The Guardian: LONDON, England, By David Hytner – It was a throwaway line from Declan Rice because at the beginning of the week his focus was with England – on his 50th cap in the Wembley friendly against Belgium on Tuesday – and captaining his country for the first time. Still, the Arsenal midfielder was asked about what was coming afterwards – namely his team’s Premier League showdown at Manchester City on Sunday – and he made the point that “if you want to get past that barrier of Arsenal being labelled as stuff, you have to go there and win”.

Labelled as stuff? It feels like a good starting point for another sit-down with Rice (twice in one week is practically unique for any player, let alone a card-carrying A-lister), especially now that the game is the next game and what a game it is, loaded with significance for the title race. Could Rice elaborate? What sort of labels did he mean?

“You know yourself what people say about Arsenal when they don’t win games or if they get close,” he says. “When they missed out on the top four two years ago. When they lost the league last year. I think this is a new Arsenal now.”

Rice does not need to spell it out; the negative theories that have clung to Arsenal, climaxing again last season when City motored past them from around this point. Arsenal had been eight points clear at the top of the table in mid-January. They were eight points clear again on 1 April, albeit having played a game more than City. They were the frontrunners for so long. It did not matter.

Rice was on the outside then and he played a part in Arsenal’s unravelling, even if it surely remains glib and unfair to attribute it all to mental collapse. Arsenal were 2-0 up at West Ham on 16 April and coasting. But when Rice, then the West Ham captain, won the ball off Thomas Partey, it led to a penalty for 2-1. Bukayo Saka would miss from the spot for Arsenal before West Ham equalised for 2-2.

Declan Rice playing for West Ham against Arsenal
Rice was on the outside last season when he helped West Ham play a part in Arsenal’s unravelling – James Fearn/PPAUK/Shutterstock

The turnaround was stunning and it was followed by Arsenal’s 3-3 home draw with Southampton. They were reeling when they faced City at the Etihad Stadium, they lost 4-1 and that was pretty much that.

What Rice wants to talk up now – and he does so with unblinking conviction – is why it will be different this time. Arsenal’s resources run deeper after their moves in last summer’s transfer market, which Rice touches on. His £105m arrival from West Ham has been a game-changer; his near seamless integration likely to put him on the player of the year shortlists. David Raya and Kai Havertz have also weighed in. But what has really struck Rice is the collective composure, the mindset.

“This is an Arsenal that have learned from last year, a group of players that are learning, getting older, more experienced,” he says. “The club bought some great players over the summer as well, who have all had a massive impact. We are ready to change that barrier about what people say about Arsenal.

“The players were gutted last year that they lost the league being eight points ahead. You don’t hear them speak too much about it but you can just see there is a difference this year in terms of mentality and mindset. It’s how everyone is around the place in terms of being calm and taking one game at a time. That’s a thing I’ve noticed. We’re never thinking: ‘Oh, we have City on Sunday, then Luton on Wednesday.’ It’s just focus on that one game and doing everything we can to win that one game.”

It is Arsenal who boast the impeccable form. Since their winter break, when they spent a week working and bonding in Dubai, they have won eight out of eight in the league, averaging more than four goals per game, while they got past Porto on penalties in the Champions League last 16. It is Bayern Munich next. Against that, Pep Guardiola has the sign over them at the Etihad, winning all seven of his league matches against them and one more in the FA Cup.

Then, there is the Rodri factor. Rice’s midfield counterpart has not tasted defeat in 62 City games, a Premier League-era record, although it overlooks the Community Shield penalty shootout reverse against Arsenal last August; weirdly, that goes down as a draw in the statistics, which appear to be stacked against Arsenal.

“Let them be,” Rice says. “I’d rather go there and be an underdog and prove it to everyone that we can be the team we really want to be. The worst thing is being spoken up in such a big way, there’s such a big expectation on you and then you don’t perform. I’d rather people say we’re this and we’re that, and us go there and shock people and show them how good we are.

“It will be down to the 11 who go out on the pitch to really show some balls, show we can perform at the biggest level and the biggest pressure moments.”

Rice is prodded about Rodri, partly because he is on record as saying that the Spaniard is the global benchmark for No 6s. It is brought up that Rodri did not play in Arsenal’s 1-0 win over City at the Emirates last October. “Do you love him?” Rice asks and, for a second, you wonder if he is riled. He is not.

Rodri playing for Manchester City
Rice describes Manchester City midfielder Rodri as a “monster” – Michael Regan/Getty Images

“Rodri’s a monster,” Rice says. “Even when you speak to the City lads at England, they say when Rodri doesn’t play they feel the difference themselves. Visibly, you can see that, too. I’m a great admirer of him, how he’s come to the Premier League and adapted, how robust he is. It’s set up to be a really good battle and I’m sure there will be mutual respect shown.”

Rice is the latest Arsenal player to confirm that Mikel Arteta did not do anything out of the ordinary to galvanise the squad in Dubai; they had travelled there on the back of three straight defeats, two in the league and one in the FA Cup to Liverpool. According to Rice, the manager’s watchword was “impact”, his plans going no further than the next game, which was Crystal Palace at home.

Rice cites the away game against Palace, the second of the league season, as when he felt his Arsenal career click, which speaks volumes, and an illustration of his growth has come after Dubai in his new role as the team’s set-piece taker. Again, no story from Dubai; it was not discussed there. The decision was based on Arsenal’s personel for Palace and the visitors’ set up. That, and Arteta’s belief in Rice’s technique. He would supply the opening goal from a corner and has since kicked on.

So to City, with Rice saying he has felt a greater intensity to the preparations, many more tactical demands to process, the dynamics grooved even deeper because of the relationship between Guardiola and Arteta. And, finally, to the big question that continues to stalk Rice. He said during the European Championship finals in 2021 that he had never drunk a beer. Did that change after he led West Ham to Europa Conference League glory last season?

“There’s a picture of me and [David] Moyes … we had a can of Heineken but I put it down,” Rice says. “I had a sip with him, put my arm round him and that was the only time. After the Community Shield, when a video got put out about us … I smelled the champagne bottle, went ‘urgh’ and put it to the side.

“Look, if we win [this season] … I’m not looking that far ahead but if the time comes, we’ll want to enjoy ourselves. It’s been a long and tiring season.”

Top Feature Photo: Declan Rice believes Arsenal’s experience and development will help their chances at Manchester City on Sunday – David Price/Arsenal FC/Getty Images