When Leeds United secured the £27 million club-record signature of Rodrigo during the summer, many saw him as a direct replacement for Patrick Bamford.
With Bamford managing just 16 goals in 45 Championship appearances last season, there were doubts over whether he could lead the line for Marcelo Bielsa’s side in the Premier League and the Spain international looked like a clear upgrade.
At the time, The Athletic’s Phil Hay told the Ornstein and Chapman podcast that the intention was for him to play as the central striker.
“They were drawn into a discussion with Rodrigo about a month ago but no one really thought it was going to happen,” he said following his arrival.
“They see him as a very, very good number nine who, if needed, can play elsewhere. I think they will feel deep down that, in terms of finishing, he’s a marked improvement on Bamford.”
However, things have not quite played out as expected for two reasons.
Firstly, not many fans would have quite expected Bamford to play as well as he has so far this season. From six starts, the former Chelsea man has six goals and an assist, with his hat-trick against Aston Villa even prompting talk of an England call-up. As was evident last season, Bielsa also likes a lot of things that Bamford brings to the team, including his selflessness, hard work off the ball and ability to hold the ball up.
The second reason has been Rodrigo’s ability to adapt to a new role.
With Mateusz Klich and Pablo Hernandez utilised as the central attacking midfielders in Leeds’ 4-1-4-1 formation on the opening day of the season against Liverpool, the Whites played well and nearly got a result against the champions.
However, Bielsa was clearly keen to find a role for Rodrigo and swapped him into that central attacking midfield role that had been occupied by Hernandez for the first home game of the season against Fulham. At first it did not work though and he was too profligate in possession, with the Spaniard replaced by Tyler Roberts at half-time. In 45 minutes, he completed just 12 passes and failed to create for his teammates.
The Argentine tactician persisted though and Rodrigo was much improved in the next game against Sheffield United off the bench. As you can see below, he began taking up improved positions between the lines.
He was much more involved as a result, taking 31 touches in total and creating three shooting opportunities for himself. He was deployed in this same attacking midfield role off the bench against Manchester City, and used his strikers instincts to grab his first Leeds goal after Ederson failed to clear a corner. His general play was excellent too, with Spaniard delivering two key passes and completing one dribble in just 35 minutes on the field.
Playing from his new position, Rodrigo is also given license to make runs into the box and move beyond Bamford. See above how he makes a late dart into the area and forces a great save from Ederson.
The 29-year-old’s performance against City seems to have been a turning point and he has started both of Leeds’ league matches since then in the attacking midfield position. Against Villa, Bielsa even made a tweak that saw him operate more as a lone number 10, as Leeds adapted to the absence of usual holding man Kalvin Phillips.
We are only six games into the season, but the Argentine looks to have quickly understood the best way to maximise his two attackers. At this point, Bamford and Rodrigo are leading the side in terms of expected goals and assists generated, with 0.75 and 0.65 per 90 respectively (via FBRef).
He may not have bought Rodrigo with this intention, but it appears as though he has struck a nice balance.