Rodri arrived at Manchester City as a number six in the mould of Sergio Busquets, but has developed into a box-to-box destroyer in both penalty areas. We take a look at the remarkable recent rise in his attacking numbers.

Perhaps it’s because he’s Spanish. Perhaps it is the reverence in which Pep Guardiola holds him. More likely, it’s because he is a treble-winning, undroppable, ball-winning central midfielder.

Throughout his career, Rodri has been compared to Barcelona legend Sergio Busquets.

Stylistically, there are, of course, plenty of similarities. But the truth is that while Rodri came to City to fill the Busquets-shaped hole in the Guardiola puzzle, he has developed into something entirely different.

He is still an elite ball-winner, and he still parades the area in front of his team’s defence, hoovering up possession and distributing it to the attackers. He also still gets the ball off the defence regularly and plays a key role in City’s build-up play.

But there has been an enormous rise in his attacking output this season. With a goal and an assist in last week’s 4-1 win over Aston Villa and another assist in the 4-2 win at Crystal Palace this weekend, Rodri took his tally of goal involvements for the season to 14.

rodri goal involvements premier league 2023-24

With seven goals and seven assists, he ranks equal 16th in the Premier League for total goal involvements. This season, he has contributed directly to more goals than the likes of Martin Ødegaard (13), Nicolas Jackson (12), Bruno Fernandes (12), Luis Díaz (12), Bernardo Silva (10) and Dejan Kulusevski (9). The list goes on, and on, and on.

Busquets was a lot of things – including a genuine generational talent who has inspired the next generation of defensive midfielders – but he was never a goal threat. In his 481 career appearances in La Liga, he scored just 11 goals, and not once did he make it past five goal contributions (goals and assists) in a single season (one goal and four assists in 2017-18; five assists in 2020-21).

Rodri was more that kind of player when he first moved to City. In his 97 appearances in La Liga for Villarreal and Atlético Madrid, he scored just four goals, averaging 0.9 shots per 90 minutes played. In his three full seasons in Spain, he averaged fewer than one touch in the opposition box per 90.

This continued at City where, in his first season, he scored just three goals and averaged 0.9 shots and 1.0 touches in the opposition box per 90.

In the years since, however, his attacking numbers have skyrocketed.

His touches in the opposition box have risen season on season, and are up at 2.8 per 90 in 2023-24. He is making more passes in the final third (13.8), having more shots (2.1) and creating more chances per 90 (1.5) than in any other season in his career.

The Spaniard is also providing 0.52 goals or assists per 90, which is comfortably his highest-ever rate, and translates as better than one every other game – an astonishing rate for a player who is still primarily a defensive screen.

Comparing Rodri’s touch map from his first season (2019-20) at City to 2023-24 paints a striking picture. He’s averaging 20 more touches per 90 this season (125.9) than in any other campaign for City, and the four zones that have seen the biggest increases have been in the attacking third of the pitch.

As his touch map below shows, he’s averaging 5.4 touches more per 90 minutes in the crucial Zone 14 – the central area just outside the box – and an extra 5.2 per 90 in the two half-spaces to either side.

Rodri touch zone map comparing 2019-20 to 2023-24

He is also having almost three times as many touches in the opposition box per 90 (2.8) compared to his first season at the club (1.0 per 90). He has clearly been encouraged to get into attacking areas more often.

City are even more dominant these days than they were when Rodri first joined, and they play – as is very much the trend among elite teams these days – with a higher line, pushed right up the pitch to pen the opposition in their own half.

As the below touch zone map for the whole team shows, City are getting on the ball far more in the attacking third in central positions.

It follows that Rodri would get into more advanced positions.

Man City touch zone map comparing 2019-20 to 2023-24

But that alone doesn’t account for the huge rise in his attacking output.

One change Guardiola has made is that Rodri no longer drops into the backline during City’s build-up. He is so press resistant that Guardiola has realised there’s no point having him in front of the opposition’s front line. He may as well have Rodri in a crowded area in the middle of the pitch. This season, Guardiola has pushed Rodri even further forward.

The City midfielder leads the Premier League this season for the number of times he has been pressured when in possession (1,075), and has maintained a pass success rate of 87.3% in open-play situations when at least one opponent is within two metres of him.

That is the second-highest such rate of all Premier League players to attempt at least 300 passes with an opponent within 2m, behind Brighton’s Billy Gilmour (88.4%). Gilmour has maintained that success rate from 361 such passes; Rodri has attempted 827 – by a distance the most in the Premier League. The City man leads the Premier League when looking at pass success rate with an opponent within 3m of him (90.3%).

It’s not as if Rodri plays it safe with his passing, either. Only Pascal Groß (169) has played more progressive passes in Premier League games this season than the Spaniard (168), while Rodri has played 1,179 passes that have bypassed at least two opponents – a whopping 247 more than anyone else (Jan Paul van Hecke second, with 932). He has also completed more line-breaking passes in the Champions League this season than any other player (137).

Rodri line-breaking passes in the Champions League 2023-24

We can also use a metric called passer impact to measure how well a player completes passes compared to what we should expect of the average passer – almost an expected goals metric for passing.

If a player completes a pass with a pass probability (or chance of completing it) of 75%, they are awarded 0.25 passer impact. If they fail to make that pass, they lose 0.75. Essentially, players with bigger scores complete difficult passes more often than those with lower scores.

Rodri’s total passer impact for the season is 182.1 – almost twice that of any other player, with Groß (96.4) and Ødegaard (80.7) next in line. He is also top for the average passer impact of his passes (0.06) of players to attempt at least 500 passes this season. Rodri is affecting games with his passing more than anyone else in the Premier League this season.

It would be a waste of his talents to have him too deep, and he is so good under pressure that Guardiola has asked him to get even further forward than he used to. The results have been devastating.

He contributes in front of goal at key moments, much like his winner in the Champions League final last season. Of his 14 goals or assists this season, 10 have either put City a goal up or drawn them level, including his opener against Villa last week. He scored an 88th-minute winner at Sheffield United earlier in the season, and also scored crucial late goals both at home and away to Chelsea.

As City enter the business end of the season, they need big players to step up in big moments, and ahead of a game back in Madrid for Rodri on Tuesday night against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final, his attacking contributions could be key in the coming weeks.

There has to have been some downside to this uptick, though, right? If he is getting forward so much more, there has to have been less in the way of defensive output.

He is indeed making fewer recoveries (total times regaining possession) this season than in any other campaign in his career, with 7.3 per 90. He averaged more than nine recoveries per 90 in each of the last three seasons.

Incredibly, though, his total of 195 recoveries is more than any other outfielder in the Premier League this season. He is covering a vast amount of ground, and in many ways, is doing the job of more than one player.

Rodri breaks play up intelligently and knows when to commit a foul, too. He has long been lauded and loathed in equal measure as the Premier League’s master of committing as many fouls as possible without getting booked, but with so much ground to make up with his recovery runs, he has been caught the wrong side of the ball more often this season.

That has led to more fouls and more cards. With seven games of 2023-24 to go, he has already equalled his highest total of yellows for a season, with eight.

Ill discipline has arguably been the only blemish on his season. He has missed a game through suspension due to accumulation of yellow cards for the first time in his City career – he had previously spread his cautions out over a season – and there was also the red card and subsequent three-match suspension he received against Nottingham Forest in September.

He is otherwise almost always available. Those four games were the first he has missed due to suspension for City, and he hasn’t missed a single game through injury since November 2019. That availability record makes him even more valuable, particularly given City have lost all four of the games he has missed due to suspension this season.

Those results could be key to whether City win the title for a record-breaking fourth consecutive season. It has been more than a year since Rodri lost a game for either club or country – a quite incredible run of 64 matches.

Guardiola relies on his midfield general more than any other player in his squad, and it’s easy to see why.

But while physical fitness doesn’t seem to be an issue for Rodri, there were a couple of mistakes and misplaced passes against Palace on Saturday that suggested he may be feeling the psychological toll of never being able to miss a game. At Selhurst Park, Rodri was caught in possession cheaply as he committed only his second error leading to an opposition chance in a Premier League game since last August. Fortunately for Rodri, Jordan Ayew went on to hit the crossbar rather than put Palace 2-1 up.

One might choose to read into the fact that Guardiola substituted Rodri as soon as City went 4-1 up against both Villa and Palace – with 15 minutes to go on each occasion – having previously taken Rodri off only once – after 87 minutes at home to Burnley – in his last 18 Premier League appearances. The City manager needs to keep Rodri fit and fresh for every game in the run-in.

This season, we have witnessed Rodri develop into box-to-box midfielder; a destroyer at both ends of the pitch; and a number eight while also still doing the jobs of a six. He is unique in world football in that sense and is now, quite literally, unbeatable. Rodri has grown into so much more than just a defensive midfielder.

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