Just two short seasons ago, Jay Rodriguez was one of the most talked-about and promising players in the Premier League. The young striker, signed by Southampton from Burnley in 2012, was part of the exciting Saints side led by Mauricio Pochettino to eighth place in 2013/14.
Featuring alongside fellow Englishmen Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert, the trio terrorised defences and attracted plenty of admirers for their play, combining for 19 assists and 37 goals with Rodriguez leading the way on 15 goals.
His form also caught the eye of England manager Roy Hodgson, who called Rodriguez, alongside Lambert and Lallana, up to the squad for friendlies against Chile and Germany. Despite not featuring for the World Cup qualifying games, Rodriguez was much fancied to make Hodgson’s 23-man squad for the finals.
But then disaster struck for the then 24-year-old. Jumping for a ball in a game against Man City late in the season, he landed awkwardly and was stretchered off, the agonising look on his face saying more than any words could and it was just days later it was announced that he had ruptured his ACL and would face a year or more on the sidelines.
It was a cruel blow for one of the Premier Leagues most in-form players, and for England too. Whether or not he would have changed the disastrous tournament showing from the Three Lions we’ll never know, but certainly the attacking options and variety available to Hodgson were dramatically reduced.
Rodriguez made his return to action at the start of this season more determined than ever, featuring and scoring in both the Europa League and League Cup, before suffering another long-term injury in mid-November, one that would keep him out of action for a further two months.
Due to return later this month, Rodriguez has almost become Saints’ forgotten man. Since his initial injury, he has seen a change of manager and a large scale change in personnel at the club – old strike partners Lallana and Lambert departing to Liverpool along with others, whilst a host of new players were brought in at his position, the likes of Dusan Tadic, Sadio Mane, Shane Long and Graziano Pelle all arriving whilst he was in recovery.
Can he make a successful return to the first-team? Can he come anywhere close to recreating the kind of form that saw him earn a call up to the national side? Indeed, aside from his physical health, how will his mental health be after such a long injury lay-off and subsequent set-backs?
The Saints are currently on a four-game unbeaten streak and looking to improve on last year’s seventh-place finish. Those brought in to ‘replace’ Rodriguez have all scored goals and showed spells of brilliance, although none can really be said to have made the kind of impact that Rodriguez made during the 2013/14 season. Sadio Mane tends to play on the left of the attacking three, ‘J-Rod’s’ favoured position, and is probably the standout player for Ronald Koeman’s side this term.
So how can Rodriguez re-integrate back into the side? Will he be able to earn a spot back in this in-form Southampton unit? Certainly it will be tough, the aforementioned players (and recently signed Charlie Austin) presenting a challenge in his position. Mane could well move on in the summer, freeing up space for a return into a more regular starting spot for the 26-year-old.
But, for now a focus on getting back his fitness and goalscoring touch should be the main priority upon his return. If he can do that, the Saints would surely benefit from his presence on the bench, able to come on for 15-20 minutes at the end of games to worry tired defences. The player himself will be desperate to show Koeman that he has ‘still got it’ and can not only become an integral part of the squad but can eventually claim back a spot in the first XI.