Many great footballers are lost to the game before they are out of their teens. Their road to ruin seems always the same: full of potential, they rise through a club’s youth system and into the first team squad, where they experience something that happens to all people when they are truly thrown in at the deep end: they make a mistake. Then they make another, followed by a few more, and instead of experiencing compassion they find that at the crucial moment their coaches, the people who should be there to protect them, abandon them. It starts with an error and becomes a trauma.
When Rodrigo Hernández Cascante, better known as Rodri, was promoted to the Villarreal first team in 2015 he was 19 years old. A scout famous for his expert eye who at the time was working for various Premier League clubs went to El Madrigal to watch him play, and was astonished: “Rodri was nowhere near ready for the top flight, and those of us who saw him wondered, ‘How is it possible that they keep persevering with a player who keeps making mistakes?’
“There are players with whom it is obvious, even at 18 years of age, what they will become,” continues the scout. “Not one scout who watched Rodri between 2015 and 2017 imagined that he would develop as he has, and that he would become the great midfielder we see today at Manchester City and in the national team.”
The scouts might not have been able to see that a precious talent was growing, but at Villarreal there were no doubts. From the day Rodri was promoted to the first team they talked about protecting him, no matter what. They had seen enough to know that the boy had within him all the ingredients necessary to be a high-quality player. Evidence such as the final of the 2015 Copa de Campeones Juvenil, Spain’s most important youth tournament.
That final pitted Villarreal against Espanyol, two of the most successful academies in Spain, at the headquarters of the Spanish football association in Las Rozas. Javier Calleja, now manager of Alavés, was head of Villarreal’s academy at the time, and describes it like an epiphany.
“Rodri played a sublime game,” he says. “Espanyol made it 2-2 with a last-minute goal and we went into extra-time. That’s when I saw in him such self-belief, such pride, that I said, ‘He’s got what it takes to make it at the highest level.’ He wanted more, he was ambitious, defeat hurt him.”
Calleja knows what he is talking about. A midfielder for Villarreal, Málaga and Osasuna between 1999 and 2012, he took his first steps in coaching with Villarreal’s academy before taking charge of the first team in the 2017-18 season, precisely the period when Rodri established himself as the heir to Sergio Busquets.
“When he was 16 his vision was his main attribute,” says Calleja, who points out that the midfielder had “enormous” intelligence to manage the rhythm of a game, to slow things down when necessary, or to give them a kickstart. “He was the heartbeat of the youth team,” Calleja says.
Rodri’s journey from the bottom of the football ladder to the top has been a hard one. But for the directors and coaches at Villarreal, a club with a strong culture of youth development, there was never any concern. They all knew what the journey would look like, even before they started upon it. “There are young players who never manage the leap to the Primera Division, because they make mistakes and find it hard to deal with the repercussions,” Calleja says.
“Some because they feel intimidated in an elite environment, others because their coaches do not give them the freedom to make errors. Players need to understand that mistakes are inevitable, no matter how good you are. The important thing is to keep going. The coach has to help players to grasp this, by giving them confidence. The problem is there are coaches who only think about the here and now. They don’t think about the player’s education, because they are looking for instant success.
“When you see a player with Rodri’s potential, no one game can change the way you think about him,” Calleja says. “If you believe in him, you should accept that sometimes he is going to mess up, and it will cost you points. But in the long run, if you give a player like that security, it will pay off. Without patience nobody would ever become a professional. Players have to be able to make mistakes.”
The mistake Rodri most frequently made was allowing himself to get sucked out of position, leaving his defence unprotected, out of a desire to do too much. “At the start Rodri wanted to do much more than we expected from him, he ran more than he should,” Calleja remembers. “Eventually, little by little, he found the right balance, and learned to be always in the right place. Now with Pep Guardiola, the coach who demands more intellectually from his midfielders than anyone else, Rodri is the one who makes sure his teammates are always filling the empty spaces.”
Rodri goes into the European Championships as the key midfield presence for a country that in its most successful period made the midfield key. His role as the bridge between attack and the most exposed defence on the continent means he must operate like a surgeon: there is no margin for error. It is a feeling with which he is very familiar.