As soon as Manchester City signed Rodri in the summer of 2019, Pep Guardiola said that he would be a vital player for the club for the next decade. Others took longer to be convinced. Nobody is in any doubt now. Rodri has become key to City’s success.
“He has developed so well in that position over the last couple of seasons,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “This happens quite a lot under Pep Guardiola, they just tend to grow and grow and get better and better. Rodri is doing that and has done that now.”
The Spaniard has been imperious for City this season. Occasionally making the headlines, scoring a stunner against Everton. Always impressing with his use of the ball, taking it in tight situations, setting the tempo for his team and controlling games as a result.
Even when the Premier League is at its quickest, the pressing at its most ferocious, Rodri seems to have time. Guardiola puts that improvement down to the player’s mentality, a competitive spirit and dedication that he brings to every training session.
But it is also the product of long conversations with Juanma Lillo, Guardiola’s assistant and guru. “We have tried to help him with Juanma to understand the game, especially what the holding midfielder has to do,” Guardiola explained recently.
“Last season, he moved too much. The holding midfielder has to be there, don’t move, be there. Like if you drive a car and move to the back seat, you can crash.
“The driver has to be there in the front.”
Only 25, Rodri can sometimes seem older because of the maturity of his game. In that sense, there is a parallel with Sergio Busquets, the man who assumed a similar role at the base of Guardiola’s Barcelona midfield while still in his early twenties.
But he has had to learn what is required from the position.
“With the ball, he knows exactly where the spaces are to attack and the tempo we have to play. The holding midfielder sometimes needs five touches, sometimes one, sometimes three and now he plays this rhythm that helps our game.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that Rodri has made more passes than any other player in the Premier League this season. There have been 1220 of them and counting so far. “The positions in the middle of everything are so important.”
The variety of those passes is a little unusual, however, highlighting his range. He ranks among the top five in the Premier League for passes to his left and to his right. He ranks second for chipped passes and fifth for long passes.
He can now do whatever the situation demands.
That is important because while Rodri’s focus is on ball retention, he needs to be doing more than that. Line-breaking passes are critical for City against a packed defence. Guardiola needs his holding midfielder to keep the ball but also to feed it to the forward players.
Rodri must look forward quickly in those rare moments when the opposition are out of shape and because of City’s dominance, he is operating much higher up the pitch than holding midfielders elsewhere. He ranks third for passes completed in the final third.
The fact that City matches are largely played out in the opposition half of the pitch has always put huge emphasis on the team’s ability to manage the counter-attacks. That is partly why Guardiola wants him to maintain his position rather than roam.
But it is a balancing act. He needs to win possession when it is there to be won. Rodri has won the ball more times in the attacking third of the pitch than any other City player, a fine example coming in the first half against Leeds, almost resulting in a goal.
Working out when to sit and when to press is a skill that comes with experience. “He is getting better reading the situation and defensively, he has more presence.” Season-on-season, he is winning the ball more often in the final third, picking those moments.
As a result, City have regained the control that Fernandinho once gave them. That was an issue at first. The number of fast breaks against Guardiola’s side doubled in the 2019/20 season – Rodri’s first – from the total they allowed in their back-to-back title wins.
Fast breaks definition
An attempt created after the defending team quickly turn defence into attack by winning the ball in their own half
Last season, that improved. This season, after allowing three such situations in the defeat to Tottenham on the opening weekend, a game for which Rodri was an unused substitute, there have only been two in total in the 16 games that the midfielder has started.
In fact, according to Opta, it is now 14 games since City conceded a chance from a counter-attacking situation. That is by far the longest such sequence of any Premier League club right now and the longest sequence by City since Guardiola arrived in 2016.
After fears that Fernandinho could not be replaced, the situation has switched. City cannot control games as well without Rodri, as that Spurs game showed. His surprise omission from the Champions League final line-up is a decision Guardiola would surely not repeat.
Rodri now ranks among the top tier of holding midfielders, a playmaker and a presence. “He is set up perfectly in the Premier League already.” And there is time to improve. “He is 25 years old, he is still young.” A vital player for the next decade, after all.