The Journey That Made Rodri the Perfect Guardiola Player
Let’s get this out the way, shall we? Sergio Busquets. There, that’s that done. In a world where everyone is the “New Someone”, and certain players define roles for others to follow, maybe comparisons are inevitable; but in the case of Rodrigo Hernández, the midfielder Pep Guardiola bought from Atlético Madrid this summer, and Busquets, the one he first brought on in the third division against Banyoles aged 19 more than a decade ago, it feels even more unavoidable. Perhaps, then, this signing was inevitable too. Some footballers are supposed to be in particular places.
At times it seems impossible to mention Rodri without mentioning Busquets, the man whose role he is ready to inherit with Spain and under Guardiola. Some are now suggesting there could be even more to him than that. It is the role that, somehow, he always knew he would play, and if last season he didn’t, at least not exactly, that was because there were other things he wanted to master first, other qualities to develop, lessons to learn. It was also the main reason he did eventually depart. Rodri wants to play, his way.
And everyone keeps saying his way is Busquets’s way, Pep’s way.
“Rodri could fit perfectly at Manchester City because their coach has an Ajax and Barcelona style, the same idea. City have a coach with Barcelona influences; Rodri has the ability and the qualities to play that way,” Luis Milla said in the summer. Brought through La Masia, Milla was the central midfielder who Johan Cruyff eventually replaced with Guardiola. “It’s not a bad swap for them,” he laughs. He was also Spain’s Under-21 coach, a role in which he remained committed to those footballing ideals.
Albert Celades is another former Under-21 manager with Spain, another central midfielder from that same era and that same mould, a Barcelona youth product who made the first team in 1995. He gave Rodri his U-21 debut. “For someone of his size he is very quick with both feet, making him able to bring the ball out when under pressure,” he says. “He does difficult things with simplicity. Like Busquets, he has that intuition that allows him to be well-positioned, to know where a move is going so he’s there to take the ball.”
Busquets, always Busquets. Yet the line of continuity breaks: Rodri has never been at Barcelona. He began his career at Atlético but was released at 17, partly because of his size and partly because of a change in management in the youth system. He was small then, a late developer, but a growth spurt followed fast; he is 6ft 3in now. He went to Villarreal where the priority is possession and positioning. He lived in a students’ residence and studied business. They called him Bruno Xiquet – Little Bruno. Bruno Soriano was the club’s captain, a deep-lying central midfielder of control, passing and tranquillity – the closest thing there was to, yes, Busquets.
Born on the day Spain lost to England at Euro 96, Rodri identified with Guardiola’s “innovative” Barcelona side and the Spanish national team during childhood, though his idol was Zidane. “In 2008 I was watching Marcos Senna and Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Santi Cazorla: they were the ones that imposed that winning style on the team, a style which evolved and won Spain the World Cup and another Euros,” he said. “I watched Busquets especially closely. He, and others, lay down a model of playing I knew I had to follow.”
So he did, closely. As he played he examined, questioned, debated. His Under-12 coach recalled in-depth tactical discussions: “That’s not normal in a boy his age,” Fran Alcoy says. “He was very sharp tactically; it was striking that you could tell him something and you wouldn’t need to explain it again. You could see he would be superlative. I had never coached a player like it.”
Rodri told Ladislao Monino in El País: “When I was a kid, I was more interested in understanding football than enjoying it. I was interested in how it worked. I watched a lot of games – my family was sick of it – and I could judge if a player was thinking. I tried to add that to my game; 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.”
He described the central midfielder’s role as being about positioning, fluidity, playing passes that “break the lines”. Salida is a word that is used about him often: the ability to play the ball out, to find a passageway from deep.
In 2017-18 only Ivan Rakitic completed more passes in Spain, by 25 passes. Busquets was fourth, 198 passes behind him. At the end of that season, though, Rodri returned to Atlético. He cost only €25m and the fact that Barcelona did not move for him was a surprise: he was the obvious man to oversee a transition, the perfect replacement. This spring they did make enquiries but it was too late: his new buy-out clause was set at €70m and he was by then aware of the interest of City.
Atlético may have appeared an unusual move for a player so defined by a style that appeared the polar opposite, but he could see the value. He was 22, still developing, aware of his limitations, aware of the shift in football. He was also convinced that he had the physique to bridge that gap, to become a hybrid. And, in Diego Simeone, that he had the man who could bring that other side out in him.
At Atlético he proved that he could take a step up and also that he could adapt. All of which might have prepared him better for the Premier League, although he already saw a shift there, directly citing City (and only City) when he insisted last autumn: “more of that [Spanish] type of players are fitting in there and standing out; there are ever more players of talent.” Last season at Atlético underlined the fact that he should have few problems if he decided to join them. He adapted, as he always thought he would. He had taken a conscious decision to be taken in a different direction, forced to develop.
“[Going to Atlético] is going to help me,” he told the Guardian soon after arriving there. “It will complete me as a player.”
Rodri learned, broadened his game, changed. He performed so well that in one game when Simeone took him off, the coach was whistled – something that has never happened before. A public debate over style briefly opened and was quickly closed. And the man who played the second most passes in the league in 2017-18 became the man who completed more tackles than anyone else in 2018-19. But something was missing: 471 passes, for a start.
Rodri felt he wanted something else, something more from the game. He wanted to play, the way he always had. And so, better now, more complete, more learned, he has gone somewhere where he thinks he can.