Rodri redefines role of holding midfielder to become City’s fulcrum

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Rodri;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Rodri</a> has not finished on the losing side for <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a> for 72 consecutive games.</span><span>Photograph: James Gill/Danehouse/Getty Images</span>

Rodri was pretty young when he realised that he saw football in a different way to others. It wasn’t just his ability to pick a pass on the field, but the way he conceived the game off it. When he watched, he instinctively saw spaces and movement and only later realised that everyone else was simply following the ball. Football became not so much a pastime as a puzzle: a mechanism to be decrypted and understood.

As a child, making his way through the youth teams of Atlético Madrid, his father would urge him to get forward more, to score goals and make assists, to be more selfish. But Rodri always demurred. It was not that he was entirely selfless or free of ego. He understood freedom and fun, responsibility and reciprocity in a different way to most other players. Watching him today, seeing the trajectory his career has taken, allows us to do the same.

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With Manchester City on the verge of a fourth consecutive Premier League title, their central midfielder is feted as the man who makes the collective work: the selfless water-carrier who offers Pep Guardiola control, who allows the attacking stars of the team to shine. To be fair, there’s a certain amount of truth in this, particularly when it comes to individual accolades. For example, despite his remarkable unbeaten streak of 72 games in all competitions, Rodri didn’t make the eight-man shortlist for the Premier League’s player of the season award, while Phil Foden and Erling Haaland did. But it’s not the whole story.

Another way of looking at Rodri’s contribution is this: despite missing four games through suspension, he has the most passes and most touches of any player in the 2023-24 Premier League. On average this season, Rodri touches the ball 122 times per game. And every single one of those touches is a decision, an act of expression, a canvas. Unlike his teammates further up the pitch, he has full rein of the centre of the pitch, with all the angles and all the choices.

Often when we talk of individualism in football, we’re thinking of flamboyant dribblers, 25-yard screamers, ego and selfishness. But do we really think Guardiola is telling Rodri where to play those 122 passes? In terms of sheer volume and breadth of opportunity, there is a case to be made that Rodri enjoys more individual freedom than any other player in the English game.

At the very highest level this dichotomy between “individual” and “collective” is largely a false one, as with the oft-cited opposition between “chaos” and “control”. We are often encouraged to think of individual expression and collective responsibility as diametric opposites, perhaps even opposing poles of a wildly boring intellectual culture war. In truth the individual and the collective are constantly in dialogue, complementing and reinforcing each other, pushing at each other’s boundaries.

“Years ago, I was a guy who could play well and that was it,” Rodri once said, and by “playing well” he means playing with the ball. But returning to Atlético from Villarreal in 2018 forced him to develop other ways of playing well. “You have to be strong, you have to be defensive, you have to do both,” he said, and so under the tutelage of Diego Simeone, in the space of a season, La Liga’s most prolific passer became its most prolific tackler.

The following summer, Rodri joined City and in those first couple of seasons under Guardiola the focus – often in concert with the coach Juanma Lillo – was on positional discipline. “You move too much,” Guardiola told him. “The holding midfielder has to be there. Don’t move. Be there.” When City reached the Champions League final in 2021, Rodri was left out.

This part of Rodri’s journey – a difficult and often attritional process when he gradually learned to suppress his individual urges in order to serve the collective – was a prerequisite to the next part, in which he adds individual flourish to his collective duty. There is a kind of redemptive arc that leads Rodri from the devastation of Porto in 2021 to the catharsis of Istanbul in 2023, a final he wins by himself with an instinctive late attacking run and a searing long-range goal.

What had happened in the interim? Gradually, Rodri was beginning to reinterpret the holding midfielder role with more freedom and autonomy, trusting himself to read situations, to vary the tempo as he saw fit, to choose his moments to go forward and join the attack. Guardiola still describes him as a holding midfielder, more out of habit than anything else. But Rodri has morphed into something else entirely.

Going into City’s final game, his 16 goal contributions – seven goals and nine assists – put him in the Premier League’s top 20, ahead of Kevin De Bruyne, ahead of Bernardo Silva, only a fraction behind Bruno Fernandes. His attacking metrics – shots, touches in the penalty area, passes into the final third, chances created – have risen year on year since his arrival. For Spain, meanwhile, he has often been played at centre-half, given more defensive responsibility but also more space and freedom to direct play.

So by embracing individuality, by earning and using the trust to make his own decisions on the pitch, Rodri has become a much more devastatingly effective team player than when he was just sitting tight, defending a zone. “He’s able to do everything,” Guardiola says. “The tempo he has, his character when the situation is going wrong, to step forward, go backwards, the ability to play short and long.”

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Rodri has spoken of football as “an individual game and a team game”, and right now he expresses this duality as well as any other player in world football: a team-oriented role, interpreted with a high degree of individual freedom.

Perhaps to an extent this is an emerging trend among elite midfielders, a growing recognition that the finest practitioners are able to direct games through instinct and intuition as well as through pre-defined roles and patterns. Declan Rice, Antoine Griezmann, Fede Valverde, Granit Xhaka and Warren Zaïre-Emery may all fall into this category.

What is clear is that it takes not just a certain kind of player, but a certain kind of mind. A mind geared towards learning and acquisition, able to conceive the game not just through existing frames of reference but in new and subjective ways.

It may or may not surprise you to learn that Rodri has little interest in becoming a coach after he retires. Instead he wants to be a sporting director: a role defined less by rote and routine than by freedom and invention, a role you define as you go along. Everyone learns to tell the time. Only a very few try to open the watch and peer inside.