Rodrigo Hernandez Cascante is inquisitive by nature.
From a young age, his father would constantly remind him about the importance of learning English. The Spaniard was sent to America and to Ireland during his childhood as part of foreign exchange programmes.
When released as a 17-year-old by Atletico Madrid due to a perceived lack of physical strength, Rodri was picked up by Villarreal but he balanced his playing time with a Business Studies and Economics degree at the Universidad de Castellon in eastern Spain.
In order to never miss a lecture, he lived in the university’s halls of residence. Ahead of the European Under-21 Championship in 2017, Rodri was even pictured with a ball under one arm and a pile of books under the other for an interview with Marca, but there would be no conflict over the career path he would take.
One man’s hell is another man’s paradise, and such experiences are now standing him in excellent stead as Manchester City’s midfield metronome.
“There are some people who are just born with this passion for football, and that was me,” he told Sky Sports. “I idolised Zinedine Zidane. Since I was so little with my brother and my parents, football was my life – and it hasn’t changed.”
When City made Rodri their club-record signing in the summer of 2019, the club’s director of football Txiki Begiristain said he was the “perfect fit” despite there being a few raised eyebrows at the £62.8m fee paid for a defensive midfielder.
But the 24-year-old has emerged as a vital cog in Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled machine.
City are the champions-elect and Rodri has provided them with control of the centre ground and a robustness that has fully contributed to 17 wins on the bounce, the first side in top-flight history to win their opening 10 games in a calendar year.
“Since I came here, it has been my dream to win the Premier League,” he continued. “Of course, it’s still a long way until the end of the season but we’re right there and it’s in our hands. We’ve got to keep going as for me it’s the toughest trophy in the world to win.
“Getting records are important, but it’s not as important as just winning the competition. You’ve got to be proud of the records you’re achieving when you look back and see it’s not been done in the past, but the main target is still to lift the Premier League.
“The dynamic of the team right now is good. For the past month and a half, we’ve been facing top-level teams so it’s not easy getting victory after victory.
“We knew the difficulties we had at the beginning of the season and we knew about the level required in the Premier League. Achieving 17 wins in a row is incredible for us and we just want to keep going. We don’t want to drop our levels. We know it will be very tough to maintain it, but that’s the challenge.”
An honest meeting
City’s gulf in class has been laid bare now they are level on matches with their closest Premier League counterparts. Such a sizeable gap of 10 points on second-placed Manchester United would have been scarcely plausible in late November following the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham.
Back then, albeit with two games in hand, City sat 14th in the table. But Guardiola’s side have not trailed in a Premier League game ever since.
Key to their improved form has been their defensive record, with Ederson registering nine clean sheets in his last 11 games. The only side to hold a lead against City in their past 24 outings in all competitions are League Two Cheltenham Town.
Speaking after the goalless Manchester derby at Old Trafford in December, Gary Neville said they looked “bored”, and the problems intensified three days later following the 1-1 draw at home to West Brom, despite having 26 shots at goal.
Without Sergio Aguero, City had scored just 18 league goals. Sixth in the table and five points behind leaders Tottenham and Liverpool – Guardiola’s remonstrations with fourth official Anthony Taylor became the subject of another barb from Mourinho.
Guardiola looked shorn of ideas but he has managed to shake off his side’s pedestrian persona and has found the answers. Rodri, who has featured in all but three of City’s 37 games so far this season, admits an honest team meeting helped arrest the slump.
“In the first period of the season, we weren’t playing well individually and collectively but this changed once we got together and spoke more about how we could work together,” he recalled.
“We had a meeting and talked to each other. We analysed what was happening and how the team could do better.
“We all agreed that every player could do a little bit more for the team. I feel it’s the reason why we’re doing so well right now as there are lots of players who are currently playing at an incredible level.”
Quadruple hopes and a tactical intervention
The turnaround has coincided with title challengers stumbling all around them, and it now looks like a long procession to a third league title under Guardiola. Only twice in Premier League history has a team failed to be crowned having built such an advantage with 42 points still to play for.
City have three fixtures in the next 10 days and while they remain on course for four trophies, Rodri believes talk of securing an unprecedented Quadruple is premature.
“We aren’t thinking too much about this,” he continued. “We know we’re in the final of the Carabao Cup, we’re ahead in the Premier League and we’re still in two other competitions – the Champions League and the FA Cup.
“Of course, we can achieve it, but the idea is just to play the next game and to not think too much about it.
“If we can keep the level and rhythm then we can do it. We’ve shown it in the past few years and while we’re not focused on this, we have the dream of having an unbelievable season.”
Rodri has continued to learn as Guardiola has tactically evolved his team’s approach in possession to include Joao Cancelo moving alongside him in midfield. With 34 chances created in open play, the Portuguese is currently the Premier League’s most creative defender.
The subtle manoeuvre has provided City with a new dimension, and another point of attack that has effectively absorbed Kevin de Bruyne’s recent absence, and Rodri’s all-round qualities have been allowed to come to the fore with him boasting more touches and passes than any other player this season.
“It’s changed a little bit this season,” he revealed. “Joao’s a very dynamic player who helps me a lot in the build-up and he’s got the ability to come inside and create great chances. We help each other in the build-up and I’m not that worried in my position because I have a partner.
“It’s a new concept and I’ve had to adapt my game to it, but it’s working very well.”
Rodri hails ‘animal’ Arteta, ‘funny guy’ Partey
Sunday sees Rodri reunited with former City assistant coach Mikel Arteta and potentially his former Atletico Madrid team-mate Thomas Partey, should the midfielder shake off a thigh complaint.
Arsenal are on a six-match unbeaten home run, but recent meetings would suggest only one outcome. Since losing 2-1 at the Emirates in December 2015, Man City are unbeaten in their last 10 Premier League meetings with the Gunners, scoring at least twice in nine of those games.
“Mikel has been very important for this club in the past few years,” said Rodri. “I worked with him for six months, and in this short period, he taught me a lot of things in training about how to position myself in games. I’m lucky as both he and Pep played as midfielders, so it was easier for them to teach me how to play.
“He’s such a nice guy and I believe his best quality is that he works like an animal in order to help his players improve. I appreciate what he taught me a lot. He has his own identity as a manager and needs time to develop his team.
“He’s got great players in order to achieve that. It’s not easy in the Premier League as we know how high the level is, but we’re expecting a very tough game on Sunday. If we are to keep the rhythm of victories, we’ll need to be at our best.
“I have good memories of playing with Thomas – we played a lot of games together. We controlled the midfield of the team in that season. He’s two years older than me, but we’re a similar age and he’s a very funny guy. We had a good friendship so it’s good to see your old team-mates again. Let’s see if he’s ready for Sunday, but he will be a very important player for Arsenal.”
… and will he remain on penalties?
Of equal importance for City will be an improvement in their record from the penalty spot. Four of the last six penalties to have missed the target completely in the Premier League have been by City players, with three of those coming against Liverpool.
Rodri took it upon himself to take their latest spot-kick in the victory over Spurs last weekend, becoming City’s seventh different taker since the start of last season.
It was the midfielder’s first penalty of his professional career – but he stopped short of revealing if he would now be stepping forward on a regular basis.
“No, of course not,” he said when asked if has been designated the duty. “It was a specific moment where I felt confident. The team needed someone to step forward to show they could take the penalty because we’d missed lots of them in important games.
“Next time if I can shoot then I will, no problem. But the point was just to show the team that we can be confident taking them as they’re important in deciding big games.”
United are chief among those who cling to the hope that City are not already beyond reach. It will be Arsenal’s turn on Sunday to dare to defy this seemingly inextricable City power surge.
On their day, there is no question Arteta’s side are capable of offering a counterchallenge. But, with Rodri at the wheel, deciphering how to decelerate this runaway train would appear an impossible task.
Follow Arsenal vs Manchester City
Arsenal vs Man City is live on Sky Sports Premier League and Sky Sports Main Event from 4.15pm; Kick-off 4.30pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app.
Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.