How do you improve a team that is this close to perfection? That has been the question at Manchester City recently, as a team that racked up the two biggest points total in Premier League history – 100 and then 98 – wonders where to go next.
On Wednesday evening they provided an answer of sorts, paying the €70million (£62m) clause to release Rodri from Atletico Madrid. That makes Rodri the most expensive signing in Manchester City history, even more than the £60m they spent on Riyad Mahrez last summer.
So what makes Rodri so special, the answer to such a difficult question, and worth so much money?
The reason is that he solves a problem City have been trying to solve for years: what to do when Fernandinho slows down?
The longevity and reliability of Fernandinho has been one of the great undertold stories of the last few years at City. He has been at City for six years now – and is 34 years old – and yet he is more important to them than ever before. In Pep Guardiola’s aggressive 4-3-3 system there are only three players who do not charge forward in front of the ball and Fernandinho, sat in front of the two centre-backs, is one of them. He has a huge job to do, breaking up opposition attacks, (through fair means or foul), cutting off counters, defending set pieces, starting City’s attacks himself.
It already shows when Fernandinho is missing. City look less secure without him, as they did over the end of last season, even if they found a way to keep on winning. Their Champions League exit to Spurs, when a half-fit Fernandinho came on in the second half, might not have happened if he had been fit to start.
There are not many flaws or weaknesses that can be picked in City – they have an ominous air of permanence – but their continued reliance on this one particular ageing body is one of them.
Fernandinho will not be this good forever, and City need a replacement. To that end they have looked at Fred, Jorginho and Frenkie de Jong, only to be beaten by Manchester United, Chelsea and Barcelona to their signings instead. But this time they have won the race.
Rodri is not a perfect replacement for Fernandinho, he does not have his same speed and athletic power. But what Rodri does have, like Fernandinho, is a supreme football brain, an ability to read the game and anticipate what is going to happen next. That is why he has been compared so much to Sergio Busquets, one of Guardiola’s most important players at Barcelona, and the type of deep-lying controller City have sometimes lacked.
Last autumn Rodri was called up to the Spain squad by Luis Enrique, and was asked about comparison with the Barca legend. “I have to set high goals,” he said. “Busquets has always been a reference point for me.”
Those who have followed Rodri’s career closely, his emergence at Villarreal, his impressive last season at Atletico, all point to that natural football intelligence that he has. It takes plenty of that to learn how to play in midfield for Pep Guardiola, which is why he is so loyal to Fernandinho, David and Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne, the players that have mastered it.
But if Rodri can be smart enough to learn the Guardiola way, just as Busquets did 10 years ago, and to eventually step into Fernandinho’s shoes, then he will turn out to be one of City’s most important long-term investments of the decade. City have waited years to make this purchase, and they will hope that patience pays off.
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