Gabi is an Atlético Madrid legend. He’s their captain, their leader and their main defensive midfielder, but he’s also 34 years of age and Los Rojiblancos have been searching for a replacement over the past few months. They’ve now found one in Rodri Hernández, who’ll join the capital city club next summer.
Madrid native Rodri actually came through the Atleti youth academy, but he slipped through the cracks and was allowed to move to Villarreal in 2013, aged 17, due to his slight frame. That was an oversight and a costly one. Now measuring in at six foot three, weighing 85kg and strong enough to shrug off opposition challenges, Atlético will have to pay the Yellow Submarine €20m plus add-ons to bring the midfielder back to the capital. Given Gabi’s age and given that Thomas Partey, one of their other central midfielders of the future, is wildly inconsistent, the most important thing for Atlético Madrid is that they’ve got him.
Just as Gabi had to leave Atlético to prove himself at Real Zaragoza, Rodri has demonstrated what he can do on the Spanish east coast, becoming one of Villarreal’s most important players, even at the tender age of 21.
However, while he may be the long-term successor to Gabi in Atlético’s defensive midfield, he is stylistically more like Sergio Busquets and has been compared to the Barcelona man in the Spanish media, with it thought that Rodri will one day inherit the No.5 position in the national team.
Currently starring in the Under-21s Spain team, Albert Celades, his coach at that level, agrees with that comparison. “It’s true that he does have characteristics similar to those of Busquets,” he told El País. “What most catches my eye is the fact that he can play quickly with both feet, even at his size. He’s perfect when it comes to bringing the ball out from zones of pressure. Just like Busquets, he has the intuition to positon himself well and he knows where an opposition move is going, so he can steal the ball.”
At club level, former youth team coach Javi Calleja was promoted to the Villarreal dugout shortly after the start of the 2017/18 season and this has helped Rodri’s rapid development. Already he had broken into the senior squad last season, at just 20 years of age, but he wasn’t a starter and played just 834 LaLiga minutes over the course of the campaign. This season, though, he already racked up 1,385 LaLiga minutes over the first 16 weeks, with the injury to veteran defensive midfielder Bruno Soriano opening up a Rodri-shaped spot in the lineup and with Calleja trusting the youngster. Encouragingly, Calleja has already suggested that his plan is to find a way to fit both men into his team when Soriano does return from the medical room.
Soon, though, Rodri will be a component of Diego Simeone’s chemistry set. The Argentine may have to experiment and may have to tweak his preferred 4-4-2 in order to get the best possible reaction out of the former Atleti youth teamer, just as has happened at Villarreal, where they also played an orthodox 4-4-2 last season. Now, though, the Yellow Submarine play a 4-1-2-1-2, with a midfield diamond, leaving Rodri as the sole defensive midfielder, given that he’s good enough to execute the role on his own.
At Atlético, Simeone’s long-term plan for a post-Gabi world should also have Rodri in front of the back line and have the other three midfield slots filled with more forward-thinking players, confident that Rodri will mop up at the back and then start the attacking move, à la Busquets. That’s exactly what Rodri has been doing so far this season, winning the ball back for his side more frequently than any other player in LaLiga, while also finding his name in the top 10 on the list of most successful passes.
Rodri truly does appear to be the real deal and his basic price tag of €20m looks like a steal – no matter if it is double what his release clause was at the start of the season, before a contract rearrangement last month. Atlético Madrid look to have secured a defensive midfielder for the next decade, one who Barcelona also wanted, as well as some clubs in England and Germany.
Rodri Hernández. Remember the name.
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