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The rise of Rodri: From Champions League final rejection to becoming Man City's midfield brains

7:00 pm AEDT 26/12/21
Rodri, Man City, UCL 2021-22
The Spain international has been in superb form for Pep Guardiola's side this season after an up-and-down first two years in English football

Pep Guardiola's decision not to play a defensive midfielder in last season's Champions League final is regarded as being one of, if not the main reason why Manchester City lost out to Chelsea.

Six months on, and it is crazy to think that Rodri was not even in the equation to start that game.

The Spain international had already been left out of the semi-final second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, with the veteran Fernandinho preferred by Guardiola.

Rodri had played in all of the knockout games to that point, and his frustration was clear in the warm-up rondos at the Etihad Stadium, where for some of the time he could be seen with his hands tucked into his tracksuit trousers.

If that was a minor suprise, then the decision to also leave Fernandinho out for the final in Porto and select Ilkay Gundogan at the base of a midfield three was a major shock for fans and media alike, and led to Guardiola facing tough questions about his team selection and tactics.

Fast-forward to the present day, and City are back on top of the the Premier League, with Rodri having roared back to become one of Guardiola's most important players.

No more so was that illustrated than during the recent thrashings of Leeds United and Newcastle, when the ex-Atletico Madrid man was substituted relatively early on to maintain his freshness for the upcoming busy festive period.

It has been a rapid turn around in fortunes for the 25-year-old.

Guardiola, a former holding midfielder in his playing days, demands a lot from those who play the position in his teams. He looks for players who can combine positional discipline with high-energy pressing, while also showcasing a sharp use of possession so as to anchor attacks.

Fernandinho had the experience and maturity to quickly master the role following Guardiola's arrival in 2016, following in the footsteps of Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, and Bayern Munich's Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso.

The role is demanding, even for someone like Rodri who, in November, completed a degree in Management and Business Administration. He has, however, shown he can fulfil the requirements, and is now performing on a consistent basis so as to be a keystone of Guardiola's side.

"Last season he played good. Maybe in the last part of the season he dropped a little bit, but we gave him more minutes last season and we have to be careful this season," Guardiola said of Rodri earlier this term.

"He is playing at an extraordinary level. The consistency - not one game - he has to be here, seven or eight [out of 10], all the time.

"He cannot be three or four because it destroys the team, and cannot be a 10 because 10 is for strikers. He is playing with this consistency, defensively and offensively.”

This is a different Rodri from his two prevous seasons at City, buoyed by a growing confidence and belief in his own ability.

He has become a midfielder that is prepared to direct his team-mates around, to break into attacking positions as he did against Leeds, or to smash in 25-yard strikes like his blasted goal against Everton.

Defensively, he is a player that knows where to position himself on the pitch to cut out counterattacks, resorting to the occasional tactical foul when required, just as his predecessor Fernandinho mastered the art of before him.

It was understandable that not too long ago fans questioned whether Rodri would be able to succeed Fernandinho, but also not surprising that Guardiola has been able to mould him into his ideal defensive midfielder.

Players such as Riyad Mahrez and Joao Cancelo have taken their time to learn and settle into the Catalan's philosophy, while Jack Grealish is still going through his own adjustment process following his record-breaking summer arrival.

But there is even more responsibility and pressure to acclimatise to in Rodri's role, so that he has done so is a credit to the way he has taken feedback on board and improved.

His influence can be difficult to prove with statistics in comparison to other areas of the pitch. One revealing figure, however, is that only Liverpool's Thiago Alcantara has a better percentage of successful presses from midfield this season, though the ex-Bayern Munich man has played only half the number of minutes as his Spain team-mate.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of Rodri's impact is that City have won 18 of the 21 games he has started this season, and just one of the six he has not.

Of those three they did not win when he was in the line-up, one was the defeat away to Paris Saint-Germain and another the draw at Liverpool - two games that City dominated for long periods. The only major blip, then, came in the 2-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace in October.

That 2-2 draw at Anfield was possibly Rodri's most impressive performance of the campaign, coming against a Liverpool side that threaten to overrun visiting sides at home.

Rodri held his own before coming up with a sensational block to deny Fabinho a late winner, eating up the ground as the Brazil international looked certain to tap into an empty net.

"For me the ball was in," Jurgen Klopp admitted at full-time, highlighting the miraculous nature of Rodri's intervention.

The City star brushed off the incident as just helping the team, but there is no doubt that his presence has been crucial in helping City regain top spot in the Premier League ahead of their clash with Leicester City on Boxing Day.

"It’s not an easy position," Rodri admitted earlier in the season. "You need to find the role, the team needs you and I understand perfectly what the team demands from me.

"I try to do my best every game and try to learn every day."

It's a position where players can never stop learning under Guardiola, but Rodri is starting to become a master of his craft.

Far from being left out of key games in the future, he is becoming one of the first names on the Man City teamsheet.