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Separating from the pack — has Rodrygo Goes found his true level?

The 21-year-old is lifting the ceiling on many of the projections attributed to his talent.

Real Madrid v Manchester City Semi Final Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by Berengui/vi/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Whether justified or not, the jury has been out on Rodrygo Goes. The reoccurring question is never one of attitude or aptitude, but instead uncertainty on what is the true level of Real Madrid’s other young Brazilian? There is only one way to win over an indecisive jury: bring cold-hard-fact-based evidence, and Rodrygo has done just that. He has been one of the catalyst to Real Madrid’s fantasy-like comebacks against the highest caliber of opponents in the Champions League, he has scored goals, provided assists, and drawn penalties at a rate even higher than Vinicius Junior’s early season exploits, and his metrics in nearly all facets of the game are up since the PSG 2nd leg in March. Rodrygo – often noted by Ancelotti as humble, quiet, and intelligent – is unabashedly knocking the door down demanding more minutes through his play.

For years there have been a plethora of players battling it out for one position in Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 system. Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, Vinicius Junior, Marco Asensio, Fede Valverde, Takefusa Kubo, and Brahim Diaz have all vied for the spot alongside Rodrygo Goes. Amid the constant chopping and changing over the years, the Brazilian is now starting to rise above the rest. At 21-years-old, Rodrygo is coming of age. “If you take a group of talented players between 17 and 20, the most recent studies show that at age 20-21 a little group separates from the others. Then at 22-23, there is another separation. A little group that moves away from the others and goes completely to the top.” Arsene Wenger told the Athletic in 2020. Wenger’s words are almost prophetic when in relation to Rodyrgo’s recent progress. He is starting to separate himself from the rest of the pack.

Rodrygo’s compatriot, Vinicius Junior, has seen his progression move from “steady” to “exponential” this season. The first signs of his explosion came in the opening 10 games of the season where Vini scored 5 goals, contributed 2 assists, and drew 2 penalties in 10 games. It was the culmination of various skillsets coming together to produce the long-awaited final product. The two players are seemingly always compared, with Vinicius raw talent often giving him the edge. “He’s a different player to Vinicius, less talented maybe. But he’s very intelligent without the ball and he’s skilled at being in the right place at the right moment. And he’s going to improve — I don’t think he’s reached his best level yet.” Ancelotti told SiriusXM FC’s The Football Show when speaking about Rodrygo. The boy from Santos’ current trajectory has been on pace with the level Vinicius showed at the start of the season:

“We haven’t fully discovered him yet,” Valdano remarked while on Spanish radio’s El Laguero. But maybe now we are? Rodrygo has gone form strength to strength since the PSG 2nd leg. He has taken the confidence from that match and replicated his best form over and over again. He has shown up when it matters with big goals on the biggest of stages: the aggregate equalizer vs Chelsea, and the brace — with Madrid mere minutes from elimination — vs City catapulting him into a new stratosphere of stardom.

This is a new Rodrygo that we are discovering. In fact, when comparing his underlying numbers from the first 6 months of the season (trend 1) to the most recent 3 months (trend 2), Rodrygo’s numbers have improved in every facet of his game. His average npxG has more than doubled: resulting in a goal every other game vs a goal per every 10 games. The Brazilian has more than doubled his average shot creating actions per 90, specifically off the dribble where he has added more volume (an extra attempt per game) but is still equally as efficient. He is both finding and retaining the ball in more dangerous areas and carrying the ball greater distances. Defensively, he ranks among the best wingers in the world with blocks (84th percentile) and interceptions (96th percentile).

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The 21-year-old has proven he can perform at a high level consistently month over month, but the key to igniting that final verdict from the jury will be to replicate this form over the course of a full season. Too many have been quick to dismiss Rodrygo, when his talent is only now starting to fully blossom. The Brazilian has been one of the pleasant “surprises” for Ancelotti in his second tenure at the club. Bigger challenges await the Brazilian next season with the likely arrival of Kylian Mbappe, but Rodrygo has never been one to bow out of a fight. It’s now up to Rodrygo to take that final step, and as Arsene Wenger alluded to, create that final margin of separation.