The accusations of “overthinking” the Champions League have followed Pep Guardiola around for years but, ask the majority of Manchester City fans which leftfield decision perplexed them the most, and the answer will invariably be the same.
City are finally hoping to lay hands on the last remaining big prize to elude them in Istanbul on Saturday, when they face Inter Milan in the Champions League final for which they are the hottest of favourites.
But there are plenty of supporters who remain convinced that particular itch would already have been scratched had Rodri not been dropped, to widespread shock and mystification, against Chelsea in Porto two seasons ago.
For the first time since that 1-0 defeat triggered another familiar bout of soul searching, there was the hint of an acknowledgement from Guardiola this week that he may have got that one wrong.
Some of Guardiola’s other contentious calls in Europe you can just about make a case for, or at least vaguely fathom what he was getting at.
But removing the central foundation of his side, its anchor, its compass, for the biggest game of his City reign to that point felt like little more than self-sabotage, so much so it was a surprise someone on his staff did not pipe up and plead with him to rethink.
The folly of that decision has only become more pronounced with the passage of time, and each subsequent performance from City’s regal midfield pivot. Guardiola has the perfect word to describe Rodri – “imperial” – and the club’s fans can at least take a little comfort this time around from knowing the Spaniard will probably be the first name on their manager’s team-sheet after goalkeeper Ederson.
Erling Haaland has cleaned up this season and deserves every personal accolade and plaudit going after his 52 goals. Kevin De Bruyne remains unplayable when the mood takes him and Ilkay Gundogan continues to save his best for the big occasions. John Stones has been superb, Jack Grealish has enjoyed a fine breakthrough campaign and Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake have been quietly brilliant.
But Rodri is the one who makes City tick, the central computer from which Guardiola’s intricate network flows, the symphony’s conductor. He tends not to perform at less than eight out of 10 and is frequently a nine. Seven? Well, that’s an off day for a midfielder who has achieved a frightening level of consistency for someone who seems to play every game in a team that goes deep in almost every competition.
His importance in the City system, both defensively and offensively, is hard to overstate and, if Inter are to spring a surprise then, as well as trying to figure out what to do with Haaland and De Bruyne, they need a plan for Rodri.
No player in the Premier League has initiated more sequences from open play ending in a shot – or instigated more successful build-ups – than Rodri this season. He also tops the charts for successful passes in the opposition half (1,475 for the record, a whopping 413 more than his closest rival, Brighton’s Moises Caicedo) and possession won in the middle third of the pitch, ahead of West Ham’s Declan Rice. And Lewis Dunk, the Brighton defender, is the only player to have carried the ball more metres than Rodri this term. His positional awareness, composure under pressure and ability to smell and snuff out danger quickly and decisively are outstanding and he is also a huge physical presence with a habit of popping up with the occasional important goal.
Casemiro, the Manchester United and former Real Madrid player, spoke with real insight recently about how holding midfielders have effectively become the modern day No 10 playmakers and Rodri very much fits that mould.
Rodri loves figuring out which pieces need to fit where and it helps to explain why he is actually more interested in becoming a sporting director when he hangs up his boots than a coach. Even as a kid, he was – he says – “more interested in understanding football than enjoying it”. “I watched a lot of games – my family was sick of it – and I could judge if a player was thinking,” he told the Spanish newspaper, El Pais. “I could see that if I understood the game I would have an advantage, especially at a young age when few players have that conceptual understanding.” Former coaches would be struck at how this 11-, 12-, 13-year-old boy could have in-depth tactical conversations, and relish the discussion.
It is perhaps telling that Rodri is no longer the “next Sergio Busquets” these days but just plain old Rodri, arguably the world’s best holding midfielder. And the man Guardiola will not be making the same mistake of omitting from his starting XI for a Champions League final on Saturday night.