Pep Guardiola’s Rodri claim proved right as Man City star again shows he would be worthy Ballon d’Or winner

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The Manchester City midfielder has been among the standout performers at Euro 2024.

There was a time when Spain’s progression to a major final was unremarkable, a feat almost expected of the most talented international side on the planet.

The team assembled between 2008 and 2012 really was a golden generation and they won three consecutive major competitions, a feat no other international side have ever achieved. But since their latest triumph in 2012 - where the Spanish beat Italy 4-0 in the final - it has been a series of underwhelming disappointments for the country that modernised football via its Tiki-taka ethos.

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Prior to Euro 2024, Spain had only won two knockout games in 12 years across five tournaments. The World Cup exit at the hands of Morocco just 19 months ago was arguably the country’s lowest football moment of the 21st century, with any thought of winning a major championship in the near future almost absurd.

In simple terms, Spain’s decline came about as one by one their illustrious midfielders stepped away from the international scene. Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Csec Fabregas and David Silva were all seen among the finest of their generation, and the job of replacing them proved impossible.

Until 2024, that is. This summer the rejuvenation of the Spanish midfield has been at the heart of Luis de la Fuente’s beguiling side. Pedri, Fabian Ruiz and Dani Olmo have been outstanding during a summer championships in which Spain - regardless of the outcome in Sunday’s final - have been the shining light.

Yet it’s the prowess and command from the base of midfield that has truly elevated this side. Manchester City supporters are all too aware of the preeminent standards Rodri displays on a weekly basis - so are most Premier League fans - but Euro 2024 may be the tournament where the 28-year-old finally silenced any remaining doubters.

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Because prior to this summer there were questions about his impact on the international stage. At Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup, he played back-up to Busquets and even operated at centre-back in Qatar. That Rodri remained second choice to the antiquated midfielder hardly vindicated his burgeoning reputation as one of the game’s elite.

But Busquets’ retirement from international football in 2022 saw the final member of that world-beating coalition call it a day. In his place, Rodri has modernised the Spanish midfield, brought it into football’s new era. Spain’s engine room is now more dynamic, more fluid, a better pressing unit and one that manages to strike the balance between possession and incision.

It’s the positional discipline of Rodri that has allowed Ruiz and Olmo to showcase their offensive skills in the tournament, particularly in the knockout stages, and on occasion the pair have pushed so high it’s left their City counterpart looking a tad isolated.

Not that it’s posed a problem for a player Pep Guardiola referred to as ‘the best midfielder in the world, by far’. That he has performed at similar levels on the international level - outside of the well-oiled City machine - only strengthens that assessment. 

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In the semi-final win over France, it was notable how often Rodri invited pressure from the France midfield, creating space for team-mates, before he slipped the ball into their feet. Rarely did the former Villarreal man turn back and lay a simple pass into his centre-backs - a lesson England could well learn from - instead his bustling, ceaseless present in midfield has had an infectious impact on his peers.

“It’s an important position, especially the way [City and Spain] play,” Rodri said in an interview with the Guardian this week. “I try to give movement to the play, a dynamism, a rhythm. To connect to the players in front of you as soon as you can, to help the game mature, to interpret it, take it where you want it to be.

“That’s what most defines the role of the pivot: when to accelerate, when to brake, when to press higher, when to move deeper. Those thoughts are always going through your mind.”

So far this tournament, only Toni Kroos has managed more passes than Rodri, although the former’s task was made easier given he operated in a midfield pair for Germany, while the Spanish no.16 has been the sole shield in front of the back four. That Declan Rice is the only midfielder to win more tackles during the championships demonstrates the other side of Rodri’s refined game.

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He even popped up with a goal in the last-16 win over Georgia, with one strike in five games roughly on par for his tally of nine in 50 matches for City across 2022/23. That was perhaps the only attribute lacking this time 12 months ago, for a player who has the tenacity of Roy Keane, the control of Andrea Pirlo and the passing range of Luka Modric.

A Ballon D’or would be a fitting reward for an outstanding season - even if Alvaro Morata feels he lacks the marketability to claim the ultimate individual accolade. Vinicis Junior and Jude Bellingham could pip him to that prize, but it’s Sunday's silverware that will be the only real concern.

While Spain’s success between 2008 and 2012 was based on their distinguished depth of midfield choices, the 2024 version are reliant on one transcendent star.

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