How Rodri has grown as a press-resistant midfielder at Manchester City

Steve Zavala

In his lone season with Atletico Madrid, Rodrigo Hernandez shined in essentially every aspect of play that any coach would like to see out of a base midfielder, from passing to dropping back to defend. One component of his play that made him stand out with the Rojiblancos was his press-resistant play — a component that frustrated a multitude of La Liga midfielders. A season later, Rodri has successfully translated his efficient press-resistant style over to his current run with Manchester City.

Whether it has been as a base or defensive midfielder, Rodri works relentlessly to control and maintain possession amidst pressure from an opponent. He simply possesses the ability to thwart away any pressure while keeping the ball moving upfield. This has been far from an effortless task for him, especially for a midfielder in the Premier League. Still, his early success as a press-resistant talent in the team’s 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations earned him the trust of manager Pep Guardiola.

Rodri’s success this season over in this department of play has him above the rest when compared to other Premier League midfielders.

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Source: Football Reference 

Rodri ranks first amongst qualified Premier League midfielders in passes completed with 1,813; this should be far from a surprise considering his heavy on-ball responsibilities. However, he also ranks first in passes made while under pressure from an opponent with 410, which is 21 more than second-place Jorginho. Overall, 22.6 percent of his overall passes completed have come under an opponent’s press — a rate which ranks amongst the best in Europe. This illustrates that while Rodri is a high-volume passer and often recycles possession, he is keen on resisting pressure from an opponent at a top percentile rate.  

It is worth noting that Rodri is at a significant advantage because he plays for Guardiola’s high-octane attacking system. Opposing managers all have their different tactics in setting up to face City, but they all share one common approach: resisting from triggering an aggressive high press. City rank at the top of the league in lowest opponent passes allowed per defensive action in the opposition half at a 23.23 rate. Teams simply do not attack Manchester City by pressing their array of potent on-ball talents. If teams were to take on such an audacious approach to press more against Guardiola’s side, they would expose themselves to a multitude of open space on the pitch for City to exploit.

Still, it should not discredit how well Rodri manages to keep possession against teams applying heavy pressure. As mentioned, he is extremely efficient in this component of play, but he is also a top-rate midfielder in overall ball control with a mere 15 dispossessions across 2,152 total touches this season, according to Football Reference.

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The reason for why Rodri is highly skilled in fending off pressure while in possession comes down to his overall play style as a midfielder.

Over the course of this season, the Spanish international has shown how versatile of a midfielder he is with escaping away from an opponent's press. He has a few tricks up his sleeve on just how to combat any kind of pressing setups from the opponent.  

For one, Rodri is prolific at distributing quick relay passes in tight space. When faced with an on-field dilemma where he is receiving a pass in tight space, the 23-year-old attacks the situation on a step-by-step basis. He often collects the ball and immediately keeps his head up to survey the space surrounding him along with his possible passing options. He concludes by reacting accordingly, whether it is by precisely distributing a quick pass off to counter a press or patiently wait in finding the best possible passing option.  

Much of Rodri’s success as a press-resistant midfielder also stems from his ability to shield the ball. This technique — when mastered — can be extremely beneficial to any holding midfielder. From Sergio Busquets to Wilfred Ndidi, these midfielders are among the best press-resistant midfielders in Europe thanks to their keen play in protecting the ball by any means.

For Rodri, he is continually growing in his ability to shield the ball away from any incoming pressers. He is a player who strives on using his frame to physically keep away oncoming pressure; he also keeps a steady touch on the ball in order to not lose control of it.

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For instance, see this sequence below from Manchester City’s early-season fixture against Norwich. As Rodri receives the ball, his goal centers on pushing the ball up into the final third. However, he is met with immediate pressure from an opponent. He responds by corralling the ball, angling his body away from the opponent, and creating just enough separation to give him enough time to pass the ball upfield.

Dribbling is also part of his repertoire as a pass-resistant midfielder. The Spaniard is not one to continually rely on steering away from pressure by dribbling away into open space, unlike many of his league counterparts. Nonetheless, Rodri uses this on-ball technique as a last resort. He is averaging 1.0 dribbles per game in Premier League play this season, which ranks ninth on the team. However, he should look to rely on this method more often because of his relatively high 93 percent successful dribbles rate. This is all credited to his advanced ball control technique and sheer ability to maintain possession against the most aggressive pressing systems in the league.

In short, the Spaniard may have very well spent a good amount of time studying the likes of central defensive midfielders Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso because he aims to equate their play style. To his credit, he may very well be on his way to becoming the next top Spanish central defensive midfielder. Only time will tell on this.   

Overall, Rodri’s skill in withstanding pressure from an opponent fits the profile for a prototypical midfielder in Guardiola’s possession-based setup. His play this season exemplifies just that. Not only is he a proficient passer and ball progressor, but he has adapted extremely well in combating an opponent’s press. He is a wizard at simply veering away from oncoming pressure and keeping the team’s possessional structure.

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Since Manchester City maintains a high amount of possessional time per game coupled with his heavy on-ball responsibilities, he knows he can not afford to lose the ball and provide opposing attackers with a free counter-attacking opportunity. Yet, he has not been on the wrong side of this thanks to his well-composed on-ball play.   

Rodri surely has what it takes to be the team’s long-term central defensive midfielder.

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