Declan Rice, Harry Kane? How do clubs replace one big star?

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This summer, West Ham United managed to do what many consider to be an impossible task: Replace Declan Rice — their best and most pivotal player — after his blockbuster £100 million move to Arsenal.

The hole Rice leaves in West Ham’s team goes beyond playing ability. He was the club captain, the heartbeat in midfield, the emotional core and the ultimate big-game player. Almost everyone that took to the pitch alongside him seemed to find a new level in their game.

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Even with £100m to spend, how do you replace all that?

Fortunately for West Ham, there were examples from history to learn from. Rice is not the first key player to make a transfer and the Hammers aren’t the first club to have to deal its repercussions — indeed, they were able to look back at two from the Premier League in the past 10 years to assess the strategy of how to do it best. Who did they look to, and what did they learn?

In summer 2013, Tottenham let winger Gareth Bale join Real Madrid for a world-record fee of £85m. It eclipsed the £80m deal that took Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United to the Santiago Bernabeu in 2009 and brought the two together, creating one of the most devastating attacking partnerships the game has ever seen.

While Madrid fans salivated, their Spurs counterparts were left wondering how the club could replace Bale’s production — 21 Premier League goals in 2012-13 — and his decisive energy that would frequently see him take charge of a game on his own.

Spurs’ approach was to sign seven players in varying positions for a total of £109m, in an attempt to upgrade almost the entire team. Striker Roberto Soldado (£26m) was signed to spearhead a new-look attack; forwards Erik Lamela (£30m), Christian Eriksen (£11.5m) and Nacer Chadli (£7m) upped the creativity behind him; Paulinho (£17m) and Étienne Capoue (£9m) beefed up central midfield; Vlad Chiricheș (£8.5m) joined the defence.

With seven players from six different countries, it was a lot of change in a very short space of time. Not only did manager André Villas-Boas have to rewire the team so it no longer looked to Bale at every opportunity, but he had to figure out how to bed in a host of new faces. Of those seven, Eriksen was a smash hit, Lamela gained cult-hero status but did not truly fill the void and Chadli was solid, while Capoue only emerged as an exceptional player later on in his career when playing for Watford and Villarreal. But Soldado, Paulinho and Chiricheș were soon moved on.

In principle, using the money from Bale’s transfer to upgrade more than one position in the team was a sound plan, but it created more uncertainty and unfamiliarity within the ranks. The midfield was slow to recalibrate, creating very little up front for Soldado, whose confidence waned as Spurs scored just nine goals in their first 10 Premier League fixtures. With the Bale-sized hole on the right wing looking larger by the week, Villas-Boas was sacked in December.

Ten years on, Tottenham lost another huge player in striker Harry Kane, who moved to Bayern Munich this summer for £86.4m. And although the club spent £212m on eight players — including creative midfielder James Maddison (£40m) and rapid forward Brennan Johnson (£45m) — and no top-class central striker as a direct replacement, it was offset by a completely new style thanks to newly appointed manager Ange Postecoglu.

Postecoglu’s arrival mitigated the Kane loss significantly, as the Australian boss’ ideal striker does not drop in and link play like England‘s all-time top scorer does. Son Heung-min, Richarlison and Johnson are happy to stay on the last line and provide the final touch, which is what Postecoglu asks of his No. 9. It has worked out well so far, with three wins from four games and a noticeable improvement in attacking freedom.

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Two years ago, Manchester City activated Jack Grealish’s £100m release clause to sign him from Aston Villa. Grealish is a boyhood Villa fan, having joined them at the age of 6, and had grown to become the epicentre of the club’s attack. Plan A, B and C was to get the ball to him, because his ability to dribble, create and break the game open was second to none. His six goals and 10 assists from just 24 starts in 2020-21 led to an England call-up for the COVID-19-delayed Euro 2020, where he impressed enough to persuade City he could be a future star.

Villa had ample time to prepare for this and moved swiftly. By the time Grealish’s move had been sealed on Aug. 5, then-CEO Christian Purslow had already signed three replacement players and prepared a video explaining his thought process. “Our strategy was to analyse and break down Jack’s key attributes; his creativity, his assists, his goals and to find these qualities and others in three forward players,” he said. “In signing Emiliano Buendía [£33m], Leon Bailey [£25m] and Danny Ings [£25m], we believe we have achieved this key objective and in doing so, reduced an overdependency on one brilliant footballer.”

Buendia was signed for creativity and assists; Bailey for speed; Ings for goals. On paper it formed a strong front three and striker Ollie Watkins added depth, but manager Dean Smith shifted away from a 4-2-3-1 shape into a 3-5-2 in order to get both strikers on the pitch together. Watkins and Ings did not click and it created imbalances elsewhere. That shape did not have a natural place for Bailey, though with injuries capping him at just seven Premier League starts that season, that wasn’t even the biggest short-term concern.

By the time Smith had been relieved of his duties on Nov. 8, Villa were flirting with relegation and looked like an incredibly muddled tactical unit. Just over a year later, Ings left to sign for West Ham for £15m because the club’s next two managers — Steven Gerrard and Unai Emery — could not find a way to make him fit into the team while ensuring Watkins remained key.

West Ham show how to do it

The business West Ham have done in the wake of Rice’s exit created a real buzz. They signed two-thirds of Ajax’s impressive midfield, in Edson Álvarez (£35m) and Mohammed Kudus (£38m), while Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse (£30m) brings Premier League experience, set-piece excellence and leadership after the Saints were relegated.

In essence, West Ham followed Villa’s blueprint from Example 2 over Spurs’, in that they overhauled the position their key departure played in, rather than try to spread the money even further across the squad. They correctly identified that Rice was practically a midfield on his own, so they signed a set of players to form a new one. Álvarez, Kudus and Ward-Prowse combined cost £103m, meaning the Hammers have essentially turned one star player into three new ones. The brains behind the overhaul was new technical director Tim Steidten, who has done a superb job remodelling the midfield from two key aspects.

The first is qualitative: To replace an elite player like Rice, you need to sign players of quality in response. Álvarez and Kudus are tried-and-tested in the Champions League, while Ward-Prowse is a hardened Premier League performer with a specific skill on set pieces that betters almost everyone on the planet.

Back in 2013, Spurs likely thought they’d nailed this brief, as Soldado, Lamela, Paulinho and the rest were big names, but the sheer number of recruits made adapting quickly extremely difficult. In 2021, Villa banked on Buendía taking a massive step up from the Championship, which he struggled with, while Bailey was too injured to show much in the way of quality.

The second aspect is tactical: The players must be good, but they must also suit the manager’s style, allowing them to bed in with more ease. This is where the Spurs of 2023 have shone and, likewise, West Ham boss David Moyes leans on Álvarez’s physicality, Ward-Prowse’s workrate and free-kicks, which can unlock the height and strength of his teams, while Kudus provides on-the-ball sparkle with some expert ball-winning too.

Moyes hasn’t had to adapt his style and shape to integrate Ward-Prowse or Álvarez whatsoever. The West Ham of 2023-24 has looked a lot like the West Ham of 2022-23, only with an enhanced set-piece threat. This is where Villa fell down massively, as signing Ings forced a change in shape and altered Watkins’ role, creating a ripple effect which destabilised the entire team.

The early signs for West Ham are incredibly positive. They temporarily rose to the top of the Premier League on Friday night as victory over Luton Town made it 10 points from 12 games. Ward-Prowse already has two assists from set pieces and four goal involvements, while Álvarez has looked solid in his first two starts. Kudus signed later but his progression may spell bad news for Tomáš Souček, or even Saïd Benrahma on the left flank, as the Ghana international can play any number of roles in midfield.

The Hammers do not look like a team who had their midfield core cut out over the summer. Replacing a key player will never be an easy task, but it looks like Moyes’ men may have provided a blueprint for others to follow in the future.



POST AUTHOR: Sam Tighe

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