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Rodrygo Goes: The Blitzing Offensive Weapon That Real Madrid Couldn’t Miss Out On

Kiyan’s column on the long-term plan for Rodrygo, and how Real Madrid can integrate the Santos star into their future blueprint

Photo by Ricardo Nogueira/Getty Images
*Editor’s note: This piece was originally published last summer. If you want to know more about Rodrygo Goes, everything here still fits. For a more updated scouting report, check out our podcast with Andre Ostgaard here.

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

‘KO’ — by Finn

On May 26, 2013, in the middle of the night in Spain, Barcelona announced officially that they had finally wrapped up Neymar. It was a transfer saga that lasted more than two years — a transfer that, as it was later unravelled in humiliating fashion for then-Barcelona president Sandro Rosell, replete with hidden figures and lies. Still, Neymar was secured, as nefarious as it was behind the scenes, and Real Madrid looked on as Barcelona signed a wonder-kid they had their eyes on.

They didn’t just have their eyes on him, they were ready to lock him up in 2011 when Real Madrid CEO, Jose Angel Sanchez, met with Neymar’s camp. They even put in a bid of €45 million which was promptly rejected. Florentino Perez wasn’t deterred, and when he got wind that Santos president Luis Alvaro was on holiday in Paris with his family, Florentino offered to fly out to meet Alvaro for lunch. Alvaro’s response: “I imagine you want to have lunch with me to talk about Neymar’s rights? I said ‘don’t waste your time and fuel on the plane because we have no interest in selling.’ What did he do? He got on his jet, flew to Paris and had lunch with me.” The answer during that lunch — an expensive one at Restaurant Guy Savoy — was a straight forward ‘No’.

Again — undeterred. Florentino did not become as successful as he is without a great degree of persistence. He continued to take down barriers between Real Madrid, Santos, and Neymar’s father. They offered everything Neymar’s father wanted — €10m up front, and €30m upon signing and arriving in Madrid — and Marcos Motta (who was the lawyer representing Santos) said they were blown away by Madrid’s pitch. Until that point, they would reject every club on the spot. With Real Madrid, it was different. “It was the very first time that I saw Neymar’s father listen to someone for more than 30 minutes without looking at his mobile,” Motta recalled. Still — the pitch wasn’t enough.

There is almost an unwritten vow now from Real Madrid, to never miss out on another Neymar or Ronaldinho again — both players they let slip. Neymar was a bit out of their control, but Ronaldinho wasn’t even pursued. There are too many ‘what ifs’ in sports, but some of them really stick with you. When Real Madrid snapped up both Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo this summer, there was a sense that it was to ensure the next Brazilian prodigy is Real Madrid’s, and not anyone else’s. (The door for Neymar is still open, to be sure.)

And man, do both Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr fit the bill of crazy-exciting, young, talented, promising players that could pan out for Real Madrid. There is a sense of rawness to both, and collectively, they’re expensive. But cost is always relative to what their end product will be. Both could bust — chalked up as sunken costs. But their ceilings are high. Their upside is ridiculous. They are mere kids running past grown men in a country that breathes football.

When Real Madrid signed Rodrygo in June, they locked up a player with a superstar-ceiling. As always, player comps are tricky to do — every footballer is unique — but to start somewhere, Neymar, stylistically, isn’t far-fetched. Rodrygo has pace. He can get out of tight spots with some wizardry. He can dribble with close control at blitzing speed, and can play on either flank or higher up the pitch. Like Neymar, he is extremely agile. He prefers to avoid comparisons, but Neymar is Rodrygo’s inspiration.

He has a lot to polish, but he has all the tools to start his polishing when he arrives under the wing of Real Madrid’s coaching staff. One thing to look out for: His alpha-maleness. He’s a kid, but wants to dictate the tempo of his team. Think of the footballing equivalent of Luka Doncic — surrounded by older players who look to the younger star for a leadership role. When Rodrygo releases the ball, he wants it back immediately, and he’ll orchestrate it by running into a vacant space as soon as the ball leaves his feet. He won’t be pulling strings as dominantly at Real Madrid, nor will his team need him to do so — but he’s not shy on the pitch.

“Rodrygo is today’s star,” Jose Peres said back in May. “He’s an extremely talented player, everyone knows that. We have a precedent [for his price] in Vinicius Junior, who was sold [to Madrid] when he was 17.” Peres had basically shunned Barcelona at that point, still feeling the Neymar saga was far from resolved. When negotiations with teams began, Peres said: “As for Barcelona, they’re one of the interested teams, but we’re not going to open negotiations with them, it would be irresponsible. FIFA wouldn’t allow it.”

For Barcelona, the stain that Sandro Rosell left still lingers. “There’s no meeting planned [with Barcelona about Rodrygo],” Peres said. “We have a lawsuit open against them regarding Neymar. Four months before the Club World Cup in 2011, Barcelona paid an advance on the transaction and we feel that there was grooming going on.

”We are demanding €14.5m from them. When they pay us, we will talk about other things.”

Real Madrid have done an underrated job of stockpiling young talent. What Florentino Perez, Jose Angel Sanchez, and Zinedine Zidane have done in the past few years has completely flipped the script of how Real Madrid build their roster. They’ve cached prodigies. Under the club’s dwelling now: Marco Asensio, Vinicius Jr, Martin Odegaard, and Rodrygo (and a list that continues). We already know what we have in Asensio — a bargain pick-up and already one of the top-three most exciting talents of his age-group. If any of the other three pan out into a star, then all four will have been worth the investment. Front offices know only a percentage of signings will make sense in hindsight. Stockpiling is a way to ensure you get something. One of them will stick.

Santos have had a disappointing start to the season — they lie 15th domestically after 12 games played. Rodrygo has played 10 of those games, and leads the team with five goals. Santos will miss him when he moves to Madrid, but they have a good track record of developing talent before inevitably flipping them for profit. Rodrygo will be added to the list of Neymar and Robinho — among many other great players — who have gone through the famous Santos ranks before graduating to European clubs.

This has been Rodrygo’s de facto breakout year. It’s a year he’ll never forget. He went from having zero starts and two appearances in 2017, to becoming a key cog in the span of just one season. Ten games through, he’s already clocked 832 minutes — a massive uptick from his 21 minutes total the season prior. All this amounts to a dramatic pay-raise and a future that can potentially sort out his family tree for generations to come. Real Madrid will reportedly be paying him €330,000 per month — and that’s a figure that should rise if he continues his upward trajectory.

That salary has, umm, escalated quickly. Just three months ago, Rodrygo made history by becoming the youngest ever goalscorer in the Copa Libertadores. He was still in high school at the time, and had to actually apologize to his teachers for missing school that day. There was no doctor’s note provided — but his teachers presumably saw him on television etching his name into history books. “I’ve been fulfilling a dream every day,” Rodrygo said after the match. “I don’t think they’re going to be mad that I missed class today, right?”

Real Madrid haven’t had a player quite like Rodrygo in about a decade — a raw, unpolished dribbler who torches flanks by using his low-center of gravity and blitzing pace, yet still completely uninitiated to the European game. Those opportunities, where Rodrygo takes advantage of desolate flanks with a lack of coverage won’t arise as much in La Liga, and Rodrygo will have to expand his skill-set in order to cope with slower-paced schemes, less-open games, and possession-based blueprints that require ball circulation amid facing low-blocks and clogged channels.

Rodrygo’s bread and butter is not to string together elegant passes or dictate tempo. He is not a midfield engine. He just wants to go forward and get to goal as quickly as possible. There is no harm in being a vertical assassin with the ball, but he will need to improve his passing and distribution. The current version of Rodrygo is unchained and full of venom. Eventually he’ll have to get better defensively — knowing when to press and sync himself with his teammates while dropping deeper on the flank when needed — the way Neymar did, or get really comfortable when space is absent. That upward trajectory towards greatness will ultimately be his measuring stick. That’s an evolution that Neymar went through; but Robinho ultimately fell short in.

There’s no reason why Rodrygo won’t develop all the attributes needed to survive and thrive in La Liga. He has the right tools and will likely be in a situation that will allow him patience. There is no rush with him, given Real Madrid’s talent level. The club can bring him under its wing and polish him gradually. And even if he needs to develop certain aspects of his game; what he’s good at, he’s so absurdly good at, that you almost won’t worry about how he will react in a slow build-up or when the team is facing waves of attacks. On the counter-attack, he’s devastating. Real Madrid may want to put him high-up the pitch without many deep duties anyway — but whether he acts as an outlet high up the pitch or picks up the ball in a deeper position in transition, he will dribble his way towards goal in record time. Real Madrid has had incredible success with fast, game-altering, counter-attacking players in the modern era. Rodrygo will fit right in with names like Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Marco Asensio, and others when it comes to setting the pitch on fire in transition.

Rodrygo may come across as a head-down dribbler — he shouldn’t. He’s very good at the art of running with the ball at his feet, but he’s also not prolific at it or superfluous. He averages 4.4 dribble attempts per game — 15th in the league and far off the pace of Gremio’s Everton who attempts 9.3 — and is in the elite tier of players when it comes to goals-to-game ratio. He’s an efficient player already, and should be able to polish himself into a potent weapon.

Over the past few months, Rodrygo has learned to dominate the flanks. He predominantly plays on the left-hand side (although does venture minimally to the right), where he can either cut in and sling a stinger with his right foot, or duck his body to the left — almost underneath the defender’s shoulder — to dribble past wing-backs. In Brazil, he’s not often met with a second opposing player who doubles-up on the wing — this is something he’ll have to adjust to in Spain — but now defenders have recognized the dribbling threat of Rodrygo, and they haven’t been shy in packing the left flank with two or three bodies. They’ve been able to contain him to an extent, and Rodrygo will need to expand his game to conjure things collectively with his teammates as teams start snuffing out space to either dispossess him or force him backwards. There are plenty of examples of the Brazilian wiz fizzing into a panic when defenders surround him — forcing him to slice a tame shot off target, or clumsily stumble into a crowd of players. That stuff should be overcome, eventually, and the hope is that he’ll let the game come to him more naturally as he matures.

Most players play better when space is abundant. Certain brainiacs like Modric and Isco somehow seem to thrive without it. Other players like Bale just straight up murder defensive lines with their pace if they give him space. Both Bale and Di Maria evolved their games tremendously at Real Madrid. Ancelotti reincarnated Angel into a two-way central midfielder who could do more. Bale’s evolution in feeling more comfortable protecting possession in tight spaces is documented. Rodrygo will have to adapt the same way. The YouTube compilations of him torching open flanks is not the entire picture. It’s not always easy for him.

He will learn things naturally, just through trial and error. He has the work ethic for it. He needs to improve his headers, which he has already started training on diligently. In training, he’s been grinding out free-kicks so that he can be an in-game threat from set-pieces. Physically, he’s already improving, and he’ll continue to improve with age.

A nice trait: bouncing off challenges and staying on his feet. Rodrygo gets fouled often and fouled hard. He is not unlike Dani Ceballos when it comes to ‘provoking’ hard, bone-crunching challenges as his style of play may unnerve defenders mentally. Yet, he does try to stay on his feet as much as possible. That doesn’t take away from the annoyance of Santos’ coaching staff, all of whom generally worry about his well-being and protection on the field. “He’s a jewel, it’s a shame that his technique is stopped with violence,” Santos head coach Jair Ventura said back in May. “The Libertadores teams are stronger, they end up with violence... He is stopped by violence. It’s a shame.”

For Ventura, it’s been a pleasure being a part of Rodrygo’s natural progression and maturation. “I really like Rodrygo’s style,” Ventura said. “Since I arrived, I consider him as my son. He’s a good boy, he deserves it, but we have to be calm, he’s only 16 years old.”

There was a certain eagerness within Santos to get the Brazilian prodigy involved as soon as possible, but Ventura has played a hand to ensure there is patience and checked-expectations. “He arrived, and there was great pressure to get him started,” Ventura said back in April. “It is the coach’s job to know how to field these youngsters. There has to be a maturation time. He gradually reached his place in the team and is sustaining his physical condition”

Ventura also spoke about Rodrygo’s growth and versatility — with things falling into place slowly and naturally: “He can play in the open, like a central playmaker, and also on both flanks. With each game that passes, we see more shooting and connecting with his teammates. He tends to grow more and more.”

His favourite position is on the wings, but he prefers the left side most. In a pinch, he also likes to dribble down the middle as a CAM, or swap flanks throughout — something his coach has given him a license for.

We live in an age of counter-pressing. Big clubs — though there are always going to be exceptions to this rule, like Chelsea, Juve, etc — no longer are content hedging back and waiting for waves of attack. Forwards are expected to press. The system is expected to retain possession as quickly as possible to ensure waves of pressure and control. Wingers are expected to cut off passing lanes to full-backs or defensive midfielders. Individual freaks can carry you, but the game has become more cohesive than it’s ever been. There will be games where Rodrygo will be expected to play as a striker despite not being a pure nine. His work rate and knack for remaining active without the ball can help him develop those traits which players like Karim Benzema and Roberto Firminho have become famous for:

Rodrygo’s up-bringing was straightforward and full of support. He’s here because he’s talented and works hard at his craft. Those around him have spoken highly about his work ethic growing up.

His family structure was good, and so was his coaching. He was raised in ideal conditions, has no track record of serious injuries, and came from a footballing background that drove him to succeed.

One of his biggest personal challenges growing up, may have been that his family was too into football. His father, Eric Batista de Goes, is a 33-year-old footballer who wasn’t able to be around much. Maybe this was the most difficult thing Rodrygo had to overcome — his father being away because of football. But he has an excellent relationship with his family.

But Eric is now retired, and he and Rodrygo’s mother, Denise, recently gave birth to Rodrygo’s sister, Ana Julya. The relationship among the entire family is excellent.

Rodrygo is a wonder-kid, both on and off the pitch — a perfect blend that should integrate nicely into Real Madrid’s future plans.

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