Spain’s creative decision to play Rodri in defence is paying off at World Cup

With Gerard Piqué retiring from football and Sergio Ramos overlooked for the World Cup squad, 2022 has been the end of an era for Spanish centre-backs. Luis Enrique took some criticism for not calling up Ramos – the most capped player in Spain’s history – but the manager stuck to his guns and deserves credit for doing so.

Luis Enrique selected four centre-backs in his squad for Qatar: Aymeric Laporte, Pau Torres and Eric García, who went to the Euros last summer, and the versatile youngster Hugo Guillamón. Yet, despite the availability of these experienced centre-backs, Luis Enrique has used Rodri alongside his Manchester City teammate Laporte at the heart of defence in Spain’s first two games in Qatar.

The dilemma for Spain, as usual, is that they have too many brilliant central midfielders. Gavi and Pedri, despite their youth, are guaranteed starters considering their technical quality, and they benefit from having their experienced Barcelona teammate, Sergio Busquets, alongside them to anchor the midfield.

Busquets, the only World Cup winner in the squad, is now 34 but we all saw how much Spain struggled without him at the Euros last year. He missed Spain’s first two games at the tournament and they laboured to draws with Sweden and Poland. It’s a tricky one for Luis Enrique: he doesn’t want to lose his captain but he knows Busquets no longer has the legs to control the middle of the park. Given the make-up of his squad, Luis Enrique’s decision to pick Busquets at the base of the midfield and use Rodri in the centre of defence could be a masterstroke.

Rodri was used at the heart of defence by Pep Guardiola – obviously – on a handful of occasions in the 2019-20 campaign, but he is inexperienced in the role. Throwing him in at the deep end at a World Cup was a risk, but Rodri has handled it well. At 6ft 2in, he has the physicality to play the role and he is brilliant at dispossessing opponents – only Declan Rice (82) has won possession in the midfield third more times than Rodri (70) in the Premier League this season. Rodri has the tools to excel at centre-back in the modern game, given his tenacity off the ball and impressive distribution when in possession.

In the long term, Rodri will surely take over from Busquets as the anchor of the Spain midfield – the player in the team who dictates the tempo and helps them dominate possession. His performances at the Euros last year suggest he wasn’t quite ready for the role, but he is developing under Guardiola and will no doubt have a future further up the pitch for the national team. For now, though, Busquets brings experience and balance to the side, and picking the Barcelona captain remains Spain’s best option.

Gavi and Pedri have the freedom to push on and make nuisances of themselves in the final third, safe in the knowledge that Busquets is easing the defensive burden behind them. With such a short lead-in to this World Cup, it helps that the three of them have been working together and forging a relationship and understanding at Barcelona.

When Spain have the ball, Rodri steps into midfield to help build up play. He is a natural at keeping the ball – he has made more passes (1,203) than any other player in the Premier League this season – and he gives Spain more control in games. Picking Rodri against Costa Rica made sense. Spain were expected to dominate the ball and obliterate their opponents – which they did in some style, winning 7-0 – so having an extra midfielder at the back to help build up play seemed smart. Using Rodri against the much tougher Germany, though, was a huge show of faith by Luis Enrique.

It may seem harsh on Torres and García, who are fine ball playing centre-backs. García had the best pass success rate (95.5%) in the squad at the Euros last summer, while Torres (93.9%) ranked third. So why has Luis Enrique opted for Rodri? Perhaps because he offers better balance at the back. Torres, Laporte and García all prefer to play on the left side of a centre-back pairing. With Rodri dropping back into the right-sided role, Laporte is able to stay on the left, where he is more comfortable. This results in a more stable defensive unit.

Bar a minor lapse against Germany on Sunday – when he failed to contain Jamal Musiala in the buildup to Niclas Füllkrug’s equaliser – Rodri’s deployment at centre-back has been a success story so far. If Spain go all the way in the tournament, Luis Enrique’s brave, creative decision to partner Laporte with Rodri will be a key reason behind their success.