Since his last start against Crystal Palace in November, Rodrigo has been suffering from bilateral heel pain, and returned to Marcelo Bielsa’s starting eleven for the Magpies clash after satisfying the Argentine with his 25-minute showing against West Ham last week.
Though Patrick Bamford’s injury woes drag on, Bielsa’s attacking options were looking much healthier ahead of Saturday’s game, following a mad January week which saw the pecking order decimated from top to bottom, with young Sam Greenwood suffering a knock during the game where Bielsa’s limited resources had handed the youngster a chance.
Joe Gelhardt and Tyler Roberts were also both back at Bielsa’s disposal for the Newcastle game, but it was Rodrigo who was called upon to take up a number 10 role behind Dan James, the natural winger refashioned as a Bamford stand-in.
With sprinting runs that would later tell in his legs, Rodrigo made a lively start to the Premier League clash and successfully forced mistakes by the visiting side.
In the eighth minute, the Spaniard’s alertness looked set to initiate a promising attack for Leeds. Seizing on Chris Wood’s mishit pass, Rodrigo reclaimed the ball through neat link-up play with Mateusz Klich and Jack Harrison before looking to send the winger running down the right flank, but his through-ball hit the byline before Harrison could reach it.
The number 19 was instrumental in creating the Whites’ first big chance of the game. Receiving the ball from Pascal Struijk, Rodrigo took a clever touch to turn Toon captain Jamaal Lascelles and sent the ball into the penalty box for Dan James to chase. Again, though, the pass was too heavy for Leeds’ make-shift number nine to get on the end of, but Raphinha met Rodrigo’s pass at the back post to cut back for James, whose six-yard strike was stopped by Magpies ‘keeper Martin Dubravka.
Though circumstance has tempered the criticism, fans have been vocal in their reluctance to see James, who prefers taking up a wide role, serving as an out-and-out striker, and the reintroduction of Rodrigo brought this into sharp relief as the pair, on occasion, found themselves occupying the same space, asking for the same balls.
As a unit, the attack looked unsettled and, midway through the first half the Spaniard looked briefly vexed when Harrison put a cross into the six-yard box as he was waiting on the penalty spot. Rodrigo didn’t relent in the face of disorder; he showed the winger a thumbs up and was soon away to ask for the throw that followed.
Generally, his efforts to get on the ball were commendable, but Rodrigo’s contribution faded toward the end of the first half. Getting back into position looked a slog and, as the interval neared, Rodrigo’s sprinting requests for the ball turned into flat-footed speed-walking.
Rodrigo got his first sight of goal in the 35th minute when, after gesturing with frustration about not receiving the ball on the inside, the 30-year-old ran up the wing where Harrison played him into space. With Joe Willock looking leggy, the penalty box was there for the taking, but a heavy touch betrayed Rodrigo’s tiredness and sent the ball too close to the Toon goal, where Lascelle blocked his shot.
Moments later, with James nowhere to be seen after the Welshman matched Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin’s pace to prevent him from claiming a long ball back in the Whites box, the way was paved for Rodrigo to lead the line as Klich lifted his head to incite a counter-attack. But Rodrigo didn’t step onside in time to ask for it, and it was Raphinha, instead, that the Pole sought.
With the scoreline goalless as the game entered its final quarter, both teams dialled up the pressure, which played into Rodrigo’s hands as space opened up in the centre of the pitch. In the 73rd minute, he received on a pass from Robin Koch just inside Newcastle’s half and charged goalward. Ignoring the pleas of substitute Tyler Roberts to play him through, Rodrigo preferred to knock it onto his left foot and fire from 20-yards, but his looping effort was easily caught by Dubravka.
With Leeds desperate to equalise in the final ten minutes, Rodrigo took a shot from outside the box. The decision to make the attempt - which flew far beyond the Newcastle goal - when no less than six of his teammates were waiting in the area seemed the wrong one.
The attacker’s afternoon was well summarised when, as Willock went down injured with the game’s end rapidly approaching, Rodrigo booted the ball high into the East Stand.
For all that didn’t quite stack up with his performance, you couldn’t fault the attacker’s work ethic, and with luck, Saturday’s re-introduction will have re-armed him with the resources needed to deliver on his good intentions during his next outing.
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