Ironically, the man who will ensure that Gabi’s legacy lives on at Atlético Madrid is likely the one who pushed him out the door.
Thirteen years separate the two men, but their stories read like tales from the same author. Both grew up in red and white households within the city limits, dreaming of one day breaking into the first team. Both joined Atlético’s youth setups, rose through the ranks and made names for themselves as holding midfielders in the cantera. Nevertheless, both had to leave to secure first-team minutes. Youth coaches thought the elder just couldn’t hang at the senior level. The younger player had plenty of talent — he just wasn’t strong enough or tall enough.
One player opted for the endless tower blocks of the Madrid suburbs (Getafe) and Zaragoza’s Moorish architecture. The other chose the smaller, football-mad Vila-real. At Zaragoza, Gabi rounded out his skills, earned the captain’s armband and even played in a more advanced role in his final season, when he scored a career-best 11 goals. Rodri grew to 6’3”, added strength to his lean frame and earned loftier and loftier comparisons from journalists. First he was the next Bruno Soriano — now he’s the next Sergio Busquets.
Neither man had qualms about returning to the club that initially rejected them. Gabi came back in 2011 for €3 million, one of the best deals the club has ever done. Within six months, Diego Simeone was in charge. By 2012, Gabi was captain. By 2018 — 400-plus appearances later — he was a legend.
Just like his predecessor, Rodri bleeds red and white. Throughout the second half of 2017/18, it was an open secret that Rodri was coming back. The club made it official in the summer for €20 million (with an additional €5 million in possible add-ons).
“I’ve fulfilled a dream,” he said in his first official interview with the club. “It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a kid. When you leave, you never know if you can come back. When I had the option, it didn’t take long for me to think it through and make my decision.”
Gabi saw the writing on the wall. He never again would have gotten an offer like the one he got from Al-Sadd, so he decided to grab it. Nevertheless, for such an unassuming, hardworking individual, Gabi has a way of remaining present, even making an appearance at the World Cup semifinal between France and Belgium.
And with Rodri roaming industriously around the center of the park, breaking up opposing attacks and circulating the ball, we should see shades of the eterno capitán’s game every single week for the next decade.
If you’re like me, you don’t watch too much Villarreal outside of their annual ass-kicking of Atlético at La Cerámica. I always leave those fixtures frustrated but with a grudging respect for the Yellow Submarine, who always do to Atleti what Atleti so often do to other sides.
As such, I hadn’t seen much of Rodri. To remedy that, I combed through publications to see what journalists, coaches, and peers said about our new #14.
- He’s hard-working and down-to-earth.
“I’m a humble kid who doesn’t need a lot of things to live well. I’m doing well if I’m surrounding myself with good people — it’s enough to have an environment in which I surround myself with people who live an everyday life.” — Rodri
“Rodri and his number 14...have all the virtues to take the place of two legends like Gabi and Simeone. It’s noticeable that he was born with colchonero blood in his veins and he’s ambitious enough so that Cholismo is visible in his qualities. He’s the player that Atlético need in the middle of the park. Rodri aims to be the undisputed motor of the team. In the preseason, he is connecting perfectly with his teammates and it seems like he’ll be someone who won’t hold back in correcting errors during a game. He’s definitely a member from the same school as Gabi and Cholo.” — Manolete, journalist, AS
- He’s supported Atleti since he was a kid and always dreamt of wearing the shirt.
“It’s a great satisfaction to receive a player who grew up in our academy. At 22 years old he has demonstrated that he’s an extremely talented midfielder. Rodri, I don’t need to explain to you what Atlético is because you already know what these colors mean. Welcome back home.” — Enrique Cerezo, President, Atlético de Madrid
“I’m very happy. I’m returning home, and I always hoped to come back here and when they gave me the opportunity I didn’t wait much. I’m very appreciative of Atlético for this opportunity. I’ve followed a long road of sacrifice and personal growth. I hope to win titles. That’s why I’ve come here, to give everything that I have inside.” — Rodri
Rodri — a native Madrileño — joined the youth setup at Rayo Majadahonda at the same time as Lucas and Theo Hernández. They played together with the other 10 year-olds in the club’s alevín sides. Together, the trio won the league playing up a division against older competition. After that season, the three all moved to Atleti’s academy. The three were always together on and off the pitch, earning the nickname of “the family.”
While Lucas and Theo continued to grow at Atleti — Lucas even earned the nickname “Big Boss” for his physical superiority in the cantera — Rodri was a late bloomer. At 15, Julian Muñoz — the cantera director at the time and the perpetrator of numerous other mistakes — relegated Rodri to the backup juvenil sides. Instead of playing in the first division (División de Honor), Rodri played in the third division (Liga Nacional), still rarely cracking the first XI. Eventually, Muñoz decided that Rodri lacked the physical traits to keep up with his peers. Seeing no other recourse, the “scrawny” midfielder moved to Villarreal, just back from Segunda.
But Rodri never gave up on the club he grew up supporting. His dream deferred neither dried up like a raisin in the sun nor festered like a sore. Instead, he grew physically and technically, cracked the first team within two years, won a U-19 European championship, became one of Spain’s hottest young properties and earned his way back to his dream club.
Rodri’s presentation at Atlético was clearly a big moment for him. He brought around 40 friends and family members with him to see him officially put on the Atlético shirt. According to onlookers, his grandmother, overcome by the moment and the realization of the dream, displayed the most emotion that day.
- He’s the next Busquets...
“He’s a high-level player with a lot of quality. His physical condition is good for the defensive phase and individual duels, and he’s also very good tactically. But more than anything, what stands out the most to me is that he’s a long (lanky) player who can play with both feet, perfect for playing the ball out of high-pressure areas...just like Busquets, he has the intuition to position himself well, to know where the play is going (so that he can) win the ball.” — Albert Celades, Spain U-21 Manager, 2014-18
“We’re discussing, for me, the best player in that position (Busquets). They praise me a lot, but I believe I have a long way to go. I’m young, I have a lot to learn, but I have gotten where I am at at 21 years old, and I don’t want to give myself limits. I want to continue working, doing things well, and learning from people, those around me, from the staff, because by doing that I’m sure I’ll become a better player.” — Rodri, on the comparison
- ...or the next Gabi.
“Atlético have identified Rodri — who has been called the next Sergio Busquets — as the long-term successor to current captain Gabi, as they are both tenacious midfielders who certainly don’t mind a tackle, with Rodri averaging three per 90. He’s also extremely comfortable circulating the ball, as he averaged 90 percent pass completion this year — only two players made more successful passes than him.” — Rob Walker, staff writer, Into the Calderón
“Looking back on what the manager and Gabi have done (with the number), I’ll wear it with the most excitement.
“Simeone and Gabi have left important legacies not just with their play, but with their leadership, and this is something I’ll have to learn. My history begins today, and I would like to be like them. Gabi left, the number was free, and I didn’t think twice. It’s a number that I’ve already worn, and it means a lot.” — Rodri
- He provides Cholo with tactical flexibility.
“Those who know me a bit know that I am a player who likes the positional game, touching the ball, good football, as Villarreal play. Clearly, teams who play this style help me, and the Spain national team is one of them.” — Rodri
“Atlético, with the signing of the one who was their canterano, has signed maximum efficiency in the middle of the park. His play, both offensively and defensively, holds (efficiency) as its manifesto. The Villarreal pivot leads LaLiga in ball recoveries. He’s recovered the ball no less than 140 times from his rivals.” — Luis Aznar, journalist
“Once his team are ahead, Simeone is very fond of retreating into a defensive shell and counter-attacking from there. It’s a strategy that has paid off as often as it’s cost him, but this season his team could do it superbly. The defence and goalkeeper remain the same from the previous shape, but instead of going straight to a midfield line of four (Lemar — Saúl — Thomas — Koke), Rodri takes his place as a lone pivot.
With Rodri at the base of midfield, screening opponents, protecting his defence and starting attacks – his place in the midfield quartet is taken by the dynamo that is Thomas Partey. Thomas is a true all-action midfielder, able to hold, dribble, pass and shoot. He loves big moments and would add real thrust to Atleti’s midfield.” — Muhammad Butt on a potential 4-5-1 formation
“In the middle Rodri anchors midfield by himself and midfield lynchpins Koke and Saúl play ahead of him, this young Spanish trio is full of passing, pressing and game intelligence.
In attack, Vitolo and Lemar play high and wide as true wingers. Obviously they will have defensive responsibilities (this is a Simeone side, after all) but with no Griezmann, these two become the primary playmakers for Atleti in the final third. In attack, who else but Diego Costa, ploughing a lone furrow as the team’s target man and main goalscorer. With all the supply coming his way, Costa could score bucketloads.” — Butt on a potential 4-3-3 formation in a post-Antoine Griezmann world
- He’s thinking about life after football.
“Rodrigo Hernández Cascante (Madrid, 1996) is an atypical footballer. He’s conscious that there’s life beyond football. The madrileño knows that his profession revolves around a ball but that he can’t neglect his studies, his professional training, and everything that will help him progress in any field in life. One of the pearls of the Yellow Submarine’s academy since he arrived from Atlético de Madrid, the midfielder always has his feet on the ground. In both bad and good moments, he’s aware that, in the end, it’s just football.” — Pablo Egea, journalist, Marca
“I’m studying. The student environment helps me a lot, helps me clear my head. Football isn’t everything in this life. I like to fill my time with more things. I always know that football is my profession right now, but I also value other things and I’m content with that.” — Rodri
Throughout his time at Villarreal, he studied business administration at a local university, actually living in a dormitory with other students. After training each day, he’d load up his backpack, head to class and burst the football bubble for a bit. He’s laser-focused and does without social media. He’s almost an idealized American: a routine-oriented, goal-oriented creature of habit.
Since he’s studied business administration, Rodri also loves economics. Once he finishes his business degree, he wants to study foreign languages, which he regards as important in any field.