After Spain came back to beat Croatia 5-3 in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, manager Luis Enrique spoke in defence of his embarrassed goalkeeper, Unai Simon, who had let a back pass roll under his foot and into the net, conceding the opening goal of the game. Enrique wasn’t worried, urging Simon to forget it and move on. As Enrique explained, the error was one of execution, not of concept. “If it’s, say, a mistake in terms of execution, like miskicking a ball, those are easy to correct.”
Now to something closer to home. Presented with a golden chance to put Leeds United ahead against Liverpool in the fifth minute at Elland Road, Rodrigo miskicked the ball, shooting straight at Alisson instead of the bottom corners begging to be found. In that moment, we saw the concept of Rodrigo the no.10, linking up with Raphinha on the counter-attack, arriving late into the penalty area to score, only for an error of execution to ruin the fun.
The concept of Rodrigo has been one of the biggest debates of the season’s opening month. Except it has not really been a debate; he’s a rubbish midfielder because he’s a striker, right? I’m not going to rule it out, but maybe that early miss provided a different explanation for why Rodrigo has taken over Helder Costa’s role as the sad lad of Leeds’ squad. Without wanting to get too scientific, maybe he’s just playing, well, a bit shit. He wouldn’t be the only one.
We’ve seen Rodrigo working as a no.10, not only in the regularly referenced 3-0 trouncing of Aston Villa last season, but when adding panache to Leeds’ attack in cameos against Manchester City and Arsenal, as well as goalscoring appearances against Newcastle and West Brom. Even though the finish was deflected, his goal at the Hawthorns sums up what Marcelo Bielsa wants from Rodrigo, dropping deep and giving the ball to Kalvin Phillips to launch an attack, before driving forward to get on the end of a cutback. Celebrating by accidentally poking Mateusz Klich in the eye sums up his errors of execution.
Tyler Roberts’ introduction against Liverpool made it twice that Rodrigo has been replaced at half-time in the Premier League this season, a concerning record given he has only played three times. But he did manage to do some things right, creating two of our best chances of the game, playing a clever reverse pass that Patrick Bamford failed to control, wasting a potential one on one, and daring Luke Ayling to recreate his Huddersfield volley with a precise cross that Bill kneed into the South Stand. It’s emblematic of Leeds’ slow start to the season that when Rodrigo has matched concept with execution, his teammates haven’t.
This isn’t an excuse for Rodrigo’s disappointing form. Andrea Radrizzani was dreaming out loud of European football after the game, but we need players like Rodrigo to start playing much better if we are to close the gap in class to teams like Liverpool. Leeds cannot count on whatever deal with the devil Bielsa made in his first summer lasting forever. Phillips, Ayling and Stuart Dallas have been transformed from jobbing Football League campaigners into players capable of thriving in the Premier League, but Illan Meslier and Raphinha are the only signings to arrive since that summer and objectively improve our starting eleven. Kiko Casilla and Helder Costa have been and gone. Ian Poveda is following the same route. Robin Koch and Diego Llorente can’t stay fit. If Leeds are going to evolve into a team with the status Radrizzani craves, they need their record signing to start playing like one. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)