How Do You Solve a Problem Like Rodrigo?

In this article, Jon Mackenzie takes a long look at Rodrigo Moreno to try and determine where best to fit him in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United…

Sharpen the pitchforks! Fire up the Twitter app! One of those miserable bastards at All Stats Aren’t We has said something negative about the mighty Leeds United in their relentless march to the top of the Premier League… nay… world football!

So, first, by way of explanation: Rodrigo Moreno is a nice problem to have. In coming to write a scouting report about a player of his obvious quality I found myself somewhat confused; we all know Rodrigo. We’ve seen him play for Spain. We’ve seen him score against Chelsea in the Champions League. We’ve signed him on Football Manager. We know he’s good! How do you write a scouting report on someone this good? I’m not prepared for it!

At times, though, watching back footage of the striker, I felt like I had gone to Currys to buy a microwave and had ended up procrastinating in the laptop aisle. Rodrigo is an absolutely exceptional player. He will come into the Leeds squad as the best player we have. But how on earth do you fit his obvious talent into Marcelo Bielsa’s set-up?

In light of this, this is less a meat-and-potatoes scouting report than an explanation of how Bielsa might go about solving a problem like Rodrigo.

The Life and Times of Rodrigo Moreno

Rodrigo Moreno arrived at Valencia in the summer of 2014. The club had just been bought by Peter Lim, a Singaporean businessman. Since then, Valencia have been the Leeds United of La Liga, a general decline which has seen them burn through managers (sound familiar?) some of whom were wildly underqualified (like Gary Neville…) ( sound familiar?) and which has culminated with the club having to undergo a fire sale to clear their wage budget (sound familiar?)

Having been playing in Benfica as part of a front two pairing in a 4–4–2, Rodrigo arrived at the Mestalla and was promptly played as a wide attacker in a 4–2–3–1 by Nuno Espírito Santo. Although Valencia’s formation was fairly flexible that season, Rodrigo only played as a centre forward six times compared to 14 times on the right and 6 times on the left.

The following season was an unmitigated disaster. Rodrigo made two full appearances and a smattering of substitute appearances before he got a cruciate ligament injury that kept him out for three months. Again, his position was not settled. The club was going through the ignominy of three managers in one season and Rodrigo ended up playing fairly equally between the left wing, the right wing, and through the middle.

It was only in the 2016/17 season that Rodrigo was finally started centrally for the majority of the season, albeit in a season which was also wrecked by injury (ankle this time). It had become abundantly clear that Rodrigo’s skillset suited the middle of the field rather than its periphery and, once the shift was made permanent, Rodrigo became one of the best second strikers in Europe.

The Valencia of Marcelino (2017–2019) was probably the high point (both for Rodrigo and the club). Here’s the passing network of that team:

Rodrigo played as the right forward in that side and it was here he came into his own. An intelligent footballer, his movement and reading of the game matched with his desire to get on the ball and make things happen really started producing dividends for Valencia.

But after Marcelino left, Rodrigo started drifting out wide again.

Compare these two heat maps, a season apart:

As you can see, last season, Rodrigo shifted right and spent much less time on the left. He may have been starting in a front two, but in attacking transition he was almost playing as a winger.

Here are two screen grabs from Valencia’s trip to Stamford Bridge in the Champions League last season:

Here, Rodrigo has pressed Fikayo Tomori, the left-sided centre back, out wide, forcing him to clear the ball long down the field.

Ten seconds later, though, and with the ball played down the field to the Valencia front line, we can see that Rodrigo is still holding his position out on the right.

During his time at Valencia, then, the problem of Rodrigo was solved by moving him into a central position. The question is, did moving him back undo the good work? Why might this be an interesting question? Well, because for us, we’re interested in where Rodrigo — a striker who has largely played his best football in a strike partnership — will fit in Marcelo Bielsa’s system: a system which has almost never featured two strikers.

The Statistical Angle

These two radars from Twenty3 show the very different statistical profile that the Spain international put up in the last two seasons. In 2018/19, Rodrigo shows up as a more classic striker: more touches in the opposition box and more shots from headers. Although his non-dead ball expected goals looks lower, StatsBomb has him at 0.45 xG per 90 minutes for the season versus 0.25 xG per 90 minutes the following campaign. Unsurprisingly, Rodrigo scored 8 league goals in 2018/19 and only 4 in 2019/20.

Last season, however, he shows up with much more of a wide attacker profile. The shooting is down, the dribbling is down (weirdly perhaps), but the facilitation is up: expected assists shoot up from 0.13 xA to 0.2 xA. This was reflected in his total assists with 7 assists coming in the league last season against 5 the season before.

Interestingly, although this doesn’t show up on the radar — which is percentile per season — his defensive metrics were down last season (12 defensive actions per 90 minutes from 13.3 and 5.8 high pressing actions per 90 minutes from 8.1, although this latter metric will have been impacted by him playing in a deeper position out wide.) Either way, Rodrigo is clearly a defensively astute forward and this will recommend him in a Bielsa system without any real problem.

Faced with these two profiles, the question becomes: which one of these positions suited Rodrigo the better? It’s certainly not the case that the drift rightwards was disastrous for him. He simply started showing up as more of a wide attacker than a striker which, given he was playing in a front two, wasn’t the end of the world.

The problem becomes a relative one: where will a team get the best out of Rodrigo given his skillset? This will obviously depend on the team. But will also depend on his skillset.

What does a Rodrigo do?

I’ve picked out a few areas that I think are most important:

Intelligent Movement

What strikes me most about Rodrigo in a general sense is his movement. He’s always moving. With his team in possession, he’s moving. With his team out of possession, he’s moving. Into space before reassessing and moving into more space. And also mixing his pace: fast, slow; slow, fast. Always thinking about whether or not he could be in a better place.

Here’s a lovely play-sequence that illustrates this perfectly. Valencia are playing in the second leg of their Last 16 knockout match with Atalanta in the Champions League:

Here, you can see Rodrigo dropping back onside from an offside position.

Seeing Carlos Soler on the ball, Rodrigo finds space in between the lines, dragging one of the Atalanta centre backs with him.

Having received the ball to feet, disrupting the back line in the process, Rodrigo returns the ball to Soler. It may look like Valencia are back where they started but the striker has created a space to attack.

This is the special bit, though. Rodrigo then shapes to hit that space, sending the covering centre back in a movement towards his own goal.

But instead of moving, he jinks back towards Soler, creating space between himself and the centre back, who then has to correct himself. The pass from Soler is now on and the centre back is moving in the wrong direction.

With everything now in his favour, Rodrigo can now attack the space.

Rodrigo doesn’t just use movement to create dangerous inroads for his team into the opposition final third; he also uses it to create goals.

Here’s an example from Valencia’s away fixture against Chelsea in the group stages of the Champions League:

With Valencia lining up for a free kick (from the left half space), you can see that Rodrigo is matched up with Andreas Christensen on the opposite side of the wall.

By the time Dani Parejo takes the free kick, though, Rodrigo has already dropped off sprinted for the space between Tammy Abraham and Jorginho. Look how far away from Christensen his is now.

Having got the run on both Abraham and Christensen, Rodrigo finds himself through on goal with only Kepa in front of him.

By the time he strikes the ball, the Valencia striker has managed to put a not-insignificant amount of distance between himself and the two defending players. He finishes well and Valencia go on to win the match.

And it’s not just in possession that Rodrigo’s movement is good. He’s also a good mover out of possession and in the press, fundamental qualities for a Bielsa player.

Here’s a pressing sequence from a game against Rayo Vallecano at the end of 2018/19:

The sequence starts with a Rayo Vallecano throw in back down the line towards their own goal. Rodrigo immediately begins the press.

Under pressure, the defender passes it inside to a teammate.

Rodrigo doesn’t stop his press but continues on, closing down the passing lane between the two Rayo defenders, allowing his teammate, Santi Mina, to continue squeezing the ball.

The defender goes back to his goalkeeper and Santi Mina and Rodrigo shift players in the press, stopping the keeper from having any easy passes. The original defender that Rodrigo presses then moves deep into the left back area.

Seeing that, Rodrigo sprints across to cover that option as Santi Mina shifts back onto the player that Rodrigo was just covering. The keeper goes long and the ball is turned over. Not the same sort of pressing that Leeds do, but the ingredients are all there to suggest Rodrigo will fit in.

Given his team play a style of football that is centred around positional play and the intelligent manipulation of space, it shouldn’t be hard to see why Marcelo Bielsa is keen on Rodrigo. You would expect the Spain striker to pick up the rotations and interchanges of Bielsismo without much problem and, within time, soon be one of its finest proponents.

One thing to note: one of the ramifications of Marcelino leaving seems to be that Rodrigo looks a lot less mobile or at least a lot less eager to move. This could be because of the team’s play-style under Albert Celades or the result of the fact that Rodrigo has suffered ten injuries in two seasons by the end of last season. If there is no fitness issue, you would hope that the introduction into Bielsa’s system would revert Rodrigo back to the player he was in 2018/19.

Creativity

With his intelligent movement, Rodrigo is also a very creative player. Not only does he read space as it is in the moment, he can quickly interpret how it will look in future situations. As a second striker, he often drops deep but then likes to turn at defences with either the option of running at them or playing a teammate in.

Here’s a great example of one of his favourite type of passes from a game last season with Levante:

As you can see, Valencia are in possession of the ball through Carlos Soler. Rodrigo is in space and about to receive the pass from him.

The pass isn’t the best and goes behind Rodrigo, forcing him to turn back to his own goal. At this point, the through ball to Kevin Gameiro looks like the best option for the striker.

Turning onto his stronger left foot, the through ball to Gameiro still looks the best option. But Rodrigo spies Ferran Torres making a cross-field run in the corner of his eye.

With the defence assuming that the Gameiro option is the most threatening, Rodrigo clips the ball back across himself straight into the path of Torres…

…who then scores.

If Rodrigo is to play as a lone striker in a Bielsa system, we’ll need to see some evidence that he can embrace the physical side of the game. He’s not a back to goal player like Bamford and thrives with players in front of him running onto chances.

Here’s a good example of Rodrigo using his strength to fashion a chance for Santi Mina:

The ball starts with left back, Gaya, who plays the ball into the feet of Rodrigo’s striker partner, Santi Mina.

A nice passing interchange occurs where Mina finds Parejo who then plays Gonzalo Guedes through on the left wing. Rodrigo is already making his run.

Guedes’ ball into Rodrigo isn’t the best — it loops slowly towards the striker allowing the defender time to cover.

However, Rodrigo is able to attack the ball, win the header and put it through into space for Mina to run onto.

Mina is through on goal and slots the ball nicely past the keeper to open the scoring for Valencia.

Transition Play

One final area in which Rodrigo looks promising, especially from the perspective of Leeds United fans, is in his usefulness during attacking transition. If Leeds are going to be playing counter-attacking football more this season, given their inversion from strong favourites to underdogs in games, then Rodrigo is going to have to be able to function well in transition.

Here’s a play-sequence from that same Rayo Vallecano game we just looked at:

In the aftermath of a Rayo freekick, the ball is swung back in and Dani Parejo manages to stab the ball down to Ferran Torres on the edge of the box.

Torres starts moving forward but sees Kevin Gameiro free on the half way line…

…so plays the ball directly into his feet. You can already see Rodrigo moving forward to try and beat his marker.

Gameiro drives in field and sees Rodrigo with half a yard of space on his defender so plays him in.

Rodrigo drives on towards the goal and has the chance of a shot but, with the keeper rushing out, he plays it inside back to Gameiro who slots the ball into an empty net.

One more play-sequence: I wanted to show what Rodrigo can do in transition from a wide area just to see if he could offer any kind of option there. Here’s a clip from a game against Getafe last season:

The passage of play starts with a Thierry Correia throw in down the line to Rodrigo.

On receiving the ball, Rodrigo shapes to go back up the line, changing the direction of the defender…

…only to then drive to the byline, wrongfooting his opponent.

Rodrigo makes his way into the box along the byline and sees Kang-in Lee on the edge of the six-yard box. He hits the ball low and hard to him.

Lee simply slides the ball home and Valencia are 3–1 up.

So how do you solve a problem like Rodrigo?

There are, I think, three options of where to fit him in a Bielsa side.

Option #1: An Advanced 8

Most productively, I think, would be to play him in the same role as Tyler Roberts last season — as one of the eights but advanced of the other:

This was very much where Pablo Hernandez played last season after lockdown when he replaced Tyler Roberts in the second half of games. Where Roberts probably didn’t have the guile to play this position, Rodrigo does. It also gives him the advantage of players in front of him to find with incisive through balls.

The downside here is that you are losing a defensive body in the midfield area. If Leeds are going to be playing more transitional football this season, they are probably going to want a strong midfield which allows wide attackers and full backs to get forward more. At the beginning of last season, Leeds played their best football with Forshaw and Klich in the two eight slots.

We’ve already seen that Rodrigo is good out of possession both in pressing and defensive actions. However, a good defensive forward is not a good defensive midfielder.

This means a second option might be preferred for the Spain international:

Option #2: Inside Forward/False Seven

With a more solid midfield set-up, Bielsa could opt to play Rodrigo in the role that Pablo Hernandez played for much of last season: a sort of inside forward position that some people termed a false seven.

As we know, Leeds like to focus the build-up around their most creative player, latterly Pablo Hernandez. Playing out on the right, Hernandez was given a level of creative freedom and would often drift inside. Rodrigo could play a similar role — after all, for Valencia last season he was dropping deep right a lot of the time anyway.

Whilst we did say he is wasted out of the middle, the thinking here is that you bring the build-up play out to him on the right and allow him to do the sort of things he does in the middle from there. He is also given license to move inside too.

If this isn’t enough, a final option presents itself:

Option #3: False Nine

Perhaps Marcelo Bielsa does prefer Rodrigo as a lone striker. The problems here are two-fold: firstly, he has rarely played as a loan striker; secondly, when he does, he likes to drop deep and then drive towards goal with players ahead of him. In Bielsa’s system, Bamford is used in hold-up, more often than not feeding the ball back or across to wide players before then driving to the box off the ball.

We’ve already seen that Bielsa is keen to bring in Ryan Kent into the Leeds squad. Kent is a wide player who is more direct. Helder Costa and Jack Harrison (although to a lesser extend) are both direct attackers. Could the plan be to get the wide players narrower and Rodrigo slightly deeper so that he can pick up the ball and will then have options ahead of him?

Conclusion

Perhaps we’ll see some sort of tactical upheaval now the 29-year-old has arrived in Leeds. One thing is for certain, though: Rodrigo offers Bielsa a nice headache. His obvious footballing ability, his comfortable fit in a Bielsa-style team, and his flexibility have made this Leeds squad much stronger heading into the Premier League.

The data visualisations in this piece come courtesy of Twenty3. All data is Wyscout except where indicated.

You can follow Jon Mackenzie on Twitter @Jon_Mackenzie.

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