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Is Declan Rice Arsenal’s number 6 or number 8 or both in Mikel Arteta’s grand plan?

To build his dream midfield, Mikel Arteta would ideally want two Declan Rices. One to clear for the back four, one to break forward into the opposition box.

A goal and assist in Saturday’s 3-0 home win against Bournemouth took Rice to 15 Premier League goals in his debut season at Arsenal: seven goals, plus eight assists.

That figure puts him further than Granit Xhaka, who recorded seven of each in the top flight last season before leaving for Bayer Leverkusen. What’s all the more remarkable is that Rice achieved these numbers while playing alternately as a No. 8 and a No. 6.

Rice has made 35 starts in the Premier League this season, 23 of them as a No. 6. As the campaign has progressed, he has been increasingly deployed in a more advanced role, and has now started 12 league matches as Arsenal’s No. 1.8.

Arteta is a huge believer in the breadth of Rice’s talent. Yet the England international’s effectiveness in the final third has taken his manager somewhat by surprise.

“We thought (his goal production) would be very related to the spaces he would occupy on the pitch,” Arteta explained. “But then it’s something else to do it in this competition. He did it. Thanks to him. Even if we’ve changed him from position to position, it’s not easy to adapt to that, so I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Rice has never hidden his preference for playing at the bottom of midfield. But his sheer athleticism makes him a difficult force to control when he ventures into the opposition party.

“With No. 8, the manager is huge at making runs (from the ball), threatening at the back, occupying zones, and that’s unnatural to me,” Rice said. The Athletics this week. “I’ve never done that in my life, so this is the first year I’ve learned that, and it was very different.”

It may not be Rice’s natural game, but he clearly has a knack for it.

As number 8 he is given the freedom to drive forward and bulldoze between opposition lines. There are few midfielders who can live with him. And if he can deliver these results after less than one season of experience, it’s tempting to imagine what he could be capable of if given more time.

On the eve of the match against Bournemouth, Arteta suggested he believes Rice has the potential to score even more regularly.

“I think there is a lot more,” he said at his pre-match press conference. “We need to put him in more situations so he can discover his talent. He also needs to recognize certain situations earlier, to build that relationship and chemistry within the unit he plays with – something that is still quite raw, especially with the amount of changes we have made on the left side this season.

“All this will contribute to his development and hopefully we can see much more.”


Rice has seven goals and eight assists in this season’s Premier League (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Rice also develops that hunger to score that is integral to any true box-to-box midfielder. “I missed a sitter (in the first half) and I was furious,” he told TNT Sports, the British broadcaster of the match against Bournemouth. “I couldn’t let it go and I knew there was an opportunity for me today to score and assist.

“Even before my goal I was back in my own half and I just felt that. All their players were on their feet and I just kept going and got into a position that I did quite a few times today.”

He gets that nose in front of goal. He has the legs. He has the technique to hit the ball, as he has proven this season with his excellent set pieces. All ingredients are present.

Rice also showed good awareness and technique to set up the second goal of the match for Leandro Trossard, suggesting Arsenal’s left side is now developing the solid relationships it has lacked for much of the season.

It leaves Arteta with an intriguing conundrum: is Rice a No. 6 or a No. 8 in his grand plan?

That decision will have consequences for the club’s transfer activities. Due to doubts over Thomas Partey’s future and the fact that Mohamed Elneny is out of contract, Arsenal will have to bring in a central midfielder this summer. It makes sense to target someone who can complement Rice in the long term, but do they plan to pair their record signing with a midfielder or someone who offers more of an attacking threat?

David Ornstein of The Athletics has reported on Arsenal’s admiration for Newcastle’s Bruno Guimaraes, as well as Martin Zubimendi of Spanish side Real Sociedad. Both players are considered No. 6s. If we moved to the Emirates Stadium, we might see more and more of this unshackled Rice.

Or perhaps Rice’s flexibility will prove his strength.

One trait that last summer’s outfield acquisitions Rice, Jurrien Timber and Kai Havertz all have in common is their versatility. If Arsenal can add another multi-functional player, Arteta will have a host of options at his disposal.

Defining Rice as a six or an eight may prove unnecessarily restrictive: under Arteta’s guidance he becomes the complete midfielder.

(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)