As first impressions go, Rodri was making a strong one.
The Spanish international had convinced Manchester City of his ability on a football pitch. What was less apparent was his character. That took centre stage while he was touring the club’s facilities and happened to stumble across a group of academy players.
Shaking the hand of each child, he asked them their age. “I remember when I was 13, at Atletico,” he said before delivering an impromptu pep talk.
As well as preaching the desire to get better, he spoke about the need to have fun at such a tender age.
Rodri’s own experience in football has not always been so jovial. Atletico released him in 2013, with some reports alleging it was down to his size (the player has refuted this). Villarreal had no such concerns, however, and they were rewarded for that show of faith as he eventually grew to a broad 6ft 2. His breakout season for them came in 2017 after he filled the gap left by the injured Bruno Soriano.
That was enough to entice Atletico Madrid to bring him back for a fee reportedly in the region of €20million as well as further incentives. His upward trajectory continued under Diego Simeone, and one year later Manchester City opted to activate his release clause for €70million.
Such a meteoric rise may seem surprising, but to watch Rodri play is to see someone in tune with what Pep Guardiola wants from a defensive midfielder. Rodri is a sharp passer with intelligence and athleticism — and a player that can inherit the role defined by Fernandinho.
The decision to deploy him at the base of midfield has been a masterstroke. Fernandinho’s blend of tough tackling and precision passing allows him to control the game and provide protection to Man City’s backline. The Brazilian is, however, not getting younger at 34. While he may believe he still has plenty left in the tank, Guardiola’s planning for the future has caused Rodri’s arrival.
Last season Fernandinho missed 15 games for City, and in his absence, the team often struggled. Now, they have a midfielder able to fill the role and someone that has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to Sergio Busquets. In truth, the two are not identical, with Rodri a more physically robust player than Busquets, among other differences.
“People tell me that they compare me with Sergio Busquets,” Rodri told ManCity.com. “I think I am very similar to him. I play with him in the national team. I try to learn a lot from him, but I think I have my own conditions. Yeah, it is great playing with him.”
This deal is also an example of City’s broader strategy. While there has been a lot of talk about the club’s spending habits, less has been said about the success of those deals. Bernardo Silva, Ederson, Raheem Sterling, and Kevin de Bruyne have become critical parts of Guardiola’s side, but only De Bruyne is in the top 5 most expensive signings in Premier League history.
As the documentary ‘All or Nothing’ denoted firsthand, Man City have grasped when to push and when to pull. During one scene, City’s Chief Operating Officer Omar Berrada is seen flying to Spain to conclude a deal for Aymeric Laporte. He explains that the move was brought forward six months to accommodate for the fact Vincent Kompany was struggling with injury.
As well as being bold, City have also shown patience. Last season it appeared that Jorginho would be joining the club from Napoli. In the end, the Italian opted for a reunion with Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea. Instead of running out and trying to secure a last-minute replacement, City waited. In that time Rodri emerged, and by choosing to act now, they have shown a commitment to the plan at hand (Barreda talked about projecting the squad up to 5 years in advance).
That trust has returned them a talented midfielder that seems an heir apparent for Fernandinho. Those might sound like big shoes to fill, but it would seem that Rodri is as prepared for Man City as they were for him.
“I love football,” he said. “Obviously I watched more La Liga when I was there, but I watched the big teams in the Premier League, Manchester City the most. I like the way they play. I think they’re the only team in the Premier League that plays differently and shows another type of football. I like looking at those players because they are all great players.