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 Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football - Sam Dean

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

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