Rodrigo Hernández, or Rodri, as the Villarreal fanbase affectionately refer to him as, is one of the most promising midfielders in Spanish football.
With Spain’s U-21 team, Rodri has gradually shored up the midfield, and for Villarreal, he is now considered the natural heir to Bruno Soriano’s throne, the idol and captain in the Estadio de la Cerámica (El Madrigal).
At just 21 years old, Rodri is a defensive midfielder skilled in winning possession and starting counter-attacks, be it with short or long passes. His fantastic positioning and physique cancel out his slowness, and he uses his height to his advantage in both winning headers and scoring goals. Furthermore, he uses his body well in shielding the ball and maintaining possession. But as impressive as he is physically, it’s his technique that has won plaudits; he’s ambidextrous and has a great long shot on him.
Born in Madrid, Rodri started in Atlético de Madrid’s youth system as one of the pearls of the Rojiblanco academy, but as the years passed, he lost momentum, felt out of favor with coaches, and according to management, stopped growing–he now stands 190 cm.
At 17, Rodri traded Castilia for Castellón, in hopes of playing more at the youth level. After a year in the youth team where they won the league, he was the second to make the move up to Villarreal’s Juvenil team, becoming a diamond in the rough in the Miralcamp. This same year, Rodri won La Liga de División de Honor and the Copa Campeones–awarded to the best youth team in Spain–as well as reaching the semifinals of the Copa Del Rey Juvenil. In addition, he earned some valuable game-time with the B team in Spain’s third division.
The next season (2015-16), he finally made the step up to Villarreal B, and immediately became a key piece in the midfield, helping them finish second in Group 3 of the Segunda División B, reaching the promotion playoffs before being eliminated in the penultimate round by Espanyol B.
Aside from training with the first team, he also debuted for them in a Copa Del Rey match against Huesca in El Madrigal, starting in a 2-0 win. His La Liga debut was made this very season, entering in the 71st minute as Villarreal trailed Rayo Vallecano 2-1.
Rodri’s breakthrough performance came on the final matchday, where Villarreal faced Valencia in the Mestalla. Rodri started the Valencian derby and performed admirably, helping El Submarino Amarillo win 2-0 and seal 4th place. He played 32 matches with Villarreal B and six with the first team–three in the Copa Del Rey and three in the league.
It wasn’t a surprise for Villarreal’s fans to see Rodri wear the #16 next season, confirming his ascent into the first team. The start of the season was stained by the exit of Marcelino García Toral, four days after being eliminated in the Champions League playoffs by eventual semifinalists Monaco. With a new coach, little preparation, and poor team form, Rodri was unable to gain as much playing time as expected.
Nonetheless, Fran Escribá soon realized how important Rodri is for Villarreal, and how much better he could become. In fact, local newspapers began highlighting him as the successor of Bruno Soriano, the leader of Villarreal, the man who rejected offers from big clubs when the Submarine dropped to the Segunda, who led the team back to where it belongs, and who etched his name into the club’s history.
Little by little, Rodri found his way into squad lists and line-ups. He played 23 games for the first team, eight as a starter, with 848 minutes between La Liga, Copa Del Rey, and the Europa League.
With the injury of Bruno Soriano, the man who blocked his entrance into the XI, he has played far more this season than last, establishing himself as a crucial piece in Villarreal’s midfield. He has started the first five matches of the season, forming a double pivot with Manu Trigueros.
Whether he finds form after being sidelined with a leg injury or not, Bruno Soriano doesn’t have much time left in the elite, and Rodri has proven he has what it takes to take over.
The future of Villarreal belongs to Rodrigo Hernández. He is the Yellow Submarine’s only academy graduate that knows how to do everything with ease. From winning possession to distributing from the base, it’s like men against boys when he’s on the pitch.
This is a player who rarely commits fouls and always succeeds in safeguarding the backline. It’s impossible to find a bad play of the Madrid native, even when his team lose. He is always precise, and has the ability to drive not only the midfield forward, but the entire team as well.
There’s no doubt that Rodri will be the leader and reference point for Villarreal’s midfield in the coming years–a player that not only impresses, but enchants. He now plays for La Roja’s U21 team, but there is no doubt that he can reach the first team. With Mikel Merino, Marcos Llorente, and many more challenging to be Sergio Busquets’ competitor in the national team, he’s got his work cut out for him, but if he can replace one legend, why can’t he replace another?
By: José Matas Santamería/@jmatas17
Translated by: Zach Lowy/@ZCalcio