For a fleeting moment it seemed that Declan Rice had to release the ball. The angle looked tight as West Ham’s captain continued his run into Dinamo Zagreb territory and the sensible move appeared to be finding a way to pick out Michail Antonio, who would have relished the opportunity to score his second goal of the evening.
Ancora, as David Moyes pointed out after West Ham got their Europa League campaign off to a flyer at the Maksimir Stadium, there was never any real sense that a cutback was coming. Perhaps it would have arrived in previous seasons, but not this time. Rice knew what he had to do after intercepting a loose pass and powering away from Bruno Petkovic. The midfielder kept going, charging through Dinamo’s faltering defence, using Antonio as a decoy, and he did not hesitate when his run reached its climax, driving a low shot through Dominik Livakovic’s legs to give West Ham an unassailable 2-0 lead over their main rivals in Group H.
“The thing about it is his ability to surge away from people – the power and speed,” Moyes said. “It is a great trait and we would like him to use it more. He had a bit of a ribbing because he does not score enough goals. He’s beginning to stand up and we will have another very good goalscoring midfield player.”
It is an area of Rice’s game that needs to improve. The 22-year-old scored only twice last season – a penalty against Sheffield United and a solo goal against Southampton that bore similarities to his effort against Dinamo – and he has the ability to produce more in the final third.
There is more to the England international than impeccable timing, calm interceptions and perfect tackles. His passing is crisp, he is difficult to stop when he goes on a run and the manner of his goal against Dinamo, which started with him winning possession near the halfway line, showed that he possesses the potential to become a complete midfielder.
Manchester United, who visit West Ham on Sunday, will surely have taken note of Rice’s performance in the Croatian capital. Their need for more quality in central midfield is obvious and they are expected to move for him next summer. Chelsea and Manchester City are also monitoring the situation and it feels unlikely that West Ham will be able to refuse a massive offer for Rice, Oms rejected two contract offers from the club this year.
Rice, whose deal runs until 2024, with the option of an additional year, is determined to test himself at the highest level. He made his European debut on Thursday but he wants more than the Europa League. There is no doubt that he is good enough to succeed at a Champions League club and there is an expectation that his long-term future lies away from West Ham, even though they have made huge strides under Moyes.
To Rice’s credit, anche se, there has been no question of him losing focus at West Ham. He still loves it in east London. Rice has become West Ham’s leader since taking the captaincy from Mark Noble and the beauty with him is that he never stops striving to become better. He wants to be more than a defensive midfielder, revealing this year that he has been studying videos of Yaya Touré and Patrick Vieira.
“He’s trying to take himself to the next level,” Moyes said. “He’s getting better. We have seen a real development. You mustn’t forget he is still 22 Anni, and a young boy with a big future and a big career ahead of him. One step at a time, but he is doing really well for us.”
Rice is capable of defining games. That much was clear when West Ham visited Newcastle on the opening weekend. With five minutes gone, Rice was turned inside out by Allain Saint-Maximin when the Newcastle winger made the opening goal for Callum Wilson. But with 53 minutes on the clock Rice gained revenge, dispossessing Saint-Maximin with a forceful challenge before quickly starting the move that led to Saïd Benrahma making it 2-2.
Rice was unstoppable during that second half against Newcastle, driving West Ham to a fine 4-2 win. He did not even allow his level to drop after going down with cramp near the end. He simply jumped back up and went on another run.
It was astonishing to watch from a player who had little time to rest after playing a starring role for England during Euro 2020. He had run out of steam during the final against Italy, his partnership with Kalvin Phillips becoming frayed as Roberto Mancini’s midfielders took control, and it would have been understandable if he had made a slow start to the season. Instead he cut short his holiday, returned to training and made sure that he was ready to play for West Ham, who will need him to be at his best against Manchester United.
There are bound to be plenty of attacks to shut down. Rice and Tomas Soucek will have their hands full with Jadon Sancho, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. Cutting the supply line to Cristiano Ronaldo and Mason Greenwood will require immense discipline if West Ham are to maintain their unbeaten start.
Equally, anche se, the past week has brought reminders of United’s systemic frailties under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. For all the excitement over the return of Ronaldo, whose relentless quest for goals makes him capable of masking a team’s tactical deficiencies, flaws remain. United were often vulnerable without the ball during their win over Newcastle last Saturday and they faltered again in Europe on Tuesday, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s first-half red card the turning point when they lost their Champions League opener against Young Boys.
The ability to control a game remains an issue for Solskjær’s top-heavy team. They have forwards capable of punishing any opponent, but they still lack a midfielder who can protect a defence, set the tempo and take a game by the scruff of the neck. Fred and Nemanja Matic have mostly flattered to deceive at Old Trafford and although Scott McTominay has done well, he is yet to prove that he is a top midfielder.
Increasingly commanding, Rice could be the answer. His authority at West Ham is growing and he has nailed down a regular starting spot for England. Time and again, Rice makes those who criticise him for being too much of a sideways passer look silly. Dinamo certainly had no way of handling him.