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Manchester City, 2019–

When Manchester City signed Rodri for a club-record fee of £62.8m in July 2019, they were taking a big risk on a 22-year-old who had played for Atlético Madrid for just one season following a couple of impressive campaigns at Villarreal. Still very much making his way in Champions League-level football, Rodri was brought to the Etihad as the long-term successor to the ageing Fernandinho in City’s central midfield. After needing a period to settle in, Rodri has become an important member of one of the best teams in Premier League history, under the guidance of one of football’s true innovators in Pep Guardiola.

“He’s improving a lot,” Guardiola said in November 2020. “He is starting to read what happens better. Still he’s trying to solve it with his incredible energy, but he is starting to think (more). We have the feeling that he has made an incredible step forward in the way we play.”

Tactical analysis
Rodri the player is a long way from the perception of the typical Spanish central midfielder. Tall, lean and physically imposing, he is an energetic, combative and tenacious midfielder who excels in regaining possession as much as he does with the ball. He covers lots of ground, supporting attacks from the base of midfield but also providing security against counter-attacks by rarely moving ahead of the ball. He has brilliant anticipation and is particularly effective at dispossessing opponents by nipping in to steal the ball as a pass approaches an opponent.

Given his size, nationality and position, comparisons have inevitably been made with Sergio Busquets, who was once so influential under Guardiola at Barcelona. Just like Busquets, Rodri posts consistently impressive defensive numbers, regaining the ball through tackles or through picking up second balls through taking up good, effective positions in central midfield.

The two are also similar in that Rodri rarely goes to ground, preferring to jockey or delay attackers before using his upper body strength to manoeuvre them off the ball. Even when chasing an opponent or making a recovery run, he rarely commits to a slide tackle. Instead, he chooses to bide his time to wait for the opportune moment to attempt a tackle, and he tends to win the ball more often than not when he does go for it. His tackling numbers are, predictably given how much City dominate possession, far lower for City than they were at Atlético, but it is an impressive indication of his ability that he has been able to play a defensive midfield role for two teams with such contrasting styles.

That is because, while his reputation has largely been built on his significant defensive abilities, Rodri is also extremely adept in the building phases of possession, both when he has time on the ball to distribute passes and when resisting pressure. He often leaves the more adventurous passes to his more attack-minded teammates, but he is capable of breaking lines with incisive, vertical passing, and that has been particularly useful as City attempt to find their talented attacking midfielders between the lines.

Both at Atlético and at City, Rodri has displayed particular skill when played chipped passes in behind for a right-sided attacker to run on to. These are well orchestrated moves where, as the opposition defence pushes up once the ball is moved to Rodri at the base of midfield, his team’s attack retreat, before the right-sided attacker quickly bursts forwards and Rodri lifts a pass into their path (above). The right-sided attacker can then play a ball across the face of goal for a simple finish, in typical fashion for Guardiola’s City.

Role at Manchester City
Guardiola has used both a single and a double pivot at times during his tenure as Manchester City manager, and Rodri’s ball-winning capabilities, physical prowess and ability in possession allow City to use a formation that requires just a single pivot, with 4-3-3 most commonly used. However, the way City build in possession, they often flit between a single and double pivot in-game.

City often build in a 3-4-3 formation, with Rodri and one of the full-backs – João Cancelo has proved particularly comfortable doing this – at the base of a narrow box that they form with the two number eights (below). Those two more advanced midfielders take up positions between the lines to receive the ball from Rodri or Cancelo, who will look to get the ball off the defence and play forwards. The wingers stay high and wide to stretch the opposition defence, so that if one of the number eights can turn on the ball, there will be gaps to play through immediately.

Rodri will remain behind the ball and provide security along with the four defenders if the ball is lost and the opposition launch a counter-attack. That was an area in which City have historically been too vulnerable when Fernandinho wasn’t available in central midfield, but Rodri has given the team some much-needed structure at defensive transitions.

He senses opportunities to win the ball impressively, and is not scared to push forwards, and while he normally provides the second wave of City’s press by following up the attackers’ press, there are occasions when he spots a chance for a regain and will move beyond the other midfielders to press (below). This is a high-risk approach given the gaps he might leave in central midfield, but he has a good enough reading of the game and presses with enough aggression that when he goes for the ball, he is often successful.

He is also very good in the air, and playing for a manager like Guardiola, who places more importance on technical ability than physique, Rodri’s size is extremely useful. He plays a key role at defensive set-pieces, consistently making important clearances, and he also does a good job of winning clearances after one of City’s attacks breaks down and securing possession for his side. This is key in City being able to pile pressure on the opposition by starting a new attack as quickly as possible following a clearance.

His price tag and the need for an alternative to Fernandinho in central midfield meant that Rodri arrived with expectations very high. He took a little while to settle, but he has reached the level of importance City had hoped he would when they signed him. Rodri is now crucial in a team that has very few weaknesses.


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