You won the treble. You scored the winning goal in the Champions League final. You’ve been hailed as the world’s best all-round midfielder. And you won the UEFA Nations League over the summer, cementing your status as your country’s most important player. Where do you go from there?
With any other player, you might worry about all that success going to their head or causing some degree of complacency. But that’s just not been true of Rodri Hernandez. Yes, his 2022-23 season was stratospheric, but so far in his career, the 27-year-old has taken every giant step forward in stride, and the same is true for every setback, too.
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This is a player with no social media presence — no Twitter, no Instagram — who kept a low profile during Manchester City’s ecstatic celebrations and who continued his studies in business administration and management long after making it as a professional footballer. Many of the qualities which have made Rodri serve as Pep Guardiola’s on-field avatar at City, and seen him succeed Sergio Busquets with Spain, were present from the beginning. Others came later.
Rodri’s first club was Villanueva de la Canada, a small commuter town with a population of just under 23,000 to the west of Madrid. He went on to play for Rayo Majadahonda’s under-11s and under-12s — making friends with Lucas and Theo Hernandez, now of Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan, respectively — before joining Atletico Madrid.
“I saw him for the first time with Atletico’s Infantil [under 14s],” the team’s then-coach, Mauricio Elena, tells ESPN. “He already stood out. He was small, but you could see he was a boy who had vision and intelligence. He was one of the smartest players at Atletico Madrid’s academy. He kept his head up. His body shape was good. He was quick. He was already able to read the game in a way that wasn’t normal for players of his age.
“He already looked like he was going to be a professional, or at least I saw it that way. There were others, like Lucas Hernandez, but [Rodri] had something which wasn’t common: his vision, the way he controlled the ball, at 13 years old. He was a fundamental part of the team. It was a pleasure to watch him.”
Yet not everybody was convinced. For a central midfielder, Rodri wasn’t considered tall or strong enough. After experimenting with changes to his position, Atletico let him go and Villarreal — known for having one of the best academies and youth scouting networks in Spain — took advantage. By 2016, at age 19, Rodri had made his LaLiga debut. A year later, he was a first-team regular, starting 36 league games for Villarreal in 2017-18.
But Rodri remained committed to other pursuits: when he made his national team debut, coming off the bench in Spain’s 1-1 draw with Germany in March 2018, he was still combining football with a university education.
“The student environment helps me a lot,” Rodri told La Razon, explaining his decision to continue living in student accommodations while playing in LaLiga. “It helps me to clear my head. Not everything in life is football.”
By this stage, every big club was taking notice. Barcelona — already on the lookout for a future Busquets successor — were keen, but Atletico moved first, rectifying their earlier mistake with a €20 million move in July 2018.
“His move to Villarreal was a step forward,” Elena tells ESPN. “They allowed him to develop as a player. Playing at Atletico, he caught everyone’s attention. I was [already] convinced that he was going to be one of the best midfielders in the world. When he was at Villarreal, I posted a tweet saying that. It doesn’t surprise me.
“He’s hardworking. He comes from a family who showed him what hard work is. He’s had a good education. He isn’t the typical footballer. He understood fast what this profession is all about, and that’s what got him where he is today.”
Atletico manager Diego Simeone loved Rodri. In his one season as part of the Atletico first team, only two outfield players — Antoine Griezmann and Saul Niguez — played more minutes. Only captain Koke had more touches. No Atletico player completed more passes, made more tackles or ball recoveries. There was just one problem. Atletico had set Rodri’s release clause at a high, but still accessible, €70m. Manchester City had been watching, and the chance to learn from Guardiola was too good to resist.
In 12 months, Rodri had gone from Villarreal, to Atletico, to City, becoming the Premier League club’s record signing in the process.
“[Simeone and Guardiola] are two different points of view, two different ways of working,” Rodri told Marca in 2019. “But they’re both ambitious, and they’re both winners.”
“I think [Guardiola] saw in Rodri something of what Pep was, as a player,” Elena tells ESPN. “Guardiola saw himself reflected in Rodri. And then he built a team around him. Pep improved [Rodri’s] positioning a lot. And [Rodri] learnt a lot from Simeone in terms of his defensive work. Those were two fundamental pillars in the development of Rodri as a player.”
Fast-forward to last season, after four trophy-filled years at City. Rodri has kept getting better, his reputation and profile growing year by year, but those statistics still sound familiar. No outfield player featured more for City in the Premier League last season, and no player had more touches, completed more passes or won more duels.
Watch his highlight reel from 2022-23 and you see a complete player: short- and long-range passing, perfectly-timed tackles, winning headers in the six-yard box and scoring from distance. Rodri even got to try out at centre-back, parachuted into the position as a quick fix by then-Spain coach Luis Enrique for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Unsurprisingly, he treated it as a homework assignment.
“I studied intensively to clarify some concepts in a short space of time,” Rodri told La Vanguardia. “I did it on my own. [I looked at] footage of [Gerard] Pique and Sergio Ramos. It was important to take in as much as possible.”
And of course, the season ended at Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium, scoring the biggest goal in Manchester City’s history to earn a 1-0 win over Inter Milan in the Champions League final in June. City have made winning an annual habit, but following that euphoric high won’t be easy. With captain Ilkay Gundogan leaving for Barcelona, Rodri will be expected to help fill the leadership vacuum. His mentality — unchanged all these years later — is what City need.
“I remember clearly, we were playing in a tournament in Barcelona,” Elena tells ESPN, when asked if one memory sums up Rodri the player and person. “He missed a chance in the 90th minute, and we lost the game. He was really unhappy and upset in the dressing room.
“There’s a difference between playing football and being a footballer. A footballer gets angry when things don’t go their way. They get angry when they misplace a pass. They get angry when they miscontrol. Rodri has that. He would get annoyed. He wouldn’t forgive himself.
“I remember him saying ‘I made a mistake. It’s my fault we lost. It’s my responsibility.’ At the age of 13, having that winning mindset, that showed me he was going to be a professional.”