Rodri: ‘I always watch games back, alone. I find things I don’t remember’

Estimated read time 11 min read

It’s good to talk. Ask the man Pep Guardiola says is “the best midfielder in the world, by far” and whom Spain’s coach, Luis de la Fuente, calls “the perfect computer”, the footballer one opponent described as a Rolls-Royce, “a joy to even share a pitch with”, despite being defeated, and whose international captain reckons would have won the Ballon d’Or if he had just done the only thing he can’t do and won’t do: sell himself. The man whose role, he says, is to “make my team work”, bringing “light”.

Which is why his teams work like no others, even if he says: “I’m very lucky to be at the club I am at and to be Spanish. I’m surrounded by great players, winning dynamics.”

In the build up to Spain’s quarter-final with Germany last Friday, Ilkay Gündogan was asked about Rodrigo Hernández. “Extraordinary, the best holding midfielder in the world,” he replied, but it was what he said next that was most striking, that might have best defined his opponent and how he sees the game, how he plays it. Looking back on Rodri’s first season in England, Gündogan recalled how he would stay behind 30, 35 minutes a day, every day, often more at Manchester City training. Not to practise free-kicks or bulk out in the gym, but to talk: “He was always discussing, learning, and he perfected his game.”

When Rodri talks everyone listens, one Spain player says that in Donaueschingen, where the selección have been based for the past month. It is easy to see why. Rodri talks a little like he plays: calm, in control, with a clarity that makes it easier for you, too. The most important thing in football, he says, is absorbing concepts. Even at 12 years old, there was something about him, an ability to read the game, understand it, a desire to learn. And it’s still there.

In terms of your development, was the key lesson being in England or being with Guardiola?

That’s a good question. It’s complex. If you think about English football, you don’t think about Pep’s football. But playing his football within English football has special demands. I had to adapt to a football that was more dynamic, more physical, faster. And within that to Pep’s football, which I was not used to. I came from another style. Although at Villarreal I played [something similar], it was not so tactical, not so sophisticated. The two things were a challenge.

Ilkay Gündogan said you would stay behind, not to practise but to talk.

In the first year, yes. Because when a player tries to adapt to Pep’s football, to a new environment, he needs information, to see things, repeat them, go over them, learn. He’s a coach that requires your attention, understanding. As a midfielder, you don’t so much need to learn the practical work, although it’s always useful, receiving, passing. In theory, you already have that. What you don’t have is the ‘“where does the pass go?” The decision. So you talk. Pep has been a pivot so it’s simpler, more direct. Videos, too.

Álvaro Morata says you lack marketing, that you could have won the Ballon d’Or last year.

But I don’t play football for that. Maybe people would like me to be more marketable and he sometimes says: “Mate, you should …” but I understand football differently. I know how it works so I don’t get frustrated if [I get overlooked]. If one day someone wants to reward the work, that’s welcome, but it doesn’t bother me at all.

You’re the architect.

It’s an important position, especially the way [City and Spain] play. I try to give movement to the play, a dynamism, a rhythm. To connect to the players in front of you as soon as you can, to help the game mature, to interpret it, take it where you want it to be. That’s what most defines the role of the pivot: when to accelerate, when to brake, when to press higher, when to move deeper. Those thoughts are always going through your mind. When the ball comes to me and we need to apply a pause, I’m not going to accelerate the play.

Rodri, the architect of Spain’s success.View image in fullscreen

That’s not just about doing that but communicating it, like against Georgia when you literally stopped. De la Fuente talked about you “administering” the game, your teammates. You have talked about leadership as providing light and tranquility in difficult moments.

In a game with the atmosphere, all the noise, it’s hard to communicate. Especially when you’re tired, tense. You communicate through your intention. If your teammates see your body language, they’ll understand. I’ve always believed that the role of a midfielder is very important in terms of leadership, conceptually, tactically. It’s hard for a winger or a full-back to organise from his position because he does not have the perspective. I like that role and it’s the role you should have if you want the team to function.

You talk about the intensity in England, but you seem to escape it. Sometimes watching you seemingly so unhurried, it’s tempting to think: “Why doesn’t someone go and kick him?”

Ha! The middle of the pitch is not really where you get hit a lot. They are positions in which players usually use their bodies well, they know how to position themselves. It’s actually quite hard to rob a midfielder, it tends to happen more in the top and bottom thirds of the pitch. That happens to me when I go to take the ball off a midfielder. It can be done, but it’s not easy. Above all, because we play one touch or two, usually you don’t give them time to arrive and hit you.

You have played more than 5,000 minutes this season and you admitted after the Champions League quarter-final that you needed a rest. Is that mental or physical?

There comes a moment when it all comes together and it’s too much. You need your physical condition to play but the head is important as well. People only see the game but there’s the pre-game, the preparation, the travel, the time away in the hotel, in which you’re “in” the game. Sincerely, something needs to be done. There’s more and more [games] and it looks like it isn’t about to stop. You have to take care of players. I’m very conscious of that. I reached a point where I can’t [do it] any more. But it seems like if you say so … look, I know football is a business, I know there’s a lot of money involved, but there is a point at which you have to take care of the sportsmen.

Should the players take a stand, as a collective?

Yes, yes. It is going to have to be like that. In fact, over this past year, there have been situations in which we have spoken, that we have to do things, although it is complicated because we’re dispersed. We’re at different clubs, it is not easy to generate that [collective voice]. But someone has to put their hand up. And the people who have power, the big organisations, have to say: “Look, this is all well and good but we have to take care, especially of this generation of players, boys like Lamine [Yamal] who is 16 …” No one can play 60, 70 games a season. Over a couple of seasons, maybe, but not 10.

Rodri relaxing by playing basketball.View image in fullscreen

You feel it during games?

There are moments … it’s not necessarily in the games, it can be when you’re away preparing for a game. Sometimes your head says: “Enough.” Or you want to stop. But in the end, there is a huge motivation. You always find the energy, the strength. Extra time the other day takes you to the limit. There are moments when you have to draw the energy from … well, I don’t know where you draw it from, but from somewhere. Competing, playing is nice but rest is important. There’s a moment when you need tranquility. We’re people, we need to disconnect. You need to be with your family, free time. People only see when you compete but it’s been a long season and we’ve been here a month in that routine. But the motivation to do something important is huge.

How many times have you watched the video of the quarter-final against Germany?

I haven’t seen it yet because I got back pretty tired, but I will. I always watch games back, whole. Especially if I think there are things that can be done better. I watch them alone. You see lots of things you didn’t see on the pitch. The feeling you have watching it is different to how it felt at the time. I often find there are things I don’t even remember having happened. I like to analyse the game, not just mine, but the rest of the team. In my mind, I see moments. My feeling is that we produced a very complete performance against a team that’s similar to us, a talented, physical team. There were moments we suffered, when solidarity was key, when we had to close off. It’s important to see those moments, understand them. Knocking out the hosts, Germany, is one of the hardest things there could be. In the end, we did it.

It was a game where you had to fight for the right to play.

Yes, there were some violent tackles. I was close to the one on Pedri and that was a bad one. But that happens in football, the referee has to take control.

Anthony Taylor got it wrong?

I think so. Not because it was or wasn’t [a card] but because of where the game is going. If there’s not a card there, the next one …

English referees tend to let the game go so wasn’t that always likely?

No. I know them well but when they referee in Europe they tend to drop the level of intensity [permitted] in England. As a player you have to be able interpret that.

There’s been an adaptability to Spain we haven’t always seen before. You even said that the style doesn’t matter, that the style is winning.

We’ve played a lot of teams that are good collectively. Italy, Croatia, Germany … teams that like to have the ball like we do, where we have had to understand and interpret, to accept that there are moments we won’t have it. In fact, we had less possession than [opponents]. There were moments when we had to suffer, resist, be together.

When Spain lost in Scotland last year, could you have imagined this?

Yes. You have to give any project time. We had only just started. I always had a lot of confidence in this group. We had done good things together at youth level, I knew the coach and I was convinced that with work and effort we would get it right. It’s not the same to be a national-team coach and a club coach and he understood that. He understood the team needed time to assimilate the ideas, two or three key concepts. [Spain and City] are similar philosophies but you adapt to the coach. Here, we try to be a bit more vertical. Without so much possession, but possession to do damage to the opponents. The coach gives you guidelines and then the players have to interpret that. They give you a script, you act it out. You have to be intelligent and respect the qualities of each player. If you have been called up it is because you have something.

Scott McTominay celebrates scoring his second goal in Scotland’s 2-0 Euro 2024 qualifying win against Spain at Hampden Park in March 2023.View image in fullscreen

Now it’s France in the semi-final.

We have to approach this with the same mentality, play like a big team with the ball and a small team without it. Show solidarity, humility. They’re very strong physically, hard to overcome, great individuals. They play the way they want to play: “I’ll wait for you, I’m comfortable here, I have quick, direct players.” You have to know what you’re facing, what you can and can’t do. That’s what we have done best so far, we’ve played different teams and understood. We’re maturing. Dani Carvajal [who is suspended] is a big loss, sure, but we have the players to replace him and in the face of adversity we have to show even greater solidarity. I’m sure we’ll respond.


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