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Why Rodri is Man City’s best player

Manchester City were not quite able to extend their run of 11 consecutive wins when drawing against Chelsea on Saturday but Rodri was at least able to protect his own record. His late equaliser means it is now 55 games unbeaten for the midfielder.

A statistical quirk, perhaps, but a significant one. City have lost half of the games that he has missed during that period, including a costly defeat at Arsenal. If Rodri can stay free of injury and suspension, he could well be the difference in the title race.

“With him, we are a better team,” says Pep Guardiola. “No doubt.”

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Watch Rodri’s goal for Manchester City to bring the score level against Chelsea

It was not a good day for Guardiola and his team. After Liverpool and Arsenal had secured big wins, two dropped points at home will frustrate. But even while watching Erling Haaland misfire and Jeremy Doku’s dribbles thwarted, Rodri had to be admired.

He became a little agitated during the second half, reacting when Conor Gallagher left one on him. That can sometimes work against him – as it did went sent off against Nottingham Forest earlier this season. More often, it inspires him to intervene in another way.

His left-footed shot was going in even before it took a deflection off Trevor Chalobah. It was similar to his late winner with his weaker foot at Sheffield United in August. Nobody has scored more goals from outside the box in the Premier League this season either.

Predominantly, it is his passing that stands out. But this habit of scoring important goals speaks to his character. When the pressure is on, he is not content to leave it to others. This is the man who scored the winner in the Champions League final in June, after all.

That was not enough to make the podium in the FIFA Best awards for 2023. Indeed, Rodri ranked below two of his team-mates, Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne. Speak to Pep Guardiola, a former midfielder himself, about that and he has his own explanation.

“If holding midfielders started getting the recognition of Erling Haaland and Kevin, we would have a problem. The holding midfielder has to never, ever be in the highlights. He has to do the job he has to do. But without him, we could not do what we are doing.

“But the highlights have to belong to other people. The holding midfielder has to think for the rest of the team and do not expect the recognition. But internally? All team-mates and staff, they all know how important and decisive he is. Massively important for us.”

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Pep Guardiola explains why Rodri will not get the accolades because of his role

Picture highlights and perhaps it is a Haaland goal or a De Bruyne assist that one imagines in the mind’s eye. But watch the game – the whole game – and it will be the patterns and rhythms set by Rodri. Nobody touches the ball as often on a Premier League pitch.

He has completed 1275 passes in the opposition half this season.

That is already 400 more than anyone else.

It is not a passive thing, stroking the ball around without purpose and free from pressure. What is so impressive when watching Rodri from inside the stadium, close up where the intensity of the action is apparent, is how he can do this with bodies around him.

According to the Second Spectrum data, that calculates pressure based on the speed of an opponent’s movement towards the ball and their distance from it, Rodri has played 1301 of his passes while under pressure. That is almost 300 more than anyone else.

It is important context because the crude statistic that he has completed 93.2 per cent of his passes this season might lead one to conclude that these are safe passes, sideways passes. But Rodri is operating in tight spaces, luring players in, finding those cute angles.

By using tracking data showing the positions of all the players on the pitch, Second Spectrum can calculate the likelihood of a pass being completed. Rodri’s pass completion percentage should be 86.4 per cent. The difference reveals the true mastery of his art.

Rodri is outperforming his expected pass completion by 6.8 percentage points. Far more than any of the other players among the top 10 passers and more than anyone among the top 100 passers in the Premier League this season. It is anything but normal.

There is a lot that can go wrong. But, with Rodri, it does not.

How does he manage it? Technique is essential, of course. Temperament, too. But one possibility is that he has superior spatial awareness. That is not just about scanning before he receives the ball but appreciating the options once he has it.

Patrick Vieira’s ball retention was greatly aided by his understanding that he could lift the ball over opponents as well as past them. It added another dimension. Rodri has played 157 chipped passes in the Premier League this season. Far more than anyone else.

The result is that while Manchester City have 65.7 per cent of possession in total this season, this number jumps to 67.0 per cent when Rodri is on the pitch. It is the highest figure of any player to have had more than a handful of Premier League minutes this season.

Guardiola is not always fond of statistics, he trust his eyes. But even he is willing to embrace this one. “The stats are there,” he says. “You have to take a look.” Before adding: “The amount of things that he helps to do, he is irreplaceable right now, I would say.”

Given that Rodri repeatedly demonstrates that he is capable of being decisive closer to goal as well as setting the tempo from deep, one wonders what City could do with two players like Rodri. One to control, another to express himself in the final third of the pitch.

Guardiola does not quite agree that Rodri is a goal machine in waiting but he is intrigued. “If I had two players like him, I would love to have them. I am pretty sure with his mentality, his personality, his character, how competitive he is, I would find a way to play both.”

As it is, there is only one Rodri. That might yet be enough.

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