Manchester City has had what can only be described as a mixed season. Trailing Liverpool by 25 points is, of course, a sign that they are struggling in certain areas. This, coupled with a double derby defeat to Manchester United and losses to Wolves twice, Norwich City and draws against Crystal Palace and Newcastle have meant that they aren’t going to be champions for the third time in a row. Despite this, there have been some positive stories coming out of the Etihad, no greater than the impact that Rodri has had on the team. Since his £62 million move from Madrid to Manchester in the summer of 2019, he has gone under the radar in terms of his performances. However, the Spanish international has been excellent in the role he was brought in for. Fernandinho has been an outstanding player for Manchester City, however, his age means that eventually, he was going to need replacing. City has most certainly found a strong replacement in Rodri, who is certain to make the defensive midfield position his for many years to come.
After Manchester City’s 4-1 away win against Burnley in December 2019, Pep Guardiola described him as ‘incredible for his physicality’. The manager, therefore, rates him highly in this regard, despite him arriving from La Liga where many thought the pace of the Premier League may be too much for him. This has certainly not been the case as he has adapted perfectly to the requirements of the league itself. He may not always get the praise he deserves because he doesn’t score 30 goals a season. However, his game is simple, effective and it is the bedrock to any attacking play that Manchester City look to initiate. If we were looking at a list of the most underrated players in the Premier League, Rodri would most certainly be near the top.
This tactical analysis will attempt to highlight how Rodri has settled in so well at City and the impact he has had both defensively and offensively. This scout report will also highlight the ways in which he has made an impact in comparison to what City were doing before. The tactics of Guardiola are also important when making this analysis, as they have also allowed him to flourish.
As a defensive midfielder, the main job Rodri has when Manchester City don’t have the ball is to block off the spaces in between the lines that other teams can play into. This is not always the case with every team as the job of many defensive midfielders, for example, N’Golo Kanté, is primarily to win the ball back by committing to tackles. Although Rodri does have an excellent ability to do this, his positioning when City are out of possession is something to admire. He will position himself in such a way that the opposition has to think twice before playing the pass. This was something that Michael Carrick used to do better than anyone and it is a priceless skill to have. The biggest compliment that one can give to Rodri is that he is like Carrick in so many ways. By positioning himself correctly, he often takes out one or two opposition players, which slows down the opposition’s build-up play. This attribute is a good mix between his footballing intelligence and the coaching setup at Manchester City itself.
Below is an excellent example from City’s 3-1 away win at Everton. We can see Rodri taking up an excellent position. By positioning himself in such a way, it means he can occupy two players at once. This, therefore, means that Everton has to approach their attack differently, as a ball into one of these players would be intercepted by Rodri due to his location. This further highlights not only how good his defensive positioning is, but how important such positioning is for defensive midfielders.
Having the awareness to defend the spaces is an aspect of play which is vital for any Manchester City defensive midfielder. Fernandinho was fantastic at doing this and defending against the counter-attack was one of his specialities. Since City often have lots of the ball, it is important to have someone who can defend the counter-attacks such as Fernandinho did when he played in midfield. Rodri has fitted into these requirements very well and is vital for City when they play against teams with pace and attacking power. As mentioned earlier, having the ability to understand the spaces in behind the midfield line are vital in stopping attacking play. Rodri has the balance of jumping into a tackle when necessary and holding his position depending on the ball position. This, therefore, gives him an edge over other defensive midfielders, as it is often the case that defensive midfielders in the modern game are too passive.
Below is another example of Rodri’s positioning in the 2-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. We can see him engaged with trying to win the ball back, however, his positioning is such that the two players in space cannot be found as he is blocking the passing lane. This, therefore, prevents the counter-attack from working against City which further highlights his ability to stop oppositions breaking against them. Teams have often tried to counter-attack against City in this fashion, but with the introduction of Rodri, it means that there is a better chance of stopping them.
Within the Manchester City setup, when in possession of the ball the role of the defensive midfielder is to be at the hub of the build-up play and have an influence as to the tempo of the game itself. Rodri is essentially the conductor of the Manchester City team, as he is the individual who dictates the pace at which they play. His passing range is, therefore, of great importance to City’s general attacking play. To put it simply, Rodri is one of the best passers of the ball in the current Premier League. In the 2-0 home victory against West Ham in February, he made history by completing 178 out of 188 passes. This is a statistical example of Rodri’s exceptional passing quality. He also averages 76.73 passes per game which is exceptional for any Premier League player. His passing range is exceptional, and it makes him stand out in comparison to other Premier League midfielders. Not only this but the type of pass he makes when under pressure into the spaces is something that not many in the world are capable of doing.
Below is an excellent example of this in the 3-0 away win at Arsenal. Notice how Rodri can attract three Arsenal players to the space around him and still be able to find a pass into space where Phil Foden can run into. To be able to play that sort of pass whilst under severe pressure from the Arsenal press is something sublime. This is a skill that Rodri possesses which is of huge benefit to City, as they have a player within their ranks that can play through the press.
Rodri is the perfect defensive midfielder for any type of match and his passing ability allows this to be so. In games where City have large amounts of the ball and the other team uses a low block to prevent them from creating chances, Rodri can find the key pass which unlocks the opposition. In the bigger games against the top teams, he can use through balls to set City forward on the counter-attack. He is the perfect defensive midfielder for any type of match. Having the ability to dictate the game is something which modern midfield players often lack. Rodri’s ability to pass the ball is, therefore, a big plus for City, as having control of the game is a key aspect of Pep Guardiola’s mindset when it comes to attacking the opponent.
Below is another excellent example of Rodri’s passing range. This was taken from the 3-2 loss against Wolverhampton Wanderers in December of 2019. We can see Rodri once again being able to spot the space for Kevin De Bruyne to run into. He is then able to pass it into Raheem Sterling who scores. What this passage of play shows is that whilst Rodri may not get 20+ assists as the likes of De Bruyne do, he is the one that starts many of Manchester City’s attacks. This aspect of his game is severely underrated and it highlights his technical quality.
When we think about defensive midfielders, we often picture players that simply do their work when the ball is either at their feet or with the opposition. There is only a rare breed of central midfield players who can manipulate the play when their team has possession but they do not have the ball. Moving into different spaces to allow the man on the ball more time is something that is rarely found in the modern game. The likes of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets had this ability and still do in the case of Busquets. Rodri is also a player who understands the spaces of the football pitch, which is something that Guardiola likes a lot. When City have the ball, Rodri can drag opposition players towards him meaning that the player on the ball has more space to run into. This is an aspect of his game which has once again been improved by working with Guardiola and will only continue to do so.
Below is an example of this from when City ran riot at Villa Park winning 6-1. We can see Rodri who is highlighted. Furthermore, we can also see that there are two players with the intention of not letting the ball get into him. Therefore, his presence on the football pitch allows City to play out from defence and into key areas. By simply being in positions such as this, it increases the chance of them getting into better areas.
Having this ability, as we saw earlier, is key for City in terms of their overall play. Guardiola sees football in terms of different spaces on the pitch itself. Finding this space and being able to contribute once finding it is therefore of great importance. Rodri has three goals thus far in the Premier League, which may not seem a lot, however, for a defensive midfielder whose job it is to protect the back four and be responsible for build-up play it is fairly respectable. Rodri’s primary role is these two things, however, he does get forward when the chance presents itself. This is important, as two of his three goals have been from outside the box. He has an exceptional shot which has been seen in games against Norwich and Burnley. This, therefore, makes him useful in attacking situations.
Below is an example of the positions that Rodri takes up when City are attacking. We can see him deployed on the edge of the box, and once again some defenders are attracted to him and are worried about him receiving the ball. This, therefore, allows the other players, such as David Silva who is on the ball, to have more space to create from. This highlights his effectiveness when he is on the pitch.
To conclude, it is clear to see that Rodri has made a greater impact on Manchester City and the Premier League itself than many may think. His footballing intelligence alongside his excellent technical ability makes him the perfect defensive midfielder in Pep Guardiola’s City side. Moving forward, he will be essential in the coming seasons if City is to have a chance of catching Liverpool and get the title back. With him and potentially a reinforcement in the backline, they would have an excellent defensive set up which is something they have very much struggled with this season. Allowing Rodri to flourish in this City side is essential and the players they have around him are also key in this.