By Alan Feehely.
The actor Matthew McConaughey was once asked if he felt constrained by his new station in life.
After years as a highly eligible bachelor travelling all over the world, he had finally settled down with a Brazilian woman, Camila Alves, married and built a family.
“No,” he replied. “I soon learned that the stronger my roots were and the more settled I was at home, the higher I could fly once I was out in the world.”
Real Betis are living a similar experience. The recent 3-0 reverse at the hands of Getafe aside, they appear to be a far stronger and more balanced outfit than they were during last year’s dismal campaign.
A large part of this is because of Manuel Pellegrini, the experienced Chilean coach now in charge of first-team affairs, but of paramount importance alongside him is the form of Guido Rodríguez.
The Argentine defensive midfielder joined the club last January, and now, after settling into European football, is beginning to show the form that made him indispensable to Club América in Mexico.
Sitting in a double-pivot with William Carvalho, the pair have given Betis a defensive solidity that has enabled their considerable attacking talents in the final third to thrive.
Rodríguez has been in Spain for less than a year but has already shown signs that he’s the defensive midfielder Betis have been in dire need of for some time. He’s averaged 42.2 completed passes per game, with a success rate of 85.7%, as well as 2.09 tackles, 19 pressures, 1.15 successful dribbles and 39.3 carries.
If you compare him with Fernando Reges, the Brazilian pivote for Betis’ fierce rivals Sevilla, you’ll find a remarkable similarity.
Both rate highly in successful interceptions, tackles won, and ball retention.
The statistics point to Rodríguez as a classic pivote — a footballer physically mobile and positionally intelligent, able to sniff out attacks before they turn into dangerous situations and sensible enough to retain possession of the football and build attacks from deep.
At 26, Rodríguez is not the typical Argentine footballer that arrives in Europe barely out of nappies. His route to the elite has been somewhat circuitous, but in a manner that will only benefit his development as a footballer and a person.
Rodríguez was born in Sáenz Peña, a town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in Argentina, in the spring of 1994.
“Rodríguez came through the River Plate academy and got a few games here and there, but it was only when he went on loan to Defensa y Justicia that he was able to show what he could do,” explained South American football expert Tom Robinson.
“Defensa are a small club but they are pretty well-run. They give progressive, attack-minded coaches a chance and use the loan system really well. They always have a host of good loanees from the big Buenos Aires clubs or pick up clever free transfers.
“At the time they had Ariel Holan — who would go on to do very well at Independiente and win a Sudamericana — in charge, and he got Rodríguez in as a deep-lying midfielder. He played very well there and then Club Tijuana swooped in and took him from River, as they had a strong team and didn’t really have a spot for him.”
The move north to Baja California in Mexico turned out to be a game-changer regarding the development of his budding career. Just a year after joining Tijuana for €1.75m he joined América, in the nation’s capital, for €6.28m.
“At Tijuana it was pretty obvious from early on that he was a player that could play on a bigger stage,” explained Mexico City-based journalist Tom Marshall.
“Moving from Tijuana to América is massive in Liga MX terms in that it brings a lot of added pressure, but Rodríguez seemed to thrive playing at the Estadio Azteca under the spotlight of arguably Mexico’s biggest club.
“For me, he became one of the best players in the league and it was clear that at some point European clubs would become seriously interested, especially when the Argentine national team came calling.
“América still misses him. Rodríguez is a pretty traditional holding midfielder, good at breaking up opposition attacks and shielding the defence while using the ball smartly in possession. He also definitely enjoys the physical side of the game.”
Rodríguez spent just under three years in Mexico City before beginning to assess his options outside of Latin America. As Marshall alluded to, he made his Argentina debut the month before he sealed his move to América and felt that he deserved to test himself at the highest level.
A deal with Betis was close in the summer of 2019, but didn’t materialise. That following January, however, with just six months left on his contract, he got his move, joining Betis in a deal worth €4.5m.
“The central element of this Betis team is Rodríguez,” opined Seville-based journalist Javier Macías.
“A pivote that’s closer to a broom than a footballer, he sweeps up everything and ensures that nothing happens in the space behind him. He’s the garbage truck that cleans the field and leaves the bins full.
“His physicality enables him to cover both sides of the pitch, stealing the ball all over, and with each performance his distribution is becoming better and more effective.”
“The role of Rodríguez at Betis is fundamental,” agrees Seville-based journalist Enrique Roldán. “The team has been needing a player like him since Quique Setién’s first year.
“Javi García was signed with the idea of playing in that position, but he didn’t manage to produce what was expected of him. Carvalho arrived the following year, and given García’s drop in form he started playing as a five, but it was soon clear that this wasn’t his position.
“He didn’t defend well and he couldn’t join the attack without abandoning the defence. That, alongside generally poor organisation from the back five, was where a lot of the defensive problems came from that were so evident in Setién’s second year and with Rubi.
“The arrival of Guido covered that weakness, but not immediately. He arrived in winter and needed time to adjust to the team and get up to speed. Quarantine, in fact, seemed to suit him well, as he returned from the break one of the fittest players in the squad.
“The problem, however, was that the team was practically broken. The coach was unable to install any collective identity, and all that anyone was waiting for was the season to end.
“This year looks different. Guido continues to play with the commitment and quality he had begun to show after the break, and now, with a team made much more cohesive by Pellegrini, his role is more noticeable.
“He has shown that with a defensive midfielder like him you don’t need five across the back – a strong line of four with him protecting it enables the team to be stronger offensively.
“Also, by sitting in that position he enables William to be freed of some defensive responsibility and join the attack, either by driving forward, picking a positive pass or breaking into the area and scoring, as he has done twice already this season.”
Betis have begun the new campaign well, beating Deportivo Alavés and Real Valladolid before narrowly losing to reigning champions Real Madrid.
The aforementioned 3-0 beating at the hands of an efficient and ruthless Getafe side will have quenched the excitement of the Betis support somewhat, but virtually all of them would agree that the team is in better shape this season than last.
A large part of this will be the form of Rodríguez — if he can build upon his initially promising partnership in the heart of midfield with Carvalho, we may be about to see the best of the Argentine.
After a long and winding road, he’s now competing in Europe with the best — let’s see how high he can fly.