Fun fact for you – Rodrigo translates to 'famous ruler’. The Spaniard has been reigning supreme in Manchester City’s midfield, and it is about time he got the credit his performances have warranted.
On a serious note, though, Rodri has really impressed over the past three months – it has looked like he has turned a notable corner in his development as a Manchester City player, helping contribute to 16 wins in a row in all competitions which is a record in English football.
And Pep Guardiola feels that way too about Rodri. Ahead of welcoming Tottenham Hotspur to the Etihad Stadium, Guardiola said: “He [Rodri] adapted immediately and he's still young. There are some issues that he still has to learn and he will learn, but he is a really important player for us. A good holding midfielder is good when he plays for the other ones and not himself."
"To think about what is going on, what they have to do to correct mistakes and not play for highlights. The best holding midfielders never appear in newspapers, they hide behind the team. When the team plays good it's because they are outstanding."
Some kind words from Guardiola – who has shone in this role for Barcelona in the past. Rodri’s performances will go under the radar, given how solid the defence has been and that Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Joao Cancelo and co have been performing so well, it is completely understandable. But equally, he is due some rightful credit that will not make the front pages.
The proof in the pudding – faultless at Anfield displaying a very cultured, mature performance, then a rather complete display against Swansea and the Spanish international followed that by making everything tick against Spurs. This is not a take that is just based on a couple of games, he has gone under the radar now for numerous games, with more notable City performances getting fair plaudits. But, who said there is not enough plaudits to go around, eh?
So, what’s changed? As it has been well documented, City’s change to a 3-1-3-3 system, which only been altered a couple of times, has worked wonders. The reason for the change, I felt, was a result of the significantly sturdier defence that Guardiola had assembled, enabling Gundogan to push on leaving a sole holding midfielder . Rodri now plays at the tip of this defensive diamond – a well-polished one that is, which have kept six clean sheets in the last seven league games for City.
In that system, Rodri acts as a central pivot, despite Cancelo often joining him on the right, acting as a double in recent games. But as opposed to playing on one side of a holding two with Gundogan usually, or Fernandinho in the 4-2-3-1 of old, this continuity in the middle, even when City play a 4-3-3 like they did against Swansea, is where Rodri has looked most at home. Guardiola's trust in Rodri and the defence's ability has also created a domino affect - meaning that with Gundogan pushing on, the Blues can use his quality to greater effect, therefore benefitting the team further as he has bagged 11 goals in his last 12 games.
Now a sole defensive midfielder again, Rodri can focus on mastering his positioning and taking tips from Fernandinho in a role which he executed remarkably in the 2017/18 season. Rodri also now has the reassurance that there is solid protection behind him after having a defence with mixed fortunes behind him last year, to put it nicely. It was not the easiest time to adapt and make the position his own – it is a different story now.
Guardiola has spoken in recent weeks about being patient with the ball, running without the ball and finding the right moment. This is a part of the trade that Rodri is steadily developing and only more experience in a Guardiola side will assist that. It is not who can play the quickest football, it is about playing the right pass at the right time in the right position - Rodri's patience in possession certainly helps bring that calm before the storm. This progress in possession and ability to take actions at the right time have been a part of the "incredible improvement" of the team that the manager has hailed.
When the teams playing well, it is hard not to play well yourself, but the 24-year-old’s solid, assured efforts over the last month have gone under the radar, particularly in an outstanding display against Aston Villa in which he earned WhoScored.com’s Premier League Player of the Week. It is only right he gets fair recognition.
It is easier said than proved, but Rodri looks notably sharper. In the past, it has been noted on social media that he has looked slack and sluggish at times, but he looks that half-a-yard faster, getting back in transition after losing the ball to intercept.
Equally, on the ball his decision-making looks quicker too. I suppose it is just a factor that comes with getting used to the team he is playing for, knowing his teammates positioning and how they like to receive the ball. Rodri’s proficiency in possession has meant he has been dispossessed 0.45 times per game this season, as opposed to 0.76 of last season, suggesting his aptitude on the ball has developed, as well as his all-round game.
His passing has never been in question – arguably his speed of pass has improved this season from the naked eye, again speeding play up. If you were in any doubt of his passing capabilities though, I would advise reading on as soon as possible. Efficiency, yet simplicity personified.
Rodri has always been a slick turner of the ball, receiving on the half-turn, then turning into a quarter-back almost to spray passes around, but his game just looks sharper, smoother, quicker, and he is one of the cogs in this well-oiled City machine.
Using the stats above, which have been adjusted to correlate to a teams possession, they would suggest that while Rodri’s pass completion, progressive passes, passes into the final third and successful pressures of the ball are rather similar in, largely, the top end compared to players in his role. Meanwhile, his interceptions and tackles per 90 have taken a leap towards the top end of his crop. He is still adapting to this City side rather nicely.
And within this development, he seems to be becoming a more of an imposing figure in the dressing room, too. Knowledge and maturity way beyond his years. It surprised everyone when Rodri took hold of the penalty against Spurs this weekend, but his response, again, displays the leadership traits he seems to be developing.
"I was angry the last weeks because we miss many penalties. In big games you have to score penalties. I said next penalty we get, I told my teammates, I grab the ball and nobody takes it away. Fortunately I score,” Rodri said.
It may not have been the best penalty, but he took control and got the job done. A quick flex of the fists, a few hugs and it was back to business. That rather matches Rodri’s approach to games too – making one of the most demanding roles on the pitch look simple and getting his job done, allowing the rest of the team to shine.
Rodri is not the finished product by any means, but this ‘famous ruler’ that is shining for City, only seems to be becoming more and more adept at dominating midfield battles and setting the tempo for those around him, helping this City side to continue their dominance of late. And on that note, long may his reign in holding midfield continue.
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