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Euro 2024: Rodri the pilot who is giving Spain wings | Football News

Kolkata: When the night was done for Jesus Navas, the bridge between Spain’s golden generation and this, Rodri jogged up to him. The right-back, who had stepped in for the suspended Dani Carvajal, turned and saw Rodri acknowledging his contribution. In a European championship semi-final that had wonder goals and Kylian Mbappe, it wasn’t a gesture that would make the highlights reel. Yet, it said so much.

Spain's Rodri celebrates at the end of the semi-final match against France in Munich. (AP)
Spain’s Rodri celebrates at the end of the semi-final match against France in Munich. (AP)

Alvaro Morata is Spain’s captain but Rodri is the paterfamilias. And hence the acknowledgement to Navas, his senior by 10 years, who took an early booking for the team to ensure Mbappe wasn’t clear on goal and made overlapping runs. Hence also the praise for Lamine Yamal. Not, mind you, for the goal that planet is agog with – see it in slow-motion and it seems like Adrien Rabiot and William Saliba are swaying to music you can’t hear – but for the teenager’s “defensive commitment”. According to Rodri, the way Yamal tracked back, helped the full back was “outstanding for a guy of his age.”

For Rodri, these details matter. Calm, assured, he is Luis de la Fuente’s representative on the pitch; the Spain coach calls him the “perfect computer”. When Spain were rattled by Georgia’s goal against the run of play and struggling to cope with counter-attacks, Rodri stopped with the ball and gestured by bringing his hands down. Spain needed a reset, a pause and not another rush into the Georgia box which would again make them vulnerable to a break. Soon after, Rodri scored and Spain were runaway winners.

“The biggest virtue a leader must have is to remain calm when there’s a heavy storm,” Rodri said, according to The Athletic, before the tournament began. In an interview to The Guardian, Rodri described his job as one who helps the game mature, “take it where you want it to be.” If that means slowing things down, so be it. Rodri has some tradition to follow here. He is the latest in a line that has Sergio Busquets and the recently-retired Thiago Alcantara.

“Our idea of football is based on our self-assurance,” De la Fuente has said. Rodri is central to that. The defensive solidity he provides helps wide players Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams express themselves without disrupting the team’s balance. “They (Spain) offer collective benefits of their individual qualities,” De la Fuente has said. It showed in the way Morata tracked back to help the full backs and explains why Rodri said what he did about Yamal.

At 382 completed passes, Rodri has the most for Spain. It is less than what he would average at Manchester City but for Spain, he plays at the base of the midfield. Rodri had 23 goal contributions (14 assists) and 3633 passes, over 400 more than Lewis Dunk who was in second place, in the 2023-24 Premier League. Rodri was second on the list in 22-23 and third in 21-22.

His sense of space and positioning allows him to take defenders out of the equation consistently. With Emre Can and Ilkay Gundogan man-marking him and Fabian Ruiz, Rodri dropped into deep defence against Germany.

France will sit back because they have quick players who can surprise, Rodri had said before Tuesday’s semi-final. So, all night Rodri plugged gaps and made tackles, providing the makeshift backline a security blanket. And gave Ruiz the licence to move up.

As if swatting a fly, Rodri bustled the ball off Aurelien Tchouameni early in the Munich night. Wonder how many in the world can do that to someone who has played 38 games for Real Madrid last term and was in his 36th international? Yamal had equalised but Dani Olmo hadn’t put Spain ahead when Rodri stole from Randal Kolo Muani, France’s only scorer from open play. When Mbappe broke free, Nacho went for the tackle secure in the knowledge that Rodri was double-teaming.

In the second half when Ousmane Dembele scootered up and tried to find Kolo Muani, it was Rodri who blocked the line of supply. Deep in stoppage time, Rodri dispossessed Theo Hernandez. Of Spain’s 255 ball recoveries in the tournament, Rodri has made 31, as per UEFA.

“Spain control the game really well,” said Didier Deschamps, the hat-tip to Rodri implicit in the France coach’s comment.

After a 1-1 draw with Germany in the 2022 World Cup, then Spain coach Luis Enrique had this to say about Busquets: “People have been trying to retire Busquets for years but I want to convince him to play another World Cup!” That didn’t happen but that Spain are not missing Busquets shows how good Rodri has been.

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