Since his return in 2011, Gabriel Fernández Arenas has arguably been Atlético Madrid’s most important player, along with Diego Godín. But as the 34-year-old approaches the end of his career, Atlético have a very important task ahead in replacing him. Neither Saúl nor Koke can do the things Gabi does; they’re both fantastic players, but are better suited to orchestrate the colchonero attack. However, a 21-year-old Madrileño currently starring at Villarreal may be perfectly suited to supplant Atleti’s captain.
Earlier this month, Marca reported that Rodrigo Hernández (Rodri) will join Atlético next season. The deal is apparently already done, the contract signed and the buyout paid. It will mark a homecoming for Rodri, who spent six years in Atleti’s academy before he was released in 2013.
The timing of this reunion could not be better. The 2017/18 season has been Rodri’s breakout season for the Yellow Submarine. He’s appeared in all 17 Liga matches for Villarreal so far, and has become integral to their success. When comparing the statistical outputs of Rodri and Gabi, there are many obvious similarities. First, both players average over two tackles and nearly two interceptions per match. For both Atleti and Villarreal, this midfield destroyer role is crucial to winning back possession, and allowing the more creative players to create chances. In terms of ball movement and circulation, both Rodri and Gabi average around 66 attempted passes per 90 minutes, with the former hitting on 90 percent of his attempts. Gabi is around 84 percent.
In the grand scheme of things, nobody wants to see Gabi leave the club of his heart, but the reality is the end of his career is fast approaching and a replacement is needed soon. The club finally realizes this, and rather than subjecting everyone to prolonged negotiations (as with Vitolo and Diego Costa last summer), it seems Atleti’s deal with Rodri has been concluded rather quickly. The price is both affordable and reasonable for an extremely promising Spanish player who is seen to be a potential starter for the national team in the coming years.
Rodri may not be the sexiest name los rojiblancos could have signed — Monaco wantaway Fabinho and Sampdoria’s breakout star Lucas Torreira have been linked in recent months —but in almost every way, you could argue Atleti made the right choice in reportedly snapping up Rodri for about half of what it would take to land one of the two South Americans. LaLiga experience matters, too, and Rodri has that in addition to an EU passport.
Though not yet confirmed, this seems the ideal transfer for Atleti, one that will mitigate the end of their captain’s career and help reboot their midfield.