Timing is everything in football. When Real Madrid signed two Brazilian teenagers by the names of Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo Goes in 2018 and 2019, both for hefty transfer fees, they were definitely not thought to be instant starters at the club. Both started as Castilla players, in fact. But as mentioned, timing is everything.
After the disastrous 2018-19 campaign, Real Madrid got their star man in the transfer market in the following season in the form of Eden Hazard. Had he not suffered the horrors of his almost non-existent Real Madrid career, would we even be talking about Vinicius and Rodrygo at the scale we are doing now? Perhaps not. But here we are, with some fortune (or the lack it for someone like Hazard), with some perseverance, and a massive leap in his end-product, Vinicius has already established himself as a starter at Real Madrid. Rodrygo’s case, however, has been different.
Vini Jr. and Rodrygo were both gifted dribblers, and had with the ability of cutting inside to the right from the left-wing. But you can’t have two left-wingers. So Rodrygo was shifted to the right-wing early in his Real Madrid career by Zinedine Zidane. That was nothing drastically wrong considering Rodrygo was only 19. There was (and probably is) plenty of time to make a good right-winger out of him. For example, Gareth Bale’s transformation from being a lanky left-back to one of the most devastating right-wingers in the history of the modern game had a period of merely three-to-four years in between. Having said all of that, Rodrygo’s ceiling always looked higher on the left and Zidane even gave him a run on the left wing over Vinicius for a brief period in 2020-21 before Rodrygo got sidelined with a lengthy injury.
By the time he returned to the first XI discussion, a lot of things, including the manager at Real Madrid, had changed. Rodrygo enjoyed an early phase of being a starter in Carlo Ancelotti’s team but the coach then started to trust Marco Asensio more. Even that phase came to an end when Fede Valverde got the nod for the business end of the season. Amidst all of this, we are witnessing a never-seen-before kind of impact from Rodrygo during the last few weeks where he has directly contributed to some of the most important goals of the season.
Rodrygo was always thought to be a better finisher than Vinicius. That notion has a bit of a false narrative attached to it. Rodrygo’s productivity in front of the goal in the Champions League was always something that would catch your attention. He scored a hat-trick in his debut season against Galatasaray, scored the winner vs. Inter in the following season in the group stage, and scored a mammoth goal in the quarter-final 2nd leg vs. Chelsea which brought Real Madrid back from the dead a couple of weeks ago. But his story in league football had been different.
In his first 3000 (approx.) minutes in LaLiga, Rodrygo scored only three goals (before the Sevilla game this season). That was below expectations, to say the least. With Rodrygo and Asensio, there was this conundrum throughout the season. Asensio would find a goal out of nowhere and go on to be a stationary presence all game. Rodrygo would press, defend and do everything except score. But Rodrygo’s recent performances give us hope. That conundrum could finally be over now as he is scoring goals and providing assists in extremely crucial moments of the season. Sure, the sample size is not very large, but good enough to pick out some significant positives over this phase.
Rodrygo is a good ball carrier. His take-on numbers are probably a bit inflated (failed take-ons are in grey) by the Osasuna fixture where he played on the left but the dribbling is slowly improving on both flanks.
Some key Progressive runs during these last four games also come to light. The whole cluster on the left is from the Osasuna game. Even if Rodrygo is primarily thought of as a right-winger, this should relieve Ancelotti in terms of finding someone more reliable and stylistically similar if he wants to rest Vinicius once in a while. Hazard doesn’t give him this much relief.
Rodrygo’s passing has also resulted in a higher turnover of offensive productivity in the last four games. Here is a map of his expected threat (xT) below. We see the end-locations of his passes with the highest xT values. Plenty of potent offensive activity around the box.
Last but not least, there is a tactical wrinkle that has been discussed on the Managing Madrid podcast as well, by Kiyan and the team. Rodrygo has found a sort of trademark diagonal run from the bottom right/center of the box to the top left that has directly resulted in some of the most significant goals of this season. His little run/off-ball movement vs. Chelsea at the Bernabeu completely took out Rudiger which allowed Benzema to pounce. He made a similar run vs. Sevilla as well, for the first goal. These little things can turn into huge assets over time.
This resurgence is refreshing and more of the same would be expected from Rodrygo, going forward.