In August 2018, Tallinn (Estonia), football fans were delighted to attend the first official game of Atletico Madrid’s new number 14 against Real Madrid. Having a good performance on his debut against the club’s biggest rivals with Gabi’s legendary number is a great challenge. At the beginning of the match, he had the mission of disturbing Real’s build-up, marking Toni Kroos.
When his team had the ball, however, he excelled in passing, making 49 of his 51 attempted passes. The Spanish press unanimously to said that Thomas Lemar, Diego and one other player were the reasons for this victory. His name Rodrigo “Rodri” Hernandez Cascante. This tactical analysis will break down some of Rodri’s best aspects.
Why Atletico bought him?
Rodri was not an unknown player for Atletico. He was in their academy when he was younger. With no chances to play for the professional team, they allowed him to go to Villareal, who were in the division below. Then last season he exploded onto the season. In 2017/2018 with Villareal in La Liga, he was the most used player (3,228 minutes), the one with the most accurate passes (2,473) and 2nd most tackles won (104). Diego Simeone dragged him back to Madrid for 40.5 million to end some of the Rojiblancos’ struggles.
Concretely, Rodri is less of a “warrior” than Gabi. With his arrival, Atlético lost some muscle in the midfield, and so that’s why he seems a little more vulnerable defensively. Although he is quite capable of winning duels, the 22-year-old uses anticipation more than directly challenging his opposition. This allows him to achieve a good number of interceptions and launch counterattacks. He also shines aerially. Standing at 1m91cm he offers a significant advantage over his opponents.
Debut with the national team
On October 11th, Spain played Wales without Gareth Bale. However, I’m not sure his presence would have reduced the scoreline. Spain had 70% of possession overall (78% in the first half). Luis Enrique played with a “B team” with a few new players who began the new chapter in Spanish football. Rodri was among them. In the midfield, he was the deep-lying midfielder behind Dani Ceballos and Saul Niguez.
With 97.70% pass completion, Rodri had an immaculate performance — he completed 128 of his 131 passes. Afterwards, the game was described by Spanish newspaper Marca as an “exhibition”. Four days before Spain’s meeting with England, who have been so desperately seeking a midfielder of Busquets’ technical qualities, Enrique decided to show the world he has two of them. Many times, he had the chance to play long balls but he preferred to play short like an Arthur. Except for at the set-piece, the colchonero didn’t participate in the attacking phase. When he had to shoot, he found the target but didn’t worry the goalkeeper. He stayed back to cover the gaps caused by Ceballos or Saul (replaced by Koke in 45’). The 50,232 spectators at Millenium Stadium appreciated the performance of this young version of Sergio Busquets.
In his only game in the UEFA Nations League, he had 100% at passing. The national team boss will be calm when Sergio Busquets shall retire.
He doesn’t love taking on the opposition. He has just two goals in 18 appearances in La Liga. However, that is double Busquets’ tally this season.
Rodrigo has the ability to play both as a central midfielder or central defensive midfielder and has proved himself to be a visionary player who is not afraid to play long balls (3.2 per game in La Liga).
He helps a lot, especially when his team has the ball, his contribution is remarkable. His vision technical quality allows him to be the first launchpad for Atlético and he has no trouble breaking the lines with a through ball. His ability to protect and keep the ball is also great.
“Rodrigo grows as the games progress, he has a very good exit ball that allows us to position ourselves between the lines on the offensive sequences and hurt the rival.”
Diego Simeone recently said about the midfielder.
He turns has a 90.3% passing accuracy, making 54.6 a game in La Liga (61.7 in the Champions League). This efficiency allows a certain assurance in this region. A kind of assurance Atletico couldn’t find with Kranevitter, nor Augusto Fernandez, two Argentine midfielders who tried (in vain) to replace Gabi or Tiago. He also plays 0.5 key passes per game.
In defensive transitions, we see the Spanish midfielder goes to the ball carrier whereas others will drop in. In many occasions we see him communicate to his teammates. For a 22-year-old, he shows he can be a leader when it’s necessary. In 1,404 minutes with the Colchoneros in La Liga, he tackles on average 3.2 times per game; intercepts 1.4 times and commits 1.7 fouls. He also makes 0.5 blocks per game. With his 191cm he’s good in the air, winning 2.4 aerial duels per game whereas Sergio Busquets wins 1.5.
Comparison to his idol
Rodri has an exemplary pedigree and important experience under his belt despite being just 22 and is gaining experience on the European stage. There will soon be a Spanish national without Sergio Busquets as a deep-lying midfielder and Luis Enrique needs to prepare himself for that future. Having Rodri will undoubtedly be beneficial for Luis Enrique in that future.