Declan Rice can give Manchester United something no other summer transfer could
Man Utd have agreed a deal with Borussia Dortmund for Jadon Sancho but a move for Declan Rice could be just as important this summer.
In the social media age transfer windows are almost as important as the business of football matches and it's the glamorous names that really move the meter in the digital world.
Manchester United are off to a good start in that regard, signing one of the most exciting attacking players in Europe in Jadon Sancho, and their pursuit of Real Madrid and France centre back Raphael Varane promises to be a trending topic for weeks to come. Varane is a world-class player with a world-class CV, there will be disappointment amongst the transfer hungry supporters if the 28-year-old doesn't sign this summer.
In amongst those names, Declan Rice probably falls a little short. A defensive midfielder at West Ham, with no major European experience, he might not automatically set pulses racing.
That may have changed a little with the 22-year-old's excellent performance for England against Germany on Tuesday, when Rice proved the biggest stage of all is made for him.
With performances like that, it should come as no surprise he's holding fire on a new contract with the Hammers. David Moyes did a fine job at the London Stadium last season but Rice looks to be outgrowing his surroundings in the east of the capital. Chelsea and United both have an interest.
Rice has three years remaining on his current contract, which certainly strengthens West Ham's hand when it comes to a sale. If any club wants him this summer they will have to pay a substantial fee, with the Hammers thought to value him in excess of £100million.
But maybe it's worth considering what Rice could bring to Old Trafford. A tall, physical defensive midfielder with experience of playing at centre back, he looks like the ideal player to bolster a midfield that didn't quite strike the right notes last season.
In Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's 4-2-3-1 it was often Fred and Scott McTominay paired together, but they don't always give United the front foot ball required against lesser opposition.
Paul Pogba can provide that, but he's not as defensively secure in a two-man midfield.
That has often left United searching for the right balance in the engine room. While Fred and McTominay can be an energetic and effective shield in the biggest games, they haven't always worked well in games United expect to dominate.
Rice is a natural holding midfielder. He's positionally aware having played as a central defender as well and can cover ground quickly, but he's also underrated when it comes to breaking lines. For West Ham last season he was happy to carry the ball forward and try and take opposition players out of the game.
According to FBRef data, Rice made 4.85 progressive carries last season, which put him in the 66th percentile in the Premier League for that stat, so only a third of Premier League midfielders made more carries, one of whom was McTominay. His defensive stats are also excellent, in the 91st percentile for interceptions.
If United signed Rice, it would give them more security in midfield, perhaps allowing Pogba or Donny van de Beek to play next to him more often, freeing a creative player to play in one of Solskjaer's 'No. 6' roles with the presence of Rice next to them.
It could also allow United to change formation on a more regular basis. The allure of Pogba's performances for France during Euro 2020 have tempted some fans to wonder if United can switch to a 4-3-3. That might inhibit Bruno Fernandes, taking his influence further from goal, but it's an option to consider.
To play that system you need a defensive midfielder of the highest quality, however. Fielding Rice behind Pogba and Fernandes, for example, might just work
While Sancho adds a spark to United's attack and Varane can add bite to their defence, it's arguable that signing someone like Rice could be more transformative to this team, giving Solskjaer options to recalibrate his midfield depending on the opponent.
Funding a move for Rice will be the biggest obstacle United face.
A centre back is next on the hit list for Solskjaer and whether they land Varane, Pau Torres or both, it's going to take another significant chunk out of the budget this summer. At a time when revenues are still recovering from the pandemic, a spend of more than £200million in this window looks unlikely, yet that is probably what it would take to sign Sancho, a centre back and Rice.
But if United are determined to sustain a title challenge next season making a move for Rice might make a lot of sense. There's plenty more twists and turns to come in this transfer window.