Manchester City broke their transfer record to sign Rodri from Atletico Madrid, so how good is he? With help from the 23-year-old’s former mentor, Nick Wright finds out how he blossomed into one of the world’s best young midfielders – and why he’s a perfect fit for Pep Guardiola.
A little over a year ago, Rodri, Manchester City's new £62.5m signing, was still living in university halls in Castellón. At the same time as playing for Villarreal in La Liga and the Europa League, the midfielder was studying for a degree in Business Studies and Economics, living the life of an ordinary student and driving to and from training in a second-hand Opel Corsa.
Rodri, full name Rodrigo Hernandez Cascante, had just finished an outstanding campaign with Villarreal, helping them to a fifth-placed finish in La Liga, breaking into the Spain squad and putting him on the brink of the 20 million euro transfer to Atletico Madrid which would ultimately lead him to Pep Guardiola's Premier League champions.
Rodri's studies are behind him now - the Opel Corsa, too - but as he arrives at Manchester City to become Fernandinho's successor, those who know him best say he remains as grounded as ever. Guardiola has signed him for his technical prowess, his defensive awareness at the base of midfield, but Rodri also stands out for his determination not to stand out.
"He was always different to the others because although he was still very young, he was already very professional and a very good student " Paco Lopez, the coach who brought him into Villarreal's B team as a teenager, tells Sky Sports. "The other boys his age were always looking at their mobile phones, but Rodri didn't even have one."
What he did have, however, was the talent to reach the very highest level and the steely focus to make sure it happened.
"He was a boy who showed a lot of ability with his feet, with the passes he made and with how he read the game," says Lopez. "He stood out for his intelligence as a footballer, but also because he was also very clear about how a young player should behave. A lot of boys can get distracted, but he always understood what was required to become a professional."
Villarreal turned out to be the ideal place for Rodri to realise that ambition, but only after he was released by Atletico, the club he would later return to, for being too small and skinny. Villarreal snapped him up in 2014 and watched him shoot up to 6ft 3ins. He made his debut for Lopez's B team in February 2015. Within a year, he was featuring for the first team.
"At Villarreal at that time, we placed the understanding of the game above the physical work," says Lopez. "We tried to improve all aspects of our young players, of course, but with Rodri, our focus was to work with the innate talent he had. Then, logically, his body started changing with age."
Lopez remembers Rodri adapting "quickly and easily" to men's football when he was brought into Villarreal's B team in Spain's regionalised third tier. The youngster was helped by his ability and appetite to improve, but it was his intelligence on the pitch that really set him apart.
"In his first game with us I actually put him on behind the striker," says Lopez, who now manages La Liga side Levante. "In the end it was clear that central midfield was the best position for him, but when you have that much talent, when you are able to interpret the game so well, you can adapt to any position."
Rodri adapted to the first team just as easily, and by the start of the 2017/18 season, he was not just a guaranteed starter but also a leader. His exceptional distribution and smart positioning as a classic midfield pivote prompted comparisons with Sergio Busquets. In La Liga, he only missed one game all season, playing more minutes than any other Villarreal player.
The Busquets comparisons led to links with Barcelona, but it was Atletico, of course, who won the race for his signature. Rodri cried at the press conference announcing his exit from Villarreal and the club felt it, too. Without him last season, they plummeted from fifth to 14th, only narrowly avoiding relegation.
"Rodri's departure destroyed us," one Villarreal director told El País.
At Atletico, Rodri became similarly influential, stepping into the midfield void vacated by club legend Gabi and reinforcing his status as one of Spain's most exciting prospects. "He can reach Busquets' level and maybe surpass it," said Luis Enrique in October. "Who knows what limits he has?"
Atletico's conservative style under Diego Simeone was not a natural fit for Rodri - he has described City's devotion to playing "attacking football at all times" as one of his motivations for joining them - but it did help him to develop different areas of his game. Namely, his defensive skills.
"One of the traits of an intelligent player is that they know their strengths, but they are also aware of the aspects they need to improve," says Lopez. "Rodri was always very clear about that and it's the same now. Last season, he became a better player without the ball. He won more of his duels."
The statistics certainly support that notion. Rodri was the only midfielder to make more than 100 tackles in La Liga last season, while he also ranked top among outfield players for ball recoveries. Like Busquets, he has gained a reputation for winning the ball back effortlessly, his positioning often negating the need for crunching challenges.
Simeone was demanding of Rodri, at times substituting him earlier than he would have liked, but he still started 32 La Liga games - more than Koke and the same number as Saul Niguez - and his distribution did not suffer in Atletico's system.
Indeed, while he did not spend as much time on the ball as he was accustomed to, making 63 passes per 90 minutes compared to 69 per 90 minutes at Villarreal, his accuracy rate rose from 90 to 91 per cent. That despite making more long-range passes than any of his team-mates. He is a forward-thinking player and his passing radar proves it.
Rodri's year under Simeone exposed him to a different playing style, broadening his footballing education and preparing him for the physical challenges of the Premier League. For Guardiola, though, that is only a small fraction of his appeal.
The 48-year-old loves intelligent players who serve the collective and follow tactical instructions easily. "On his own a player is nothing," he said in conversation with Sky Sports in March. "A player is good when he inter-connects well with the idea of the team and with his team-mates."
Rodri, the university student-cum-footballer with an insatiable appetite for improvement, fits that profile perfectly. He has big shoes to fill as Fernandinho enters the final year of his contract, but this is a player who has already stepped in for Gabi at Atletico and done the same with Busquets at international level. Why should City hold any fear for him?
To everyone back at Villarreal, the club he credits for shaping him as a player, the club where they still feel his absence today, the speed of Rodri's rise comes as little surprise. They watched him flourish from cast-off to key player and the expectation is that there is much more to come.
"There is always a risk that you can be wrong when making judgements on young players, but with Rodri it was very clear that he was going to be an elite player," says Lopez. "Manchester City is another big challenge for him, playing for one of the best clubs in the world with brilliant team-mates, but I'm sure he will adapt to Guardiola's style and the ideas he has about football. I think he fits perfectly with that."
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