While the dust has not yet settled on the 2018/2019 season, and Pep and the players still have serious work to do, Txiki Begiristain and his team are swinging into full gear in preparation for a summer in which they’re expected to pursue a mixture of replacements and reinforcements. Of those potential moves, the most notable and longstanding need is to find a long term replacement for the venerable Fernandinho.
While City have seen good minutes this spring from Ilkay Gündogan, he is perhaps not entirely what the club need in that position. Though he is more than capable going forward, providing neat buildup play and clever flicks over the top of set defenses from his deeper lying position, his aerial abilities, positional awareness, and tackling are all well below the level of the man he’s standing in for.
Finding a like-for-like replacement for Fernandinho isn’t an option really; there is no ready-made player on the planet who can so capably fill so many roles. The list of skills he brings to the table even at age thirty three – passing, buildup play, movement both on and off the ball, positional awareness, strength in the air and on his feet, tackling, athleticism, mastery of the art of the tactical foul, and even the occasional through ball – is simply not something that exists entirely in any one player. ‘Dinho is a brilliant amalgamation of defensive midfielder, deep lying playmaker, and wizard, all rolled into one beautifully wrapped, bald, 179cm package.
However, should City prove capable of retaining the services of Gundogan, a scenario that seems far more likely today than it may have even a couple of months ago, then it may be possible that they could find someone to pair with him who could both grow into the player that Fernandinho has been while offering an alternative to the skills that Gundogan brings, allowing Guardiola to use his assets most effectively depending on the situation.
Enter, Rodririgo Hernández Cascante, or as everyone else knows him, Rodri. Here’s everything you need to know to impress your friends, the lads at the pub, and make United supporters even more envious.
A native of Madrid, the Spaniard joined Atletico’s youth system when he was eleven years old before being released and latching on with Villarreal. He made his first team breakthrough with the club at age eighteen in the Copa del Rey, and made his La Liga debut shortly thereafter. He’d go on to play for Villarreal for the next three seasons, establishing himself as a first team regular before returning to Atletico last summer for a fee reportedly in the €20m range.
One impressive season on and he stands in the center of the Manchester City spotlight, the object of affection with the club being touted as likely to trigger his €70m release clause, breaking their club record layout they made last summer on Riyad Mahrez.
Standing 191cm (6’3”), Rodri cuts an imposing figure in midfield, and he’s got the game to match the colossus appearance, routinely using his frame to simply body smaller players off the ball, before skinning them alive and taking their lunch money. He’s a very strong stand-up tackler, rarely going to ground and giving away cheap fouls. On the season he’s committed an average of 1.7 fouls (61 total) per ninety minutes over 3,143 combined La Liga and Champions League minutes, which compares favorably with the 1.7 (58 total) of Fernandinho over 3,025 Premier League and Champions League minutes. His ability to go shoulder to shoulder, and to tackle from behind while staying on his feet are real strengths.
Atletico play with a much more compact system than City, and their focus is on hitting teams on the counter. Adjusting to playing in the space that our club requires of our defensive midfielders may be a bit of an adjustment, especially against bigger clubs where his athleticism will be put to the test. Thankfully there are plenty of examples where Rodri has displayed his ability to track the runs of smaller, nimbler players through midfield, before deftly removing the ball from their possession.
Encouragingly, he can do it against the very best as well. In two spring matches against Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, Rodri struggled, but in the fall, he was dominant, making five tackles, an interception, and three clearances against Barcelona, and four tackles, two interceptions and a clearance against Madrid while playing a key role in holding those sides to one combined goal in 175 minutes of brilliant play. And though he did give away a worrying eight fouls, he did so while picking up only one yellow card.
In my opinion, this is the greatest strength of Fernandinho’s game, and perhaps the most under-rated. While we marvel at his tackling, passing, and last ditch defending, it’s his ability to always be in the right place, at the right moment that allows him to do these things in the first place. He’s not the biggest, he’s not the strongest, and at thirty three he’s surely no longer the fastest, but he makes up for any physical limitation by always knowing precisely where to be, and when to be there.
Rodri has a some of that in him as well.
Being big and strong are certainly factors that play in his favor, but for someone so young – he’s still just twenty two years old – he’s adept at not running himself too far away from where he needs to be. That being said, he’s also no Fernandinho. There are moments where he wanders too far forward or doesn’t quite sense where the danger is about to emanate from. That’s forgivable considering his age, and often when he’s giving away fouls, it’s his poor positioning that’s to blame. He’ll need to improve on this aspect of his game should he ever pull on the City blue, because in Pep’s system, positioning is everything. Thankfully age, and a masterful coach would be favors that should work in his favor, and it would be a wise gamble to wager that Pep could turn this aspect of his game from a minor liability to a real strength.
In terms of pure verticality, Rodri is neither a poor leaper nor a great one. That is perhaps somewhat disappointing as City could desperately use someone who is dominant in both boxes to add yet another dimension to both their defense and their attack. Still, having someone with his size and strength would be of enormous benefit to this side. For as good in the air as Fernandinho has been over the years (he’s won 76 balls in the air in the PL this season for an average of 2.9 wins per 90 minutes), he’s only 5’10” and his lack of size is noticeable on set pieces, he’s strong while leaping unchallenged, but struggles getting up against larger opponents who can lean on him.
Rodri has no such limitations, and while he may not be as good of a leaper as Fenandinho, he makes up for it by being strong: in many aerial battles he wins simply by removing his opponent from the spot with his bulk and strength, rather than relying on pure verticality. That’ll make him adept in midfield and defending set pieces, though perhaps not as impressive as you’d hope in attacking them.
Having watched a number of Atletico games with the sole intention of observing Rodri this spring, it’s fair to say that I’ve been impressed, he really is a brilliant young talent. It’s easy to dream of how beneficial his frame could be in a side like ours that’s starved for a little size to help on set pieces, and to provide some meat to a rather slight defense.
There are drawbacks to that bulk however, and one of them is that there is a sacrifice in terms of quickness and agility. There are moments when Rodri is asked to change direction quickly and his turning radius can seem not entirely dissimilar to that of an oil tanker when compared to the more nimble feet of the tinier players he’s being asked to track. In the match against Barcelona this spring in particular, there were a number of moments just outside of his own area where he simply couldn’t stay with a runner and that led to the team giving up fouls or position. It’s a shame because that match came sandwiched between two of his very finest performances of the season where he dominated lesser sides Celta Vigo and Girona in two true tour de force matches.
In fairness to him, being asked to chase Messi and Barcelona’s cadre of brilliant attackers is no small task for any defender, or any club, and he had plenty of very good moments in that match as well. However, it will eventually be precisely those sorts of matches where he’ll be asked to stand out, and will need to deliver.
While he’s not the quickest, and he doesn’t have great change of direction skills, he isn’t slow either. At full gallop, I’ve watched him run down strikers and wingers someone of his size should have no business chasing down. He’s not Fernandinho, but neither is he a Jorginho-esque traffic cone simply occupying space that opponents must run around.
This is where we get into Rodri’s real strengths. I’ve seen people make comparisons to Barcelona legend Sergio Busquets and while the comparison isn’t by any means perfect, watching Rodri you can get at least some sense of where the comparison comes from. With the ball at his feet, either through his own intervention or the distribution of others, Rodri is massively impressive. He has the ability to retain the ball by holding off smaller players and has the touch required to play the one touch passing City use to break out against hard pressing teams. Against more physically imposing midfields – think, Liverpool – he won’t be easily bodied off the ball and turn it over in dangerous areas as we’ve seen others do.
For someone of his size, he’s also surprisingly strong running with the ball and dribbling past, or through, opposing sides. This gives him multiple ways to break the press and turn defense into attack in an instant.
As mentioned above he’s perfectly adept in making all of the one and two touch passes needed to retain possession and break down a press, but he’s every bit as adept facing the opponent’s goal as he is facing his own, and he’ll be an immediate asset in buildup play, keeping possession ticking over with precision when playing easy passes, and with aplomb when playing through balls to City’s speedy wingers on the counter.
He’s capable of both the simple and the sublime and while he’s had some lesser performances, he’s never completed fewer than 80.4% of his passes in any match (against Alaves) and has had many matches of true brilliance, such as a 89/90 pass performance in the aforementioned Celta Vigo match this spring that included five long balls.
He’s yet to register a La Liga assist this season, but he has made 14 key passes. Those numbers don’t compare ideally next to Fernandinho’s 3 assists and 22 key passes, but it’s important to remember that Atletico play a far more conservative brand of football. He also isn’t the playmaker that Gundogan is, and in matches where City can be confident of dominating possession and facing ten man defenses, it may be wise to use Gundogan over Rodri. However, after having watched over a dozen Atleti matches this year, I have every confidence after watching him that he’d slot in seamlessly to the demands of the role.
Why He’ll Never Wear City Blue
Rodri is a native of Madrid, playing for his boyhood club. He may have taken a somewhat more circuitous route to end up in midfield for los Rojos Blancos, but he’s home, and playing for a club where he is beloved, getting guaranteed minutes on a top team. Importantly, he’s also only one year into a new long-term contract, and neither he, nor Atletico will feel any pressure to make any decisions about his long-term future in the near term. There’s no inherent reason for a move to be made, and even if one were, certainly Atletico could hold their own in any attempt to prise away their young star by offering improved terms.
Why He’ll Be a City Star
Because he has a release clause of only €70m and City have a need, the financial resources, and the best manager on the planet. Should City trigger that clause, and there’s an awful lot of rumors that they intend to do precisely that, then it’ll give the young Spanish midfield maestro serious questions to ponder in regards to where his future lies, and where his ambitions can be best fulfilled. If his goal is to become the best defensive midfielder in the world and retire with a trophy-laden resume, then there are few places that offer a better opportunity, a better mentor, or a better coach than those found at Manchester City.
Who can replace Fernandiho? That is the question.
City have pursued many options over the past twelve months and come up empty each time, watching on as Premier League opponents snapped up potential targets like Fred (United) and Jorginho (Chelsea); while Frenkie de Jong chose to head to the Catalan hills of Barcelona.
Rodri is an imperfect answer to an impossible riddle, but he’s talented enough to step into this City squad right now, young enough to develop into the best defensive midfielder on the planet, and while there is well and truly no place like home, there is also no better club in the world more ideally suited to helping him become precisely that player. If City’s brain trust decides to trigger that clause, it’ll become a matter of priorities for the young Spaniard, and it’d be hard to fault him for either choice.
Should we as City supporters be so fortunate to see such a move come to fruition, it could turn out to be yet another significant sum paid out that ends up looking like a bargain in short order leaving others to question why on Earth others weren’t so alert to the opportunity. Another potential feather in the already brilliantly adorned cap of Txiki Begiristain.
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