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Rodri case displays Atlético Madrid’s competitive disadvantage

The midfielder wants space, and Atlético can’t do anything other than wait for him to make up his mind.

FC Barcelona v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Rodri was once seen as the future of Atlético Madrid’s midfield. But now he can’t tell what’s going to happen tomorrow morning, let alone five years.

On Tuesday, the midfielder asked for the club “to give me space” amidst rumours that Pep Guardiola is about to make him his first summer signing as Fernandinho’s replacement.

The 22-year-old was one of the standouts in his first season under Diego Simeone and the world noticed. It’s not just Manchester City who are after Rodri — Barcelona have been previously linked along with Bayern Munich, who also want to re-invest in their aging squad.

“I have asked the club for calm, to give me some space,” Rodri said. “It would be hypocritical to say that I could assure anything. The only thing I will say is that I have a contract at Atlético Madrid, I have a release clause, I have conditions and right now I am happy here. I can’t say anything else because I don’t know what will happen.”

This all speaks to one of Atlético’s biggest problems — being able to keep players and the constant, lingering fear they’ll lose their brightest talents.

Simeone constantly speaks about fighting for third place in the league. Some dismiss it as nothing more than distractive, self-deprecating coach speak. But he has a point. It’s a credit that Simeone’s side has been able to stay competitive for as long as it has given the financial muscle clubs above them have and flex regularly.

The problem here is that Rodri’s release clause is only around €80 million. Compare that to the eye-watering number attached to Marco Asensio’s contract — €700 million — and you can see the strength Real Madrid carry into every negotiation. They will only sell when they want to sell and not a second before. That kind of release clause conveys a sense of calm around the club because unless Asensio gets bitten by a radioactive spider or falls down a well filled with bats and becomes a superhero, nobody will pay €700 million for him. The same can be said for Sergio Ramos’ release clause, which is said to be several million, Brahim Diaz (€750 million) and Isco (€700 million).

These clauses suggest a willingness for players to compromise themselves in order to sign new deals with Real Madrid, something that does not exist with their city rivals.

Jan Oblak recently renewed with Atlético, which put Rojiblanco fans at ease for a minute. For the best goalkeeper in the world, his release clause of €120 million is not preventive and almost enticing given the figures thrown around for players and the importance now given to solid foundations.

The truth is — and fans will hate the idea of this — these players sacrifice something economically by renewing with Atlético. Oblak could have signed with one of Europe’s top clubs and been given a massive wage increase, too. Atlético can offer consistency, in addition to a home where players know they will be looked after and where they can develop under one of Europe’s top coaches.

Juventus v Club de Atletico Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

But when Pep comes sniffing around? Well, we are about the find out with Rodri.

The problem for Atlético is that as soon as a player shows promise, the rest of Europe becomes interested. Take the title-winning season, when Diego Costa and Filipe Luís moved to Chelsea as two of Atlético’s best players that year. They were replaced, but with replacements come risk and an unsettled dressing room, which Simeone hates.

Atlético need their players to play well but not exceed their brief just like Rodri has. And what you get in the press is Simeone peppering him with praise but dampening expectations and ensuring the player indirectly that he needs to keep getting better.

“Rodri is constantly growing, he needs to improve a lot and we have spoken about it,” Simeone said in November. “But he has a massive future.”

The unease that comes with such a situation is the constant elephant in the room. When Sergio Ramos approached Florentino Pérez with the offer from China recently, the president was calm because knew he was going to win in either scenario — either the release clause would be paid or Ramos would stay. Both could be sold as boons for the club.

If Atlético lose Rodri, all they get is €80 million for a player with a future as bright as any midfielder in the world. And Los Colchoneros get the headache of searching for his replacement and — possibly most importantly — the feeling of futility that comes with restarting the search and knowing it can happen again and again.