When Rodrigo Hernandez Cascante signed for Manchester City last summer for a club record £62.8m, he must have hoped his acclimatisation to the frenetic demands of Premier League football would be helped considerably by the midfield mentoring of a player he was principally bought to succeed.
For six seasons Fernandinho has been consistently immense for the Blues, a whirlwind of demolition and distribution who in recent years has become an integral figure in Pep Guardiola’s masterplan.
In 2017 the coach described the Brazilian as the best midfielder of his type in the world. Yet time has little regard for even the very best and at 33 years of age it became necessary for the club to seek out a replacement – that player being Rodri.
Routinely compared in Spain to the great Sergio Busquets the Atletico Madrid star fit the criteria perfectly. Psychically his 6ft 4 frame was imposing – ‘he looks like a holding midfielder,’ Guardiola joked on signing him – but with the ball at his feet he is so often a pass master, comfortable and astute in possession. This has been artfully illustrated this season with a 86% pass accuracy in the Champions League.
Even so, this was a different culture; far more gnarly and fast-paced than the more serene La Liga, and having Fernandinho in there alongside him would amount to a godsend. A masterclass at close quarters.
That godsend vanished on August 31st when Aymeric Laporte stayed worryingly still on the Etihad turf against Brighton and when the news was soon after confirmed that it was a serious knee injury that meant Fernandinho would now be converted to centre-half for the foreseeable future.
The knock-on effects from Laporte’s absence and Fernandinho’s reboot have been felt – and endured – by Manchester City in numerous ways all campaign and no more so than by Rodri. Because just four games in to his City career not only was he now deprived of a mentor but with Guardiola seeking greater protection for his makeshift back-line the Spaniard now found himself partnered in a double-pivot with Ilkay Gundogan.
There is nothing wrong with Gundogan who is a perfectly fine and effectual player. The problem, however, lies in the fact that he is similar in style to Rodri and inhabits the same spaces and from a promising introduction to the Premier League the latter’s performances began to suffer. Passes began to go astray. The chatter on the terraces began to wonder if that lofty comparison to Busquets was exaggerated after all.
Then came Burnley away last week with Rodri stationed singularly behind David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne with all of the responsibility and space to himself. On the one hand it feels knee-jerky to declare anything substantial based on 90 minutes of football. On the other that really depends on the kind of performance.
Rodri was everywhere. A man against boys. Mopping up. Brushing off opponents with ease. The first line of attack. His display wasn’t simply exceptional, it was perfect and all capped off with a thunderbolt of a goal too.
“An incredible player”. That was Guardiola’s assessment post-game and yes it was only 90 minutes but it was outing so dominant and imperious that it came attached with a real statement of intent: Busquets MKII is here, and here to stay.