The Skilset of a Modern Defensive Midfielder

Rodri Hernández Cascante, commonly known as Rodri, has swiftly risen to prominence as one of the most notable defensive midfielders over the past year.

Since his birth in 1996 and joining Manchester City in 2019 after playing in La Liga for Villarreal and Atlético Madrid, his full adaptation to the team may have spanned three full years, but few players command the level of reliance from Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola as he does.

The question then arises: what factors have contributed to the meteoric rise of this Spanish powerhouse in the heart of Manchester City’s midfield?

In modern football, defensive midfielders have become the most important asset of any team. This increasing importance partly accounts for why such players are rare gems in the transfer market.

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The position requires a versatile skillset: Orchestrating the team’s offensive build-up, being the crucial barrier against counter-attacks after losing possession, and possessing a high IQ, keen anticipation, and elite technical abilities.

Beyond their technical prowess, these midfield maestros must exhibit courage, decisiveness and an instinctual understanding of the game. Often unsung heroes, they operate in the backdrop, eclipsed by the more visible scorers and defenders.

However, players like Rodri embody both attacking and defensive acumen, a blend that is rare at the pinnacle of football. 

This scarcity has led many teams to adopt double-pivot formations, relying on two players to fulfill the demanding responsibilities typically shouldered by one.

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How Sergio Busquets’ Style of Play Has Influenced Rodri

Rodri’s remarkable technical proficiency frequently invites comparison to one of his key inspirations, the iconic Spanish midfielder Sergio Busquets.

Undoubtedly, Busquets’ influence is deeply ingrained in Rodri’s style of play:

He is the most influential coach of my career. He has elevated me to a level I didn’t know I could reach. When you get used to being with him, I say ‘why don’t they do this’, I see everything much easier. He gives you a toolbox, and you have more tools than the rest. I would highlight the ability that he has to instruct his players make better use of spaces by moving less. There are few players he hasn’t taken to the top.”

Sergio Busquets is often hailed as one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time, a testament to his exceptional skill and impact on the field. This high regard for Busquets also sheds light on the challenge of fully appreciating Rodri’s significance. 

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Rodri’s Crucial Role in the Heart of Manchester City’s Play

Just as Busquets’ greatness is widely acknowledged, understanding his influence helps in recognizing the vital role that Rodri plays.

Rodri serves as the pivotal connector for the team, often at the heart of each play. Yet, he may not always be visibly involved in the final third, where Manchester City frequently exerts its offensive pressure.

His strategic positioning, however, is crucial in tipping the scales in favour of the Citizens. His role often involves simply ‘being there’ at the right moment before the play unfolds. This subtlety of ‘non-action’ makes it challenging for many to discern his critical importance to Pep Guardiola’s strategy.

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In a notable Premier League match where Manchester City suffered a defeat against Arsenal, the absence of Rodri was keenly felt.

Coach Pep Guardiola explicitly lamented his absence, emphasizing how significantly it impacted the team’s performance. This is not a mere coincidence: Rodri’s active role in maintaining possession is pivotal for Guardiola’s strategy to control the game.

He essentially embodies Pep’s tactical vision on the field, acting as a living representation of his coach’s footballing philosophy. Pep Guardiola, in his playing days, shared similarities with Rodri: While he might have appeared slow when isolated, in the right dynamics, he transformed into the most dynamic player on the pitch.

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When Rodri experiences an off-day, it often aligns with Manchester City losing their usual dominance in possession. This correlation speaks volumes about his integral role: Rodri is at the heart of almost every action, underscoring his indispensability to the team, a linchpin in the machinery of modern football teams.

The Key Role of Defensive Midfielders

An analysis of any legendary team in recent years reveals a recurring pattern: The key role of defensive midfielders, often ranking among the best in their position.

The previously mentioned Sergio Busquets exemplifies this trend. Another notable example was Casemiro when playing at Real Madrid, who, despite a contrasting style, equally underscores the critical importance of this role in shaping a team’s success.

Teams lacking an elite defensive midfielder often face significant challenges, as evidenced by the struggles of prominent clubs like Barcelona, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich.

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Conversely, another top Premier League team’s substantial investment last summer in a defensive midfielder has paid dividends. Arsenal now lead both the Premier League and European competitions, a success not merely coincidental but linked to this strategic addition.

The player in question is Declan Rice, who stands as the only defensive midfielder to have surpassed Rodri’s in terms of impact.

Formerly playing for West Ham, Rice commanded a transfer fee exceeding £100 million. At first glance, this sum might seem exorbitant for a player not renowned for scoring goals (or doing so infrequently).

However, this valuation reflects the widespread demand and scarcity of elite defensive midfielders.

A similar scenario unfolded with Real Madrid, who invested approximately the same amount for the French midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni.

Rodri Combines Multiple Roles Into One Irreplaceable Presence

Rodri’s role at Manchester City is indispensable, and he is frequently described as a ‘mediapunta’ or ’middle point’ in the team’s formation. His nickname, ‘the metronome’, aptly captures his function: he regulates the team’s tempo, orchestrating the play with precision and control.

However, Rodri’s true value lies not just in his steady presence but in his impeccable timing and ability to deliver diagonal passes that disrupt opposing defences. Without these critical elements, Manchester City’s effectiveness would be significantly diminished.

When this connecting point is absent, it’s as if all bridges within the team collapse. The players become like isolated islands, each drifting independently, lacking the interconnectedness that Rodri provides.

This certainly explains the critical importance of Rodri in Manchester City’s lineup, as there is no other player with a similar skillset within the team. Neither Phillips nor Kovačić can replicate the full spectrum of tasks Rodri performs.

In his absence, City might need to deploy two players to cover what Rodri accomplishes alone. This underlines his immense value: Rodri combines multiple roles and diverse responsibilities into one, thereby freeing up the manager to optimize the rest of the squad without overextending resources.

While it is universally acknowledged that no player is without flaws, including Rodri, his standing as one of the premier midfielders in his role is indisputable.

Barring any significant changes, it’s highly probable that he will continue to dominate in this capacity for an extended period, especially as long as Manchester City maintains its current tactical model.

It’s crucial to recognize Rodri’s significance within the context of Pep Guardiola’s Positional Play: He stands at Manchester City’s linchpin, their most vital player.

However, this status is intricately tied to Guardiola’s presence. If Pep were to leave, the dynamics could shift dramatically for the Spaniard. His strengths heavily rely on a team that consistently pressures the opponent, a hallmark of Guardiola’s strategy.

Rodri’s comparative disadvantage in one-on-one duels becomes evident in a less stable, more counter-attack-oriented environment, where he can be more easily overwhelmed. However, the current scenario appears favourable for him, with indications that Pep Guardiola is set to stay.

And as long as the Catalan mastermind remains at the helm of the club, Rodri has nothing to worry about.

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