Leeds United's Rodrigo opens up on Marcelo Bielsa sacking, Elland Road future and Jesse Marsch

Leeds United forward Rodrigo talks exclusively to the YEP about Marcelo Bielsa's sacking, Jesse Marsch's leadership council and his own Elland Road future.

By Graham Smyth
Friday, 25th March 2022, 4:40 pm

The sun is out, Rodrigo has just finished training and the form is good.

That's in every sense. He played well in the last two games, reinforcing the point new head coach Jesse Marsch has made about the forward's importance. He scored huge goals in each of those games, celebrating the first with a mass huddle he initiated and the second with a mass of bodies he dived into, in the Molineux away end. He's fit again after months of pain and discomfort and as the team picture he posted after the win at Wolves showed, he's in incredible shape.

This season has been a struggle in every sense. For the team wins have been hard to come by, goals have flown in at the wrong end at an alarming rate and the proximity to the drop zone cost them their head coach Marcelo Bielsa. For Rodrigo, bi-lateral heel pain reduced his ability to contribute, even though he played, and he's hit the net just five times.

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There's a very real sense though that the club's record signing might be emerging from under a cloud and shining at just the right time.

"I'm feeling very good, especially after those two wins, big wins which were very important for us," he tells the YEP.

"I'm very happy for the team and the new coach and for everyone, all the fans as well. We just had three days off - we should have trained Saturday but of course after the [Wolves] win, everyone was very emotional and he gave us an extra day off, so we came back Tuesday to start training again. It was a good time to rest and begin the week with energy and motivation."

No one at Leeds can pretend that all is sweetness and light. The club's league position is still too close to the relegation zone for any real comfort and the loss of Bielsa was an emotional one, it grieved the fanbase and many are still struggling to shake off it off.

GOOD FORM - Leeds United's record signing Rodrigo has played a big part in their last two victories and sees himself staying at Elland Road as the Jesse Marsch era begins. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

As we speak, the mourning has lasted 25 days and will go far beyond 40 for those who fell in love with his football, principles and personality.

For the players, who said goodbye to one head coach on a Monday morning and hello to their new boss a matter of a few hours later, life had to go on swiftly.

"In football when these kinds of things happen it's not a good moment," says Rodrigo.

"No one is happy because the club needs to change or decides to change the manager. Marcelo gave great moments for the club, I think everyone appreciated and recognised that he was very important for the last few seasons here but it's part of football. It's part of our job, these kinds of things happen, I've already had to manage these situations in my career a lot of times in Spain and Portugal. We just need to look forward, keep positive, try to help like we have with the new manager, try to absorb his new mentality, way of play, style and methodology and I think everyone is happy because he's working well with his staff and the results are there. That's very important as well."

EMOTIONAL MOMENT - Rodrigo ran onto the Elland Road pitch to embrace friend and Leeds United team-mate Raphinha, as Jack Harrison joined the celebrations after beating Norwich City. Pic: Tony Johnson

The new man, Jesse Marsch, quickly identified a need to wrap an arm around certain shoulders. Rodrigo's was one of them.

Marsch felt the Spaniard was the best representative of the squad's foreign players and added him to a new 'leadership council' alongside Patrick Bamford, Kalvin Phillips and the usual suspects.

Given the forward's readiness to take on a leadership role - inviting the entire team out for his birthday with the head coach's blessing, showing fight on the pitch and getting stuck into team-mates on the pitch when something needs to be said - Marsch's move feels like the right one.

"For me of course it's good, it's special but it's nothing out of the ordinary," says Rodrigo, who still defers to those most closely identified with dressing room control.

"I'm an experienced player, I've already had a lot of experiences in my career, I was captain at Valencia as well. It's true I can participate there but the big leaders of the group are clearly Coops, Stuey and Luke. Those three players are the most important players in the group because they are positive leaders, they understand the club, they have a special relationship with the club. They grew up a lot in their careers with Leeds. I'm happy to participate, trying to learn as well from them because they're great leaders. I've played with great leaders and I can say they are. I just try to help like I always did since I arrived here."

Marsch's introduction appeared to lift Leeds a little at Leicester in his first game, albeit without securing a point at the King Power. What followed was a retrograde step with a 3-0 beating by Aston Villa in a game that saw Rodrigo depart at the interval.

The head coach sat down for a heart-to-heart with the Spanish international and so far the results of that chat, as evidenced against Norwich and Wolves, have been spectacular.

"Villa was a tough game for us," Rodrigo tells the YEP.

"After we changed manager the first game against Leicester was an amazing game, especially because we came from really bad results. Villa was a difficult moment because maybe we came back to that bad feeling. He changed me at half-time, trying to solve the situation and [after] we just spoke about football, his style, about the trust that he wants me to have in his way of playing, we talked about some positional details, individually and collectively.

"I think we just tried to share some perceptions of the play to try to help the team, to help me and to improve the performance of everyone. I think that's the way things should be done because this feedback from coach to players and players to coach is sometimes important. He will take the decision he feels he has to, he's the manager and we all respect that but it was a very good conversation. It was important for me, for my state of mind and my confidence. I'm really happy that after this, not just me, the whole team had two amazing performances and two amazing results against Norwich and Wolves."

At the outset of what Leeds hope will be a bright new dawn, the biggest change on the pitch is the move away from man-to-man marking and a narrower formation. It hasn't solved their defensive issues entirely but they have created plenty of chances and, most importantly, won twice.

Rodrigo, asked about his individual role in the new system, chooses instead to talk about the collective benefits.

"It's not just my role, with Marcelo we played a different style, this man v man marking and of course we didn't have a kind of position in the field because we were always trying to search for our man and follow him everywhere. Now I think the team is playing a completely different way, we have better positions on the field, doing the zonal marking that almost every team in the world does.

"I think we can manage our efforts better, save energy for the important moments. It doesn't matter if it's defending or attacking. I think the collective idea is getting better, it's improving the group. That's the most important part because we're playing a collective sport, not an individual sport. It doesn't matter if one player plays good if the other 10 play bad because you have more chance to lose the game. It's not just my role or the way I'm playing now, it's that the whole team and the whole idea is completely different. I think the last two games it was working well."

Beating Norwich and Wolves with late goals in high drama was 'amazing, amazing, amazing' in Rodrigo's words and gave the team not just six vital points but a feeling that cannot be replicated. The final whistle in the first win, at Elland Road, was a moment of huge emotion that sent Raphinha to his knees.

"I think everyone was very emotional," says Rodrigo.

"We're very committed with the club and the fans, we feel the club as an important part of our lives. Football players are natural competitors, everyone here is working to win, we're not working here to make jokes or to have fun. We have to have fun as well but we're here to win and when you're in the moment of not achieving wins, it's a difficult moment. That's why after that win, especially in the last second almost, it was very emotional for me and for Rapha. I have a very close relationship with him. It was a very important moment for every one of us."

The final whistle at Wolves was just as important, if not more so because it heralded such an unexpected result and created a little breathing room. The space that now exists between Leeds and the drop zone, and an international break, have allowed minds to wander towards the future, to Marsch's first summer transfer window and beyond.

At 31 Rodrigo is long enough in the tooth to know that nothing is ever certain but he's certain that he wants to stay in West Yorkshire.

A more pressing matter for him and his team-mates is the block of eight fixtures that will decide Leeds United's Premier League fate. One of his most difficult outings of the season came at Southampton, Leeds' next opponents. Their visit to Elland Road is a chance not only to replace that memory with a better one but to keep the clouds at bay and prove that the last two results were not a false dawn.

"The future you never know but my idea is to stay here," he says.

"I'm really happy with the club, my family are really happy living here in England, my daughter and my wife. I feel an important part of this club, my team-mates made me feel like this, everyone who works for the club. I think I've created a really good relationship with everyone here. You never know what's going to happen. Of course when the summer comes everyone is going away, everyone is coming in, we don't have games so we have to keep speaking about something and I understand that's part of football as well, I accept this, but if you're asking me - I'm really happy here.

"I just want to finish the season well, that's the most important part. Everyone is focused on that, no one is thinking about what's going to happen in the summer or even in two weeks. We're just thinking about Southampton now and finishing the season well."