an hour or so away from downtown Los Angeles depending on the city’s notorious traffic, is a calm, picturesque setting, but Rice knows the level of scrutiny will rise from the moment the serious football begins back in England next month.

“There is going to be a lot of noise around me, around the transfer, around the price,” he tells ESPN in an exclusive interview. “But if I keep doing what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years that’s got me here, I’m not going to have any problems at all. I just need to stay focused and just try to be as relaxed and as open-minded to working as possible.

“I think five years ago I’d be dreaming about where I am now. I don’t actually think about it. It is crazy to think, ‘Yeah okay, I’ve been sold for £100m,’ but I haven’t thought about it once. That’s a price tag that is now attached to me. I just try to play football and enjoy myself, I don’t try to put any added pressure on me. Me being myself is what’s got me here. That isn’t going to change now I’m at Arsenal.

“I think it is important that we are constantly open to learning and wanting to improve. At the end, judge me on the price tag then, don’t judge me after two or three weeks. Hopefully at the end, that’s why I’ve come to Arsenal, because I want to be a success and I want this club to be a success.”

West Ham dug in their heels over Rice’s valuation and City attempted to hijack the deal with an offer totalling £90m including add-ons at the end of June. Sources have told ESPN that Arsenal were always confident the player wanted to join them, plus there was an understanding that Rice’s path to the first team was clearer at Emirates Stadium given Rodri played more Premier League minutes than any other City player last season and his understudy Kalvin Phillips had no intention of leaving just a year after his arrival from Leeds United.

There were suggestions that Rice and his longtime friend from the Chelsea academy, Mason Mount, were colluding over moves that would see them reunited, but the latter ended up joining Manchester United. They faced each other for their new clubs last weekend in New Jersey, when United ran out 2-0 winners.

“To be honest with you, I actually read loads of bits that me and him were speaking and people saying that we’d always end up at the same club,” Rice said. “It wasn’t like that at all. I’ve got to do what’s best for my career, Mason’s got to do what’s best for his career.

“We never really had that chat. I knew he was going through a tough time at Chelsea with a few things and of course I was there for him, and he was there for me as well. My situation was very different compared to his.

“We support each other, we are very happy for each other. I spoke to him the other night after the game, he’s happy to be at United and I’m so happy to be at Arsenal.”

Gunners boss Mikel Arteta is often credited by new signings with a tempting sales pitch, but Rice had been considering the club for a while. Although appreciative of West Ham’s work in developing him, Rice turned down multiple contract offers to stay and saw something promising emerging across London.

“I don’t think it is just what he said, to be honest,” Rice continued. “I’ve been watching Arsenal in the last two or three years since he’s taken over, and even in his first year, you could see what he was trying to build.

“The year after that they finished fifth and then last year they obviously finished second, but the trajectory of what they’ve been doing, how he wants to play and speaking to a few of the players on how they’ve improved … after I’d spoken to him as well, it was everything that I wanted, really. I’m 24, like I’ve said all along, you only get one career.

“I’ve got a couple more stages that I can get to in terms of my improvement. I feel like he is the best man to do that. Already in the 10 days I’ve been here, I’m seeing football in a different way. I’m seeing the game completely different, learning different things every day. That’s what I want to do, I want to test myself. That’s why we play football, that’s why we want to improve.”

Rice has established himself as one of the world’s top defensive midfielders and is expected to operate primarily at the base of Arteta’s 4-3-3 system. It is, then, in one sense a surprise for a player of his calibre to describe having to effectively relearn his position, but Arteta, as a disciple of City boss Pep Guardiola, thinks about the game differently to most.

“I’ve been at one place for so long, it has been a completely different change just in terms of the tactics, the way he wants to play football, the way you press,” Rice said. “Every manager is different. Under Mikel already, I am learning so much in training, there’s so much information to take on. For sure over time, once I’ve fully adapted into it, I’m sure I’m going to be a better player for it.”

Rice has settled in quickly. Sources have told ESPN he has impressed in training during the preseason tour. He has a previous relationship with several players, most obviously his England teammates Aaron Ramsdale, Bukayo Saka, Ben White and Emile Smith Rowe, but also Eddie Nketiah, with whom he played at Chelsea between the under-9s and the under-14s age groups. They were both released by the Blues on the same day.

The time-honoured tradition of a new signing introducing himself with an initiation song has already taken place earlier on the U.S. tour.

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Rice: I’m hungry for success with Arsenal

Declan Rice speaks on his hunger to succeed at Arsenal and how excited he is to work with Mikel Arteta.

“I did it in Washington,” Rice said. “Standard [song]: ‘Ice Ice Baby.’ Rapped it. It was very good, to be fair. It was nerve-racking at the start because at the start you get asked a load of questions, you’ve got to say your name, have you got any brothers or sisters, and then you’ve got to sing. I gave it a good go. I think it went down well, to be fair. A couple of them said it was the best they’ve seen so I suppose it went down all right.

“I think it was important from the first day I got here to be as outgoing as possible. I’m like that anyway, but I really tried to put myself out there, speak to other players, speak to the Brazilian guys, speak to the Portuguese guys, show them that I’m a nice guy. I wanted them to get along with me.

“Do you know what? It feels like I’ve been here for ages already. I don’t feel like a new player. Even all of the staff members, the physios, the chefs, the people behind the scenes, they’ve all been so welcoming, I feel like that’s been really important. I feel like I’ve been here forever already, which is a massive positive and has also made it really easy for me to settle in.”

Arsenal will hope to reap the benefits of signing three players so early in the window. Rice was the last to join after Kai Havertz from Chelsea and Jurrien Timber from Ajax in a total spend in excess of £200m.

Sources have told ESPN it was a conscious decision by the club to move as early as possible to give Arteta the maximum amount of time to integrate these new players into the squad. There may yet be more arrivals — that will likely depend on outgoings in the coming weeks — but regardless, the club have given themselves the best chance of kicking on from last season.

If the 2022-23 Premier League title challenge came out of nowhere, expectations will be higher this season. Arsenal led the way for most of last term — and held an eight-point advantage in early April — but three wins from their final nine games allowed City to overtake them for Guardiola’s fifth title in six years.

There is only one final step for Arsenal to take, but it may be the hardest of all. Rice, however, is embracing the challenge. Asked if the title has to be the Gunners’ target this season, he said: “Without a doubt. From the first moment I’ve come in, the process of everyone in their minds here is to win. That’s literally the motivation of everyone now: to win, to be successful, to enjoy the pressure of being at the top.

“We’ve added some really good players. The squad was already amazing before those players joined. Of course there’s going to be more pressure on us. There’s going to be more pressure on everyone around the club to perform and win stuff.

“I feel like we take that in our stride. The players that were here last year, I’m sure they will have learned a hell of a lot with that title run, and this year is about going that one step ahead.

“Of course, everyone is strengthening in the Premier League, but I wouldn’t have chosen Arsenal if I didn’t believe that this club was going to go back into the big time, where they can win big trophies and compete for the biggest awards. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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