Pep Guardiola is determined to sign a deep-lying midfielder to strengthen Manchester City’s championship-winning squad.
It appears Rodri, a mainstay of Atlético Madrid under Diego Simeone last season, has been identified to fill that role and the English champions are prepared to pay his £62.6m release clause, subsequently making him their most expensive acquisition.
Highly thought of, it will be interesting to see how the seven-time capped international – earmarked as Fernandinho’s successor – fares playing in what is widely considered to be Europe’s most demanding league.
Rodri’s position is competitive. City’s rivals also boast some of the best in this specialised role: Granit Xhaka, Nemanja Matic, Eric Dier, Fabinho and Jorginho.
So, it’s worth asking how Rodri compares up against them.
Much is expected from the modern deep-lying midfielder, but their bread and butter is essentially protecting those behind them. Each of the aforementioned names approach things differently, a compromise between their own skill sets and how their respective teams play.
Rodri, once switching to City, will quickly find out he’ll be intercepting and blocking less, given how little possession Guardiola allows his opponents to enjoy. But under the pragmatic Simeone, the Madrilenian was averaging 1.35 interceptions per 90 minutes, which is only topped by Chelsea’s metronome Jorginho (1.79), who the defending Premier League champions chased last summer.
In terms of blocks per 90 – that includes blocked shots, blocked crosses and blocked passes – he (0.36) sits behind only Matić (0.66) and Dier (0.72). Of course, the latter often played as deep as central defence, a position unfamiliar to Matic who, despite enduring a difficult campaign, seemed productive in this regard. Fabinho, meanwhile, was settling in at Anfield but can look back on positives even if his star didn’t shine as brightly as many hoped.
Where Rodri does excel is clearances (2.2 per 90), though Dier (2.56 per 90) beats him again, which comes as no surprise given the all-action nature of being in a Simeone team. Xhaka, equally as tenacious, is not far behind.
Ability on the ball
Even though a deep-lying midfielder is expected to look at what is in front of him and react accordingly, there’s an onus – more so than ever – on being heavily involved in the attacking play, this means having a razor-sharp brain. Each of the league’s top-six coaches, Guardiola being the most extreme, require every single player under their leadership to be comfortable on the ball, that’s because retention of possession has taken on a life of its own.
Rodri, as mentioned earlier, will be in for a culture shock, given Guardiola and Simeone are on opposite ends of the spectrum. That being said, he enjoyed a modest pass accuracy of 91.13 across the 2018/19 La Liga season but his 63.25 attempted passes per 90 minute was low compared to these five other players.
Unsurprisingly, coming out on top, was distributor extraordinaire, Jorginho, who amassed 88.69 passes per 90 minutes under outgoing Blues boss – and his former Napoli mentor – Maurizio Sarri. One wonders if his score would have been even higher under Guardiola, a man who has coached some of the game’s most rhythmic midfielders. Not far behind was Xhaka (80.79), who seemed to have been rejuvenated under the equally proactive Unai Emery.
When it came to chances created per 90, though, Rodri still trails Xhaka and Jorginho as well as Fabinho, with only Matić and Dier performing below him. Regarding guile and trickery, Rodri was further up the standing, his 0.62 take-ons completed per 90 was (surprisingly) beaten only by Matic (0.66).
A good deep-lying midfielder needs to be aware of their surroundings. Given the beauty of football, they come in all shapes, whereas some are diminutive, others are languid yet elegant. Rodri can be categorised as the latter. From that piece of information, it comes as no surprise to find he’s a presence in the air having won 2.56 aerial duels per 90 minutes. The equally tall Dier (2.15) not far behind.
He’s also out in front regarding tackles won per 90 (2.3), again the side effect of playing for a Simeone team, where you need to be aggressive (but fair), which also explains why he’s committed the most fouls (59). However, it’s Xhaka who can lay claim to winning the most fouls per 90 (1.87), even if Rodri isn’t that far behind (1.41). It will be fascinating to watch how Guardiola shapes him into his ideal midfield pivot.
Then again, variety is the spice of life. A criticism of City under Pep – and there’s few – is the cookie-cutter nature of his players. Having someone who combines finesse with bite could become invaluable, especially deep into the Champions League, which remains their holy grail.
Going from Atletico to free-flowing City will undoubtedly be a culture shock but Rodri will be given time to assimilate into his new surroundings, and what is most reassuring is that he possesses the skills and wherewithal to adapt.
What these comparisons do highlight is how good the league’s deep-lying midfielders at the highest echelon are. It also helps portray the nuances of each player’s role within their specific team set up. That being said, it’s easy to see why the Guardiola is a fan.
Missing out on Jorginho, whom the decorated Catalan tactician had previously lavished praised on, was a blow, though not a significant one. Rodri, who is likely to ultimately succeed Fernandinho, can bring another dimension to City’s play. And that only makes English football’s new dominant power an even scarier proposition.