Marcelo Bielsa lays down challenge to everyone at Leeds United to unlock 'richness' of vital signing
Leeds United were beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 when the most valuable trio of substitutes in recent Elland Road history ran down the touchline to warm up.
Rodrigo, the £27m man and club-record signing, was all smiles with Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha, whose transfer values would undoubtedly water the eyes of any interested onlookers.
The going rate for a 25-year-old international midfield destroyer with real passing ability or a 24-year-old lightning-quick winger with consistent end product to match the tricks and flicks is anyone’s guess in these Covid-impacted financial times but, with contracts until 2024, neither would come cheap.
The trio’s appearance by the cornerflag where John Charles’ stand meets Don Revie’s was a sight for sore eyes, given their importance to Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, and would have brought the house down, had supporters packed those stands.
Were you to rank them in terms of value to the team, Phillips might well come first because, as the majority of results without him have shown, he’s more than difficult to replace.
His positional sense, defensive muscle, canny knack of getting his body in exactly the right place and shape to halt attackers and the work he puts in to get Leeds moving up the pitch have helped him perfect the defensive midfield role in a way others have struggled in his absence.
For entertainment value, Raphinha would take the honours, the turn that left Gary Cahill discombobulated just one of many highlight-reel moments of Brazilian flair this season.
The buzz he will generate in a packed Elland Road will be enough to power the National Grid.
Rodrigo, however, has not been able to show enough of what he can do to top any lists, just yet. A lack of game time makes it difficult to know exactly were he will make his home in this team when he’s fully fit. The chief concern for Bielsa does not appear to be whether the Spanish international is a centre-forward or a No 10, but what he and everyone else at Leeds can do to get the best out of Rodrigo.
Having brought him on to replace Patrick Bamford in the lone striker role against Spurs and been rewarded with a fine goal and a sharper performance than we’ve seen in some time, Bielsa explained that, despite starting just a dozen Premier League games since his move from Valencia, Rodrigo is a player possessing something Leeds must unlock. The onus, according to the Argentine, is very much on Leeds.
“Rodrigo is a vital player for us,” he said. “The obligation of all of us who are part of this group is to manage to get him to be able to do everything he’s capable of doing.
“After the time he spent without playing, he played half an hour against Brighton, 45 minutes with the Under-23s and he came on in the game today. After each appearance he’s played better than he had in the previous game.
“It’s important we manage to see the richness he has, football wise. He’s a player who has solutions to the problems of the game without anyone indicating them to him.”
The game’s problems, for Rodrigo, have mostly been fitness related. He was starting to adapt to the demands of a new division and the most intense brand of football in that division, showcasing the vision, skill and movement Leeds paid all that money for in the second half of the 3-0 October win against Aston Villa, when Covid-19 struck.
He completed three 90-minute outings in the months leading to January 31, when his groin went against Leicester City and is yet to play more than 44 minutes in a game ever since.
He’s fit again now and went some way towards proving his head coach’s assertion that he can still showcase his ability this season, let alone next season, with a promising cameo at home to Spurs.
From chasing Harry Kane into the Leeds half without giving away one of the silly free-kicks he’s been guilty of conceding in the past, to working his way back to the right-back position and still managing to appear in the box seconds later to give Raphinha a target to hit, Rodrigo looked fresher.
He dropped deep to pick up the ball and link up with Jack Harrison, his movement keeping him available for a pass amongst a clutch of visiting defenders as Leeds built an attack. Had Mateusz Klich opted to pass instead of shoot, Rodrigo was in on Hugo Lloris to perhaps show his richness.
It did emerge a minute later, however, when he stayed onside, unmarked and calm to drill Raphinha’s pass into the net for his fourth of the season.
There was a good defensive header, a smart one-two to escape pressure and move Leeds into dangerous space, some dribbling skill that almost unlocked the Spurs backline, an important tackle won around halfway and very nearly an assist, Lloris saving Stuart Dallas’ shot when Rodrigo had teed up the Ulsterman. What was noticeable, even if Tottenham were stretched and chasing a goal, was that Rodrigo was always an option, always in space and always on the move.
If Leeds can keep him fit, involved and find him with the right passes, this was a glimpse of what he can do for Leeds.
Bringing on a record signing to see out a game they were already winning, against a 'big six' club no less, was a luxury on Saturday but with the financial investment ploughed into this particular signing, settling for mere cameos would be a luxury Leeds cannot afford. Rodrigo needs more than this, too, if he is to maintain his status as a player Spain call upon with regularity.
You get out what you put in and there is a lot more to get out of the attacker. Whatever Bielsa, his staff and players can put in, whether that be the physical preparatory work to ensure he is in prime condition to compete, the information he needs to best understand his role in the team or simply the right pass made at the right time to allow him to do his thing, it will all be worth it if he then proves he was indeed worth £27m.