Leeds United have signed former Real Madrid academy striker Rodrigo Moreno from Valencia. With just 38 goals in 172 La Liga appearances, some are sceptical as to whether the Spain international will be prolific enough for Leeds in the Premier League.
It is worth remembering, though, that Rodrigo was on the verge of signing for Atletico Madrid for a reported fee of £54 million last summer, has been one of the most consistent players in the Spanish top flight, and has Champions League pedigree. That the Elland Road outfit have acquired him for a mere £27 million could make him one of the coups of the transfer window thus far.
Under Marcelino and later Albert Celades, Rodrigo played up front in a 4-4-2, usually alongside a more physically imposing striker such as Simone Zaza or Maximiliano Gomez. In this system, Valencia were at their best in transition, winning the ball back from a compact defensive shape before ruthlessly hitting teams on the counter.
Rodrigo was crucial to allowing this style to flourish. His ability to receive the ball with his back to goal, control it quickly, turn, and drive into space was essential for Valencia’s ability to instigate rapid counter-attacks. His speed, decision-making, and weight of final ball enabled him to maximize Valencia’s counter-attacking opportunities.
Aside from his ability on the counter, Rodrigo’s main strength is his creativity. Rather than leading the line as a traditional number nine, he prefers to drop off or drift wide to link play. His seven La Liga assists and one key pass per 90 aren’t especially eye-catching, but his expected assists per 90 of 0.22 places him in the 90th percentile for strikers in Europe’s top five leagues with ten or more starts, while his 1.24 passes into the final third per 90 puts him in the 88th percentile compared to the same group. He is a genuinely superb creative presence.
When dropping off centrally, Rodrigo acts as the focal point for attacking moves, receiving the ball from midfield before finding another attacker or carrying the ball forwards himself. If he moves to the right, he links with the right-back and right-winger to make passing triangles and create space for the fullback or winger to cross.
The former Bolton loanee excels at switching the play, cutting inside onto his stronger left foot to change the angle of attack before moving into the box to try and profit from crosses. The multitude of ways Rodrigo can influence the construction of attacks has made him vital to Valencia’s attacking productivity.
In terms of goal-scoring, Rodrigo is technically and physically capable of converting chances from a variety of situations such as headers, volleys, shots outside the box, and balls over the top. Most of his goals, though, are tap-ins from cutbacks. While seemingly unremarkable, his ability to suddenly appear ahead of opposition defenders to convert these chances is a reflection of his excellent timing, movement, and positioning.
— Leeds United (@LUFC) August 29, 2020
The 29-year-old is also adept at finding space in between centre-backs or between a centre halve and his near-side fullback. Without these qualities, he would not be able to arrive in areas where he can put away the tap-in in the first place.
While Rodrigo’s skillset is somewhat unconventional for a centre-forward, he is the ideal player to play up front for Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa, who mandates an extreme amount of rotation and positional fluidity in his forward line, wants strikers who can drop off, make intelligent runs, and link play rather than act as pure goal-scorers. It’s why he favoured using Patrick Bamford in the Championship last season despite Eddie Nketiah scoring at a better rate.
Rodrigo will fit this role superbly. His predilection to drift to the right and switch the play is a ploy that Leeds use frequently, and having another player who can do this will be useful for Bielsa. His dropping off and excellent passing will allow players like Jack Harrison and Helder Costa to get a higher volume and quality of chances, something they will need in order to maintain their goal-scoring form in the Premier League.
— Leeds United (@LUFC) August 29, 2020
Rodrigo also works extremely hard out of possession and should be able to adapt to Leeds’ high-pressing style of football. He also gives Bielsa, a proponent of intense opposition analysis, more options to alter his forward line to exploit specific opposition weaknesses. He could play Rodrigo off of Bamford as a second striker or play him as a right-winger as he does for Spain.
Perhaps most useful for the newly promoted side, though, will be the Spaniard’s efficiency in transition. Given that Leeds will have to spend more time out of possession in the top flight, Rodrigo’s decision-making, pace, and ball-carrying will ensure that the Whites are economical on the counter and can make the most of their opportunities.
He will also be more clinical than Bamford, who missed 33 big chances last season in comparison to Rodrigo’s nine. This isn’t to say Bamford is a bad player, his selfless work in build-up play and off-the-ball is vital to how Leeds operate. Rodrigo, though, could offer the same all-round contribution whilst also being more reliable in front of goal.
Bamford will likely start the season up front, as Rodrigo will need to become familiar with Bielsa’s complex tactical approach and fitness demands. He may also take time to adapt to the Premier League, even if he did spend a brief spell at the Reebok Stadium as a youngster. Above all, he will likely not score many goals. While he did score 16 league goals during the 2017/18 season in La Liga, he tends to hover around the double-digit mark without breaking it. Similar to Bamford, he may be criticized for his lack of goal-scoring output.
Such criticism is misplaced, however, and fails to recognize Rodrigo’s style of play and Bielsa’s demands of a striker. The 29-year-old’s all-round ability is what will make him indispensable for Leeds this season, and while that may not translate to high goal-scoring tally, it will allow the entire team to perform to their maximum ability. Rodrigo is a smart signing for Leeds United and will make them an even more enjoyable and exciting team to watch this season.