Rodrygo: Man City can't afford to ignore Real Madrid's Champions League-loving Brazilian

Much like his compatriot Vinicius Jr, the Brazilian forward has taken time to mature in Madrid, but is now a key player under Carlo Ancelotti

When Real Madrid snagged a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final on April 18, the big guns didn't score. Vinicius Jr squandered two golden opportunities. Karim Benzema scuffed one shot and blasted another over. Instead, it was who Rodrygo played hero, bagging a brace at the bridge to send Los Blancos to yet another European semi-final.

But this is hardly a new concept. Rodrygo has been at his best for Madrid in Europe for some time now. Since the 2019-20 season, the Brazilian trails only Benzema in Madrid's continental goalscoring charts with 15 — despite playing markedly fewer minutes. He has found the net against Manchester City twice, Chelsea three times and Inter to open the successful 2021-22 campaign.

It's not just in Europe where he's embraced the big occasion either, as highlighted by his match-winning double in Saturday's Copa del Rey final victory over Osasuna — leading Madrid to their first domestic cup since 2014 and earning a standing ovation from fans of both teams.

It all amounts to a player delivering on the €45 million (£40m/$48m) price tag that Madrid paid for him four years ago when he was signed from Santos as an 18-year-old. And now, he could be the difference-maker again as Madrid face off against Manchester City once more in their hunt for a second straight European Cup.

  1. Playing on the forgotten side

    Playing on the forgotten side

    Rodrygo has, for a long time, been a victim of Madrid's reliance on their left wing. According to The Athletic, 44 percent of the team's attacks go down the left, as the exciting Vinicius linking up with Benzema. It has been an impactful strategy, one enough for Vinicius to hit 20 goals and 20 assists in all competitions — and keep Benzema ticking away through the middle.

    But it often sacrifices the interests of the right-winger, trying to make do with only 30% of Madrid moves. Whether it be Fede Valverde or Rodrygo, the occupant of that position is relied on to be unselfish. He has to make the right runs, and occasionally express himself. There will be some chances, but ultimately, the ball is predominantly going to the other side.

    And under that system, it's been difficult for Rodrygo to stand out. A big-money signing with massive potential as a goalscoring and creative player, his numbers weren't up to scratch for his first few campaigns in Madrid. He scored only three times in La Liga across his first two seasons, starved of opportunities and occasionally wasteful on the ball.

    This year, though, he's embraced the role more efficiently. Rodrygo still has less of the ball than his Brazilian compatriot on the other wing, but he uses it more intelligently. His decision-making is more refined, while his passing accuracy is among the best in the world at his position.

    "I don't have much to do anymore, just keep doing the good things I'm doing, keep working every day, keep improving... I see that I'm better every year that goes by, every season I'm evolving," Rodrygo told GOAL in February.

  2. Forcing his way into the picture
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    Forcing his way into the picture

    Rodrygo, despite operating on the undesirable flank, has pushed himself into becoming an almost untouchable in Ancelotti's side — especially in the Champions League. It started last year, when he bagged a dramatic, last-gasp brace against City to help send Madrid to the final.

    In the trip to Chelsea this season, meanwhile, the Italian manager tweaked his line up to ensure Rodrygo featured. He dropped preferred wide man Valverde into central midfield, and gave Rodrygo licence to drift and link up with Benzema.

    And the Brazilian thrived, turning in a memorable performance to dispatch the Blues. It was crucial that he showed up, too — Benzema, held scoreless, had one of his worst games of the season.

    There have been other similar situations, too. Rodrygo was slotted into the line up for the first leg of the last-16 clash with Liverpool, grabbing an assist at Anfield in a 5-2 romp over the previous year's finalists.

    He has also bagged goals in starts against Atletico Madrid and Valencia, the latter being the Supercopa semi-final. He no longer disappears like he used to, either. Rodrygo is now a player who wants the ball, who can dictate games with similar veracity as the Brazilian on the other wing.

    This is a youngster who was once marginalised becoming a man for a big stage.

  3. Goals
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    Rodrygo was never really supposed to be a goalscorer alone. When the teenager, born in Sao Paulo, was handed a Nike deal at just 12, the media made little hesitation in dubbing him 'the new Neymar'. But unlike the legendary winger, Rodrygo likes an assist. He has created more goals than he's scored in every season since 2018, a player renowned for his one-on-one dribbling ability and affinity for linking up with others.

    That's a course that has been corrected this year. While Rodrygo has still delivered a healthy portion of assists — 11 in all competitions for club and country — he's bagged 13 goals. The winger has always been a solid finisher, but this seson, he is simply just putting shots on goal at a higher rate.

    In 2022-23, he's averaging nearly four attempts on goal per 90 minutes, up from his two last year, according to FBref. There are, of course, multiple explanations for this. Rodrygo has been on the pitch more, while Ancelotti has been willing to deploy him in more central positions — where he will inherently be asked to shoulder more of the goalscoring load.

    Regardless of where is being asked to start, Rodrygo is a more confident player. And with further minutes in the years to come, he should hit the net with even more regularity.

  4. Thriving outside his preferred position
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    Thriving outside his preferred position

    This has all come with Rodrygo playing outside of his regular spot. As he told GOAL in Feburary: "With the 4-2-3-1, behind Karim is the position that I like the most and everyone knows this. I always talk about it with the coach. Of course, I can play in all positions, but that's where it's where I feel more comfortable when it comes to playing."

    But it's a position that Ancelotti seldom uses. Although he has toyed with a 4-2-3-1 system, and inherently encourages positional freedom on the ball, Rodrygo has rarely been granted permission to play in the No.10 spot he feels he is most impactful. It's easy to wonder, then, what could happen if Madrid do indeed allow him to play in the middle more consistently.

    And it could be a real option for the future. With Benzema entering the twilight of his career, and no longer able to play every game, Ancelotti perhaps has more license to fiddle with his formations. There is the chance, too, that this could easily be the manager's last season at the helm — giving a new coach an opportunity to reinterpret Rodrygo's role.

    There have been times when Madrid have lacked a creative spark this season, when their attack has become far too formulaic. Perhaps the solution is to get Rodrygo into the middle on a more permanent basis. It could offer some balance to a midfield unit that has looked defensively unsure at times

    Regardless, Rodrygo is 22, and is continuing to improve. With two more years on his current contract — and presumably, a longer extension to come soon — this is only just the beginning. Chances are, he will only get better.

    And for now, over the next 10 days, he could be the difference-maker in beating Europe's best team once again.