Rodrigo: Not A Striker, Not A Midfielder, But The Best Of Both

With Rodrigo receiving some mixed reviews during his first few months in West Yorkshire, we assess the evolution of his role from his time at Valencia, and now his performances for Leeds so far this season, to highlight how he has quickly established himself as a highly accomplished Premier League attacking midfielder, rather than the new striker he was expected to be.

When the rumours first broke in August last year that Leeds United were in advanced talks to sign Spanish international striker Rodrigo, excitement and anticipation spread like wildfire. And why not, eh? After all, this was a player who was not only an experienced international for Spain, but had played Champions League football just last season for Valencia, and recently attracted admiring glances from Atletico Madrid.

Initial expectations of Rodrigo were unsurprisingly for him to come in and challenge Patrick Bamford for the sole starting striker position. Bamford, despite finishing as Leeds’s top scorer in their Championship winning season, was a divisive figure and one who many felt needed replacing, or at least seriously challenging if Leeds were to make their presence felt again in the top flight. However, as we all know, Bamford has since taken to Premier League football with relative ease, registering 11 goals, while Rodrigo has just the 3 to his name — something which has led some to unfairly question his impact so far at Elland Road. You only have to look at his role at Valencia during the 2019–20 season to see what he offered to that side and how that would realistically translate to Leeds and the system Bielsa utilises. A couple of cup games aside, he’s not been the striker many expected at all!

Rodrigo’s previous season at Valencia showed him seemingly lining up as a striker but really playing more as a deep lying forward/second-striker, linking midfield and attack, while operating in a more concentrated role in the right-hand channel. This season at Leeds, despite lining up in a deeper role, he has developed into a highly effective attacking central midfielder, registering greater numbers of shots and increased final 3rd penetration than he averaged at Valencia last season, despite starting in more advanced positions in Spain. The reality is that he has helped elevate this Leeds side and it’s Championship winning nucleus with his tactical intelligence as well as his undoubted technical and physical attributes, which have enabled him to put his own stamp on the advanced midfield role previously owned by Pablo Hernandez.

When compared to some more established Premier League attacking midfielders, he is more than holding his own. To gather a clear picture of his strengths and weaknesses, we wanted to put him up against selection of different players with different skillsets, operating in a range of tactical systems; Ross Barkley at Aston Villa, Phil Foden at Manchester City, Stuart Armstrong of Southampton, and lastly, Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha. All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played.

Ross Barkley’s impact at Aston Villa was instant and dramatic. He came into the side and played a key role in the memorable 7–2 victory over reigning champions Liverpool, while he has since put in further strong displays and registered important goals. For that reason it’s easy to see why many have applauded both him and also Aston Villa for his signing during the summer. As is illustrated above, the attacking output of Barkley and Rodrigo is similar, with both registering 0.5 expected goals and assists p90, as well as achieving similar volumes of both shot and goal-scoring-chance creating actions (SCA & GCA) p90. However, it is the defensive side of the game where Rodrigo is outperforming the Chelsea loanee, with the Spanish international averaging almost 1 more tackle and 1 extra successful pressure p90. While indicative of the intense pressing Leeds have become known for, it also shows the impressive transition Rodrigo has made to this less advanced role. He has managed to retain and build upon all his attacking abilities that have made him such a sought after player over much of his career, and added to it with respectable defensive numbers to make a real impact in a Premier League midfield.

In contrast to Barkley and our other spotlighted players, Armstrong is far more defensively impressive and is perhaps a more natural central midfielder. For this reason it felt worthwhile to include Armstrong to measure the defensive output of Rodrigo more robustly, as part of his all round game, because as you can see above, it is the Scot who comes out on top. Armstrong is putting up 1.61 successful tackles and nearly 5 successful pressures p90, with Rodrigo behind in both areas. Unsurprisingly, Rodrigo is much more suited to the attacking facets of a central midfield role and, despite solid defensive numbers, this attacking leaning in his game has presented problems at times for Leeds this season, particularly when lined up alongside Mateusz Klich, another more offensively minded midfielder.

It’s not been a rare sight to see Leeds carved open through the middle at times, which has fairly led to questions about the defensive contribution of Rodrigo and Klich, but when paired with a more balanced player, such as Dallas, this issue has been negated somewhat. So while Rodrigo may have to improve the defensive side of his game further, given the right players around him, this burden can be lessened and he can allow his attacking talents to continue to shine through.

Foden, while much younger than Rodrigo, is still an exceptional talent who has become an increasingly important figure in the Manchester City side that has started to pull away at the top of the Premier League already. For that reason, he makes for an intriguing comparison, as a highly talented individual in one of, if not the most, dominant side in the league so far this season. A similar profile and output from both players is evident, however what is intriguing is that in every area other than dribbling, Rodrigo is posting better numbers p90. When it comes to final third passes, shots and shot creating actions the Spanish international is managing to penetrate and create shooting opportunities for himself and teammates in the final third at a greater rate than Foden — areas where you would presume a creative player in a more dominant team would be coming up stronger than one in a newly promoted side.

While it’s important to recognise that Foden is not the primary creator for Man City (something that is surely Kevin De Bruyne’s role), and that Leeds are probably not your average newly promoted side in terms of quality and attacking output, the numbers above are still illuminating. Rodrigo is able to provide a level of attacking quality from midfield that allows Leeds to aggressively come onto opponents and create high volumes of shots and goal-scoring opportunities — supported by the fact that Leeds have scored the 5th most goals in the league, joint with Chelsea and ahead of every other team outside the top 4.

Lastly, while Zaha is more of a winger or wide forward by trade, he is still enjoying one of his most fruitful Premier League campaigns in terms of his goals, assists and overall attacking output, while he has also long been an attacking and creative focal point for Crystal Palace. Although the systems both he and Rodrigo play a role in are vastly different, the fact that Rodrigo is outperforming Zaha across all the above metrics, apart from carries into the final third, once again highlights the impressively high standard, and well rounded attacking midfield displays being put on by the Leeds man. No doubt aided by the attacking brand of football Leeds play, Rodrigo has blown Zaha away in final third passes, shots and shot creating actions, all while coming in from a deeper role. The expected goals and assists is an area where Rodrigo is seeing an underperformance in over the course of the season so far, and with time you would expect to see that correct itself, and see the summer signing popping up with increased numbers of goals and assists that his play is seemingly deserving of.

Despite Rodrigo starting in a deeper role this season compared to last, his overall attacking output has risen significantly and has developed into a very effective attacking midfielder, particularly in terms of shot volume and final third entries. The away win at Newcastle United in January provided a perfect example of this element of Rodrigo’s game, being the most advanced Leeds player in the build up for both Leeds goals, among other attacking phases during this game.

In the above example, it is Rodrigo’s pace and athleticism which allows him to drive forward from his midfield role and beyond Bamford, which in this case caused stretching and disruption of the Newcastle defensive structure. This phase sees Rodrigo drive into the Newcastle box (far right image) before he stops, turns and lays it back for Raphinha who had dropped off the retreating Newcastle defenders. Raphinha coolly slots the ball past Darlow, but it was the dynamic running and eventual calm head and awareness of Rodrigo that carved out this opportunity. Simply put, Rodrigo possesses a unique skillset in this Leeds squad, particularly among the viable central midfield options, that allows them to transition through teams and counter attack at pace while he still retains the intelligence and ability to carve out meaningful chances for himself or teammates.

While our analysis of Rodrigo’s form and role at Leeds United provides interesting insight into his impact so far in the Premier League, it is perhaps the fact that in recent games, at Newcastle and Leicester, Rodrigo has kept his place in the side ahead of Klich that is most noteworthy. Since Bielsa arrived at Leeds, Klich has been an ever-present in the midfield and has played a crucial role in Leeds’s successes during the Argentine’s tenure. To see a starting central midfield duo of Dallas and Rodrigo was initially a surprise but one that surely underlines the quality Rodrigo possesses and the value of his contribution to Leeds United already. Bielsa is a notoriously loyal coach, and fairly too, as the core of his squad has remained the same from when he joined in 2018, yet they continuously raise the level many believe they are capable of — to the point that they are closer to European places than relegation spots midway through their first season back in the top flight. So for that reason to see Rodrigo come into this team and seemingly take ownership now of the attacking midfield role is testament to him.

It can’t be forgotten too that Rodrigo is still adjusting to a new league, country, teammates, system, and everything else life entails following a transfer to a new country. So the idea that he may have struggled since his arrival is not a fair reflection at all on his impact. In fact, the impressive displays that have come out of the first half of the season from him surely indicate that both he and this Leeds side, barring any unexpected turns of fate, will continue to grow and thrive in the Premier League. A platform he once had a fleeting encounter with at Bolton, but one where he looks set to make a far more impressive and lasting impression with Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa’s tutelage. A manager that saw a top level, though largely unprolific forward and turned him into one of the Premier League’s most dynamic central attacking midfielders this season.

While an injury suffered away at Leicester will not help his progress, we are excited for his return and for him to continue to play an eye-catching role in this equally captivating Leeds side this season.

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