Rodri at the heart of Spanish revolution
Classy midfielder among a host of exciting new talent brought into the national set-up by Luis Enrique
The first thing to say about Rodrigo Hernandez Cascante, or Rodri as he is better known, is that he is not Sergio Busquets. An obvious point, perhaps, but it is one worth keeping in mind when you next watch the Spain midfielder at work.
For Rodri does not just look like Busquets, with that same elongated physique, and he does not just carry himself like Busquets. To put it simply, he plays as if he is Busquets. He moves and passes and patrols like Busquets, finding the same astute angles as the Barcelona midfielder and making the same stifling tackles.
This much has been evident in his home country for a while now and the reasons for the comparisons were particularly clear in the friendly against Wales in Cardiff on Thursday night, when Rodri shone brightest in a sparkling performance by a muchchanged side.
Three goals down after 29 minutes, Wales could not get close to a secondstring Spain. Such was the Spanish dominance, it was at times hard to imagine Ryan Giggs’s side posing much of a challenge to the fourth or fifth-best team that Luis Enrique, the Spain coach, could have selected.
Their strength in depth was exemplified by the immaculate Rodri, whose performance – he completed 128 of his 131 passes – was described by Spanish newspaper Marca as an “exhibition”.
Four days before Spain’s meeting with England, who have been so desperately seeking a midfielder of Busquets’ technical qualities, Enrique decided to show the world he has two of them. It almost felt unnecessary, like a man pointedly removing his luxury watch and then reaching into his pocket to reveal another.
“He can reach Busquets’ level and maybe surpass it,” Enrique has said of Rodri, who was born on the day England beat Spain on penalties in the 1996 European Championship. “Who knows what limits he has.”
Rodri is not alone, though. The Atletico Madrid midfielder is just one part of what his compatriot Jonny, the Wolves full-back, describes as a “new generation” of Spanish talent.
Joining Rodri in midfield against Wales was 22-year-old Dani Ceballos and 23-year-old Saul Niguez. In attack, 25-year-old Paco Alcacer has scored nine goals in five games this season.
It is in this context of enthusiasm, with this air of freshness blowing through Spanish international football, that England meet Enrique’s side tomorrow night.
The new faces will not all feature against Gareth Southgate’s visitors, but their presence in the squad ensures there can be no questioning of the famed Spanish conveyor belt of talent, despite a disastrous World Cup on and off the field.
There is no better measure of the transformation that Enrique has overseen since his appointment in July than the fact that Busquets is the only Barcelona player to be selected for this international break.
Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique have both retired from the national team, and Jordi Alba has been overlooked for this squad. Between them, those three players have more than 300 caps.
Instead, Enrique has cast his net wider. The squad of 23 has been drawn from 13 different clubs, with Chelsea and Real Madrid providing four players each. Many of these new faces are less familiar, but it is no coincidence that Spain have been less predictable in their three games under Enrique, when they have scored 12 goals and conceded only two.
The starting line-up against Wales, for example, contained players with a combined total of 320 caps, 158 of which belonged to Sergio Ramos.
By comparison, Spain’s team for their first game of the World Cup boasted 797 caps. In just three matches since taking over, Enrique has been able to shift the focus away from the remaining members of the great “golden generation” (Ramos and Busquets aside) and towards a new crop of energetic talents.
“It already feels like home and we are like a family,” says Marc Bartra, the central defender. “We are all enjoying being a part of this team. We have a lot of potential.”
Much has been made in Spain of the need for the national side to move away from the possession-heavy, ‘“tiki-taka” style of football that proved so ineffective at the last two World Cups. It is why there has been so much excitement over the performances of Saul, a frighteningly talented midfielder who marries the usual technical skills with genuine strength and power.
The buzzword is “direct”. Spain are more aggressive in their play and Enrique gets straight to the point in training. “He is very direct,” says Jonny. “He sends exact messages and he knows what he wants.”
It all means that England will meet a side with clarity of purpose, a new cohort of young players and a coach with fresh ideas.
Enrique prefers to call it “evolution”, but it looks a lot like a Spanish revolution.
‘He can reach Busquets’ level and maybe surpass it. Who knows what limits he has’
Master mind: Luis Enrique is building an exciting new Spanish team