When the time came to extend Rodri’s stay at Manchester City far beyond his outstanding third season with the club, negotiations were unsurprisingly swift. He wanted to stay. They wanted to keep him. Nice and easy. But then Rodri wasn’t in the room to drive a hard bargain with Txiki Begiristain and company.
“Txiki was scared if I negotiate!” Rodri laughs when CBS Sports puts to him that his recently completed degree in management and business administration might have given him the upper hand in talks. When tales of this promising young Villarreal midfielder first began burbling up in Spain, Rodri was to be found on the campus of Universidad de Castellon, spending his weeks in shared halls of residence before lighting up La Liga.
It was not long before Atletico Madrid came calling again for the man they had dispensed as an 11 year old for his lack of physical strength (not an assessment that many a Premier League forward would share these days). A year later Manchester City had earmarked him for the role that was arguably defined by his now manager Pep Guardiola, the ball winner, metronomic passer and tempo setter at the base of midfield. Through all that time, his studies, which he completed during last year’s European Championships, have offered him an oasis of relative serenity amid the high drama of sport.
“I can’t tell you [if it changed me], maybe in another life if I didn’t study,” he says. “It helps me the most in the fact that I’m not focused in my head on football alone. I have more things in my life, that lets me get out of this world that is sometimes so demanding and pressurized.
“Working on my degree helped me to avoid those feelings of anxiety. Sometimes it’s better for footballers to be occupied by something else.”
Perhaps in the future, once his playing career is at an end, his studies might not be his safe place but instead the source of new stresses. Why not try Begiristain’s job as director of football? He seems tempted. “I see him every day in the training ground and I look at what a good life he has,” says Rodri. “I like the way he works. I like what he does. There’s a chance. It’s too far of course.”
Before then there is plenty for Rodri to focus on. In addition to their annual pursuit of the Champions League; City head into the new season bidding to become just the fifth club (after Huddersfield Town, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United) to win three English top division titles in a row. No one has ever made it four on the bounce, but who would doubt a City side that has added one of the finest young strikers in the world to their squad?
After several seasons in which Guardiola has largely experimented with false nines, wingers through the middle and playmaking, ball-to-feet target men, the hulking presence of Erling Haaland will make for a pleasurable jolt to the system for City’s creators.
“When this kind of player arrives in your team you’re very excited,” Rodri says. “They’re unique, incredible help. They’re killers. He’s going to give us different things in the sense of a pure No.9, a pure striker.
He adds: “I think he’s going to give us what we need. We were a great team, now we have Erling up front who can give us everything he has. He has incredible potential physically, tactically, technically. He’s young. It depends on him, what he wants to achieve, what he wants to improve. He’s in the best place to do it.”
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City, of course, did not struggle for goals before Haaland arrived. Rodri made sure of that, weighing in with seven goals across the season. There is no great surprise at the two he ranks as his favorites: the vital winner against Arsenal on New Year’s Day and the firm low drive from the edge of the box that drew his side level in the thrilling comeback win over Aston Villa that won them the Premier League title.
That latter one was rather typical of Rodri’s fine scoring run last season, one of four he scored from outside the area. Having previously averaged at best just under a shot per 90 minutes, the 26 year old was taking 1.4 last season, a rather significant upswing of no little benefit to City when he can hit them in the thunderous fashion he did. Couple that with his burgeoning threat from corners and you have a player who can quell attacks at one end while rounding off a few at the other.
“Finishing actions” is a point Rodri refers back to more than once; sometimes that is as much justification as any to try out the 30 yard thunderbolt. Even if all it does is sail over the bar, it is stopping the opposition from counterattacking. In that way it is not so dissimilar from the measured interceptions or robust tackles the Spaniard is more readily associated with.
“I started training a little bit more to arrive in these situations, to have more desire to get there,” he says. “Sometimes it’s not the fact that you don’t have a shot [available to you], you’re more worried about counterattacks than attacking. It’s part of what I want [to improve], I tried to push myself to do it.
“I’ve proven to myself that I can do it and so I’m working to get in these situations more, I have to improve a little more in terms of assists, key passes in the last third, goals. I think I can do it, I have the capability.”
It was not goals alone that made this Rodri’s best season in a City shirt, though that is what it was. The man signed to succeed Fernandinho did exactly that in 2021-22 and it was little surprise that Guardiola, Begiristain and the club hierarchy swiftly moved to tie the Spain international to the club until just after his 31st birthday.
“It was very easy negotiations for me and the club. We all know what we want, we agreed in not much time. I had a clear idea to stay here more years, I feel at home, like it’s my second family.
“Playing for City is a dream. If you can extend your contract that means the club is very happy with you, you’re very happy with the club. There’s that kind of connection between not just us but the fans as well, they’ve been supporting and loving me from the first day. I really, really feel it.
“When you get that sensation, for a player everything is easier to develop well and to improve. You don’t see that in many, many teams and players. When you feel it it’s incredible and makes you want to keep going in the same place.”
For now then Rodri seems to have everything a professional footballer could wish for: a settled environment, fans who adore him and the chance to win the biggest and best prizes the game has to offer. Why would he want to be anywhere but City? And who knows, sometime “too far” in the future he might an altogether different cog in the Etihad machine.