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Spain’s recent bright history has been built on some of the best midfielders around.
The Barcelona trio of Sergi Busquets, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta has been at the centre of La Roja’s success. But it’s not only those three. Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fàbregas and Marcos Senna also starred for their country in recent years.
But times are changing. Alonso and Senna are retired. Xavi is 38 and plying his trade in Qatar, while Iniesta, Fàbregas and Busquets are 33, 30 and 29 respectively. It is time for a freshen up in the middle of the pitch for the Spaniards.
Julen Lopetegui’s squad for the last international break signified that a change is coming. Iniesta was included, but barring Dani Parejo (28), everyone else was 26 or under in midfield; Koke, Isco, Thiago, Saúl, Marco Asensio and Rodri.
The last man on that list is perhaps the least famous, yet he may prove to be Spain's next great midfielder. At 21 years old, the future looks very bright for the Villarreal man.
Rodri joined the Yellow Submarine’s youth set-up in 2013 after being released from Atlético Madrid due to a lack of physical strength.
His first-team debut came in December 2015, before a first La Liga appearance in April 2016. The 2016/17 season saw him become a fixture of Villarreal’s match-day squads, acting as cover for captain Bruno Soriano, who is a quality player, but not getting any younger.
It has been 2017/18 where Rodri has really broken out, however, establishing himself as a first-team regular with Bruno not playing at all this season due to injury.
He has been the perfect replacement, controlling the game for Villarreal from the middle of the pitch in their influential captain’s absence.
The Madrid native claims he bases his game on his skipper. Speaking early last year he said: “Bruno has been my reference point for my style of playing since I arrived here. In fact, he was even when I was younger.
“He is a player that is very similar to my footballing profile. Saying that I’m the heir to Bruno is the most flattering thing that you can say to me.”
But perhaps he should be aiming higher than being Bruno’s heir. The 33-year-old was undoubtedly a great midfielder in his day, but he only managed to earn ten Spain caps, with the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets ahead of him.
Indeed, Rodri was spoken about as a potential heir to the latter, both at international and club level. And towards the end of 2017 he was reportedly a Barcelona transfer target.
In November, he claimed he looked up to the Barça man on the pitch.
“I’ve had a lot of players I look up to, but what is true is that with my positioning and style of play, I am a lot like Busquets,” he said. “I try and aspire to reach his level, but there’s still a long way to go and I’m only thinking in the present.”
If he wants to replicate Busquets, he’ll have to pass a little more. So far this season, Rodri has averaged 68.82 passes per 90 minutes with an 89.15 per cent accuracy rate. The Barcelona holding midfielder is on 78.6 passes with a 90.1 per cent accuracy rate.
Rodri isn’t too far off though. If he played for a club like the La Liga leaders, he probably would be passing more frequently. And if you watch him, there are definitely traits of Busquets.
His long legs are similar to the Barcelona man, and he uses them to win the ball in tight positions and move away with possession to help his team off on a counter attack, as you can see in the three stills above from Villarreal’s Europa League tie with Lyon.
In the images above, from the game against Málaga, you can see how he wins the ball back in midfield before playing a lovely pass to Jaume Costa in space to set off a Villarreal attack.
Rodri has the passing ability to pick out the right ball after winning possession, which helps set him apart from a number of other players in his position, who are mainly tough tacklers.
But despite being tipped first as Bruno's heir and then a Busquets replacement, it is actually Gabi at Atlético Madrid who he will be standing in for next season.
A deal to return to his boyhood club is not yet official but it is the world’s worst-kept secret. And Diego Simeone’s side are getting a bargain.
Despite only renewing his contract in December, Los Colchoneros have reportedly met the 21-year-old’s €20million buyout clause. While Villarreal aren’t a small club, playing for a side like Atleti, one that is regularly in the Champions League and has title ambitions, should take his game to the next level.
With the current established midfield options for Spain ageing, it will be the perfect time for Rodri to take the bull by the horns and show Lopetegui that he can be his country's next stand-out midfielder.
To earn a cap at Villarreal isn’t easy. El Submarino Amarillo have a number of decent Spaniards who are often overlooked, such as Mario Gaspar, Sergio Asenjo and Manu Trigueros, so Rodri is clearly doing something right.
He will only be further into the spotlight at Atleti, but if he carries on improving and performing week in, week out, he has the potential to be a regular for La Roja for years to come.
After making his debut for Spain against Germany, he is an outsider for the national squad for Russia 2018, but Lopetegui clearly has seen something in him.
While on international duty, Rodri said: “I’m not thinking about the World Cup, but to be spoken about and to come into the coach’s plans is a reward for me.
“When I arrived, the coach told me to play with imprudence, to do things like I know how to do them and nothing else, from there, we will see.”
This summer's tournament may come too early for him, but it would be a surprise if Rodri wasn’t in Spain's starting XI come Euro 2020.