General rule of thumb: don’t overreact to anything you see during the preseason.
Now that we’re on the same page, let’s overreact to some things we saw from Rodri this preseason!
Well, overreact probably isn’t the right word, it’s better categorized as acknowledging some concerning aspects from his play so far. This isn’t to say that he didn’t do a ton of great things over the past couple weeks because he certainly did, but we’ll table that conversation for another time. Looking at some cautionary moments shouldn’t slow down the hype train (which this author is also riding) so hopefully this article doesn’t inadvertently do so, but we are going to explore a few defensive lapses Rodri has had this preseason.
Before we jump in, let’s get all of the necessary caveats out of the way - he’s very young, adjusting to new everything, it’s only been a handful of games, etc. Refer to the first sentence of this piece real quick as a reminder that none of this should affect how excited we all should be about Rodri. But even in the best case scenario, there will be an adjustment period during which he may struggle. With the title race margins as thin as ever, City can’t afford to waste points at any point this season, so concerning observations can’t be overlooked. This is especially true because Premier League opposition will certainly try to exploit any chink in City’s heavily refined armor they can find, and picking on the new guy is a tried and tested way of doing so.
The first aspect of Rodri’s game that opponents may try to take advantage of is his ability to defend in one-on-one situations. For a player blessed with great size, Rodri hasn’t showcased a physicality you’d expect from his 6’3” frame. Deployed as the lone defensive midfielder while on the pitch this preseason, players have been able to power through or evade his attempted tackles too often.
If this weakness turns out to be more than just preseason rust, it may be the most alarming flaw of Rodri’s skill set. City’s style of play concedes space in transition and relies on the defensive midfielder to frequently clean up the mess with professional fouls and counter-destroying tackles. The club’s success over the past two seasons has been in large part because Fernandinho (and to a lesser degree, Gundogan) has been ridiculously good at cleaning up these messes. This is a skill Rodri will undoubtedly improve on under Guardiola, but opponents may look to attack him off the dribble based on these preseason moments and there is still uncertainty on how he’ll hold up.
Rodri’s deficiency in transition could also extend past his apparent lack of physicality to his positioning. With the defensive midfielder acting as the wall between City’s mob of attackers and backline, it is crucial that player is in exactly the right spot as opposition counters transition out of their own half. Rodri has tended to abandon his position to jump passing lanes, which works out really well when it comes off but could hang the backline out to dry if it doesn’t.
Teams may see plays like the one here and try to draw Rodri out with misdirection before progressing into the areas he leaves behind. The Spaniard has also been susceptible to being cut out of the play by one-two combinations due to this tendency. He has yet to show the ability to quickly change direction (few players his size can) in order to recover when he does step to those quick passing sequences. That being said, this flaw will likely dissipate as he acclimates to City’s system and Guardiola teaches him how to improve his real-time analysis of the game, so anticipate this being a concern primarily in the short term.
Rodri will also need to improve his awareness in more stable stretches of defense, as there have been instances when he’s allowed for too much space between himself and the backline. The Blues like to fluctuate the position/intensity of their press, and coordinating the movement from each line of defense is critical to reduce chance creations. Improper spacing creates a vulnerability to line-breaking passes, but is perhaps more applicable while retreating in response to balls over the top.
The sequence above highlights this dynamic as Wolves play a long diagonal forward and direct the header back into a hearty chunk of space just outside the box as Rodri can’t make up the ground. The defensive midfielder must be prepared to jump on these layoffs before the second wave of opposition attackers can get forward and run at an isolated backline.
The final two observations noted are also functions of City’s style of play, which accepts the risks that come with aggressive, pressure defense. The blame should not be completely laid at Rodri’s feet for that because sometimes the low percentage progressions that the Blues’ allow come off regardless of defensive aptitude and it’s a hectic recovery when they do.
Rodri also comes to Manchester from a Atletico Madrid side that prioritized the defensive principles and structure of Diego Simeone above all else. 26% of that team’s 2018-19 play took place in their own third, a significant contrast from the 19% City experienced last season. Moving from a more conservative philosophy adds another layer to the caveats mentioned earlier, but will add another layer to his adjustment period as well.
The question now becomes – how long will it take for Rodri to get up to speed? And when he does, will any of these concerns still exist?
There should be confidence that the answer to the second question will be a definitive no. By all accounts, Rodri is an incredibly hard worker and has the best coach in world to help him grow. Let’s not forget that Pep Guardiola transformed Ilkay Gundogan into an excellent defensive midfielder in one season, and he had more distance to cover. Furthermore, he’s already improved from the start of preseason to the end of it so his development is already in progress.
Learning how to use his physicality will likely be the most lingering concern out of everything addressed, but a large part of that will be buoyed as he matures in reading the game within the context of the Premier League and City’s system. For the rest of it, there’s no one better than Fernandinho to show him how to add that extra bite to his game.
Now that we’ve gotten the negativity out of the way, let’s get that hype train back in gear.