'They are like animals—one comes at you, then another.'

The original version of this article first appeared on theguardian.com

Rodrigo Hernandez is a deep midfielder. “You can pretend a couple of times, play a role a bit, but in the end you are what you are,” the way he tells it, player and person are inseparable and everything makes sense. Listening to him talk a little like he plays—intelligently, thoughtfully, calmly—it is as if there is an inevitability about it all, an inescapable logic; like this is just what he is and where he was always going to be, even if his story need not have brought him here, to his place: The middle of a football pitch.

Rodri sits on a bench on the grass at Spain’s Las Rozas training camp, tracing his journey. He hasn’t come far—he was raised near here to the north-west of Madrid and began playing just down the road—but he has come a long way, learning en route. He describes himself as a sponge, soaking it all up, from Madrid to Villarreal and back via a university degree he’s still doing and on to Manchester, where he became the most expensive player in City’s history.

Five times he mentions some of his “bests”—the best decision he took, the best years of his life, the best atmosphere, best experience, even his best friends—and none have anything to do with football. Playing professionally wasn’t his grand plan, yet looking back it feels mapped out and even the things that have nothing to do with football ended up having everything to do with becoming the footballer Pep Guardiola most wanted. With being him.

“Very few players are one thing on the pitch and another completely different off it; personality translates,” he says. “He even looks like a midfielder,” his manager says. When Rodri signed, Guardiola said he would be “amazing”, highlighting an abnormal normality: “He doesn’t have tattoos or earrings. And his hair… he looks like a holding midfielder; a holding midfielder must be like this.” Rodri glances at his arms, and smiles. “If you like tattoos, perfect. But I’m scared. I think: ‘At 60, I’m going to have this…?’”

“I think what Pep meant,” Rodri says, “is that the holding midfielder, more than anyone else, has to maintain order, keep a cool head, and maybe that also means being the most ‘normal’. Think of those top players—Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Xavi—they tend to be the ‘plain’ ones. You can choose between doing what’s best for the team or what showcases what you can do. Forwards get the spotlight, which is understandable because the hardest thing is scoring goals, but there’s work behind that which has to be done. Those players understood. Everything I do for the team is good for me. I’m like that off the pitch.”

“Everyone develops their own characteristics, but the best players are the most intelligent. The ones that think quickly and clearly have an advantage. Spain might not have always had the most skilful players, virtuosos, but they had the most intelligent.”

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I think what Pep Guardiola meant is that the holding midfielder, more than anyone else, has to maintain order, keep a cool head, and maybe that also means being the most 'normal'.

Think of those top holding players—Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets—they tend to be the 'plain' ones. I'm like that too."

– Rodrigo Hernandez on Pep Guardiola's comment that he "looks like a holding midfielder"

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With Rodri, that’s nature and nurture. The son of an engineer and a businesswoman, he went to an international school, speaks excellent English and joined Atlético at 11. “Their training ground was near and I could get there by bus,” he says simply. Some days, his coach would see him at the stop and give him a lift. En route, they would dissect the game. “That’s not normal in a boy his age,” Fran Alcoy recalled; Rodri admitted he was more interested in understanding the game than just enjoying it.

“Fran showed me how to play. He was the first to put me in this position and say: ‘This is how to play this role.’ I was only 12, but at that age you really take things on board. I’d always enjoyed watching football and it’s true I found it easy to understand, to read the game; when a team was successful, I could see why, how they created space. ‘This player’s going to do this, that player will do that.’ It’s not easy to translate that to the pitch but that vision of how a holding midfielder should play, interpret the game, was something I had from a young age. Fran made it easy for me.”

Your parents, too? “Well, my dad was a football fan,” Rodri says, laughing, “but he’d tell me to keep the ball more, dribble more, shoot more, be a bit greedier. And I’d be like: ‘Dad, that’s not my role’. He urged me to get forward because the fun part is scoring, but I’d say: ‘I like doing this; it’s what I’m good at.’ My parents’ role was vital: they kept things in perspective, didn’t let me get wound up or obsessed, and I take that tranquility on to the pitch. The plan was always to study, too.”

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I was the lame guy who never go for the after-hours stuff. People didn't understand, then when I started playing for Villarreal first team they began to.

Football at this level is intense and has no room for mistakes, you need to clear your head occasionally. For me my studies are both a personal challenge and a healthy distraction."

– Rodrigo Hernandez juggled both football and university when he made his La Liga debut

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Right up to the day he made his debut, and beyond. Released by Atletico, Rodri joined Villarreal. He also enrolled at university, reading business in Castellon, and moved into a hall of residence. “The best years of my life so far,” he says. “My parents suggested going into halls and it was brilliant. There’s a good, happy atmosphere, people your age from all over. I met my girlfriend there. One of the best experiences I’ve had.”

The student life, eh? Rodri laughs. “The best atmosphere in the world! No, no. I’d go for dinner and a drink but obviously not the after-hours stuff. I was the lame guy who never did anything, haha. People didn’t understand; then when I started playing for the [Villarreal] first team they began to. Some didn’t even know, then they’d see me play.” First‑team football didn’t mean shelving the books. “It’s a personal challenge now more than anything, the time invested. I want the pride of finishing. It’s harder because of the distance. I have to go back for exams.

“Obviously, football takes over, but studying is a healthy distraction. You’re dedicated to football 24 hours, but you need to clear your head occasionally: it’s intense and, particularly at this level, you can’t afford mistakes. If you think continually about a defeat, if you don’t occupy your mind with anything else, you might pay for it. It’s good to be informed too: we live in a bubble, but my best friends are mostly from school and university and it’s good to put yourself in [other people’s] skin. The problem is in football one day you’re here, the next day you’re far away. It’s more difficult to maintain relationships, but I try.”

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People said, 'You can rest after Diego Simeone. Bloody hell, not at all."

– Rodrigo Hernandez admits to his initial shock at Premier League's intensity

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He’s even further away now. The decision to leave Villarreal and join Atletico, a club with a footballing identity seemingly opposed to his was deliberate: he wanted to learn from Diego Simeone, developing qualities he lacked, and his adaptability was summed up in a stat: the player who completed the most passes became the player who completed the most tackles. He was a hybrid; a classic positional midfielder built for the modern game. He was ready for City, seemingly the perfect fit.

But, Rodri admits, England is totally different. He says he has never quite had this role where he is often alone, the other midfielders way ahead of him. Elbows fly, there isn’t a second to think, the rhythm is higher, the refereeing different, and he finishes games “dead”, he admits. “People said: ‘You can rest [after Simeone]’. Bloody hell, not at all.”

And then there are the results. “It’s pointless beating Watford 8-0 then losing the next game,” he says, and especially with Liverpool reducing the margin for error to the minimum. “I touched down to find one of the best teams I’ve seen in recent years,” Rodri says. “Liverpool get seen as a counterattacking team, but they dominate, score from set plays, the attacking mechanisms are well-worked, they have variety. Klopp’s teams are tough, physical. They come at you like animals. They’re like a knife: One comes at you, then another. But every team has their bad moment and we have to be there when it happens.”

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Jurgen Klopp's teams come at you like animals.

They're like a knife—one comes at you, then another. But every team has their bad moment and we have to be there when it happens."

– Rodrigo Hernandez on Liverpool's unbeaten streak

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“Nobody likes to lose, still less with our demands and Guardiola isn’t going to settle for defeat but he knows how to keep calm and lift the group, not ‘killing’ the team. We know the situation we’re in: we’ve had players out, we’ve played a lot of games and maybe that’s taking its toll. He’ll work on what we have to improve. We’re better when we rob the ball in the opposition’s half; when we press, we have to deal better with counters.”

That means him, lessons still there to be learned. “We’re very offensive; we need a player who defends as well as attacks. It’s one of the most important roles in the team; it’s important to control what happens when attacks end, but it’s not just without the ball. If you take the initiative, you’re constantly moving. One of the things I have to improve is having the patience to wait for the right moment against teams that defend deep and we can’t penetrate. And when you lose the ball, you have to leap like mad to get it back so we can keep attacking, keep attacking, keep attacking because this team never stops.”

It is some responsibility. “Yeah, but that’s my role. It’s why I came.” It’s also who he is.

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