When Rodrigo Hernandez left Atletico Madrid to join up with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City last summer some commentators in Spain said he was leaving to escape the intensity of Diego Simone.
‘People said to me: you’re going there and you will be able to rest,’ he says. ‘I’ve told them: nothing could be further from the truth.
He told Spanish reporters last week: ‘I finish games at City feeling dead’. And he reiterated the point at Spain’s training camp in Madrid this week – with relish, it should be said.
Rodri, the Spain and Manchester City midfielder, pictured at the national side’s training camp
Some suggested that Rodri was leaving Atletico Madrid to escape the intensity of manager Diego Simeone, but he says Pep Guardiola is an even tougher taskmaster at Manchester City
‘If you are constantly taking the initiative in games, as we do, then you have to be constantly moving.
‘When you lose the ball, you have to press like crazy to win it back. The physical demands are huge.’
He is focused on securing Euro 2020 qualification – he played 90 minutes in the draw with Sweden on Tuesday that sends Spain through to next summer’s tournament – but the defeat to Wolves before the international break and Saturday’s game against Crystal Palace are not to far from his mind.
‘We can’t be beating Watford 8-0 and then losing the next game: that’s pointless,’ he says with typical frankness.
Playing for Pep Guardiola in the Premier League was always going to be a test both physically and mentally.
The imposing athlete, laughably once considered a bit small as a kid at Atletico Madrid, can handle the former.
And as one of the game’s great students – in every sense of the word – he can deal with the latter too.
Rodri speaks with manager Diego Simeone during an Atletico Madrid match last year
The midfielders says that life playing under Pep Guardiola at Man City is even tougher
Rodri was talking tactics when he was 12. His first youth team coach Fran Alcoy tells the story of the schoolboy footballer he used to see waiting at the bus stop outside of Atletico Madrid’s training ground.
Alcoy would give him a lift home and the two would chat about the formation the team were playing and where on the pitch they could find a numerical superiority over the opposition depending on where they pressed – fundamental Guardiola concepts.
‘It was like talking to another coach instead of a kid,’ Alcoy has said.
‘I have great memories of him [Alcoy],’ Rodri says. ‘He was the first coach to put me in that defensive midfield position and show me how to play the role.
‘As for the way I saw football, I had always enjoyed watching the game and it’s true: I always found it quite easy, when a team was successful, to see why that was. I could see how they were creating the space.
‘I could read the game. Then of course it’s not so easy to translate that to your own performances out on the pitch.’
He did put theory into practice even if it meant ignoring his dad’s advice. ‘He was a big football fan but he always went against a lot of what I thought and did,’ Rodri laughs.
‘He would ask me to be a bit more greedy, to dribble more, to shoot more and score more goals.
Rodri takes on Joao Moutinho of Wolves during City’s loss at the Etihad two weeks ago
The Spaniard in action against Watford in City’s previous home game, which they won 8-0
With Premier League leaders Liverpool playing Manchester United this weekend, City will hope to close the current eight-point gap by winning at Crystal Palace
‘I had to say: No Papa, this is what I am good at. Time has proved me right but the role of your parents and the people who help you start off on the road is vital.
‘I know a lot of players who were very good and got left behind because they didn’t have the people to support them.’
It was Rodri’s parents that suggested he continue his education to degree level just in case the football didn’t work out.
He has no regrets about taking their advice and has almost completed his Business degree.
‘I always thought that studying would help me, both in terms of if one day I needed to have another profession, but also as a healthy distraction.
‘To be a footballer you have to be dedicated to it 24 hours a day but you have to clear your head a bit from time to time.
‘If you lose a game and you go home and think continually about the defeat and don’t occupy your mind with anything else perhaps you will pay for that in the next game you play.’
He also sees the studying as a way of staying rooted. ‘I think we live in a sort of bubble,’ he says. ‘We can forget that we are lucky enough to be doing something we really enjoy.’
Rodri fires off a shot during Spain’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Sweden last week
Rodri, seen in action during Spain’s match against Norway, has 10 caps for his country
Man City fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Saturday Crystal Palace (A)
Tuesday Atalanta (H)
Champions League group stage
October 26 Aston Villa (H)
October 29 Southampton (H)
EFL Cup fourth round
November 2 Southampton (H)
November 6 Atalanta (A)
Champions League group stage
November 10 Liverpool (A)
When he was 18-years-old at Villarreal’s youth academy he even moved into halls of residence with fellow Business undergraduates at Castellon University.
It was another attempt to keep his life as normal as possible.
‘It was one of the best decisions I have taken in my career,’ he says. ‘When you are 18 you can’t live at the club’s academy anymore so most players look for a flat with a team-mate.
‘I thought that I would give student residence a try. I was surrounded by people my own age, I met people from all over, and I met my girlfriend there too.’
Surely student nightlife was not conducive to being a healthy young footballer?
‘That’s why I say it was the best environment in the world!’ he laughs. ‘I would go out for dinner and a drink with them but obviously I didn’t do the ‘after-hours’ stuff.
‘I was the lame guy who went home early. People never understood it. Then when I started debuting in the Villarreal first team they began to understand a bit more.’
Academic intelligence is one thing. Football intelligence is what has most drawn Guardiola to Rodri. And he is as proud of using his brain on the pitch as off it.
Rodri gets stuck into the defensive duties of his position in the loss to Wolves this month
He featured in both Spain’s matches against Norway and Sweden in the recent internationals
‘The best players are the most intelligent ones,’ he says. ‘Players that know how to think and to analyze what is happening.
‘Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi are very intelligent and that helps puts them above everyone else.’
He believes the emphasis on City’s thrilling forward play can sometimes lead to an underplaying of their intelligence, especially in a defensive sense.
‘We have been characterized as the team that is constantly attacking; not allowing the other side to get out and that is a virtue.
‘But you also need to have a team that thinks quickly from the back to the front.’
‘We work tremendously hard on the defensive side of things even though people might not think so.
‘Trying to make sure the opposition’s counter-attacks don’t hurt us. Being vigilant and covering. We have to know what to do when we don’t have the ball.
‘We are better when we can rob the ball in the opposition’s half, when we press.’
He admits that dealing with counter-attacks is something that still needs to be improved on this season. And a lot of this is down to him of course.
Sportmail’s Pete Jenson interviews Rodri at Spain’s training camp this week
Rodri protests following a foul committed on Everton player Dominic Calvert-Lewin
He knows his own margin for error on the pitch is small because of the position he plays in.
And on the subject of small margin for error: City play Liverpool next month and already Jurgen Klopp’s side has an eight point advantage.
‘We have not started in the best way possible, that is clear, but we know the difficulties that we have right now [with injuries] and we know that the season is very long,’ Rodri says.
‘I have touched down in England, and immediately found myself up against one of the best teams I have seen in recent years.
‘They are strong. And not just on the counter-attack. They can dominate games and they can score from set-plays.
‘But all teams have their bad moment of the season and we have to be there. It’s not so much waiting for our opponent to fail as making sure we get things right.’
Rodri says his manager Pep Guardiola has remained calm the dropped points this season
He says Guardiola has remained serene despite the points lost.
‘Nobody likes to lose and even less so with the demands that we have but he knows how to maintain calm and he knows how to lift the group because in the end it doesn’t serve any purpose to complain and ‘kill’ the team.
‘We know the situation we are in. We are missing a lot of players. But he will work on what we have to improve. He is not going to settle for losing games. We have to win.’
The admiration for Guardiola is obvious; so has been the mutual appreciation since his arrival.
Pep reveled in his record signing’s self-sacrificing normalness earlier in the season (‘he has no tattoos, no earrings; he even has holding midfielder’s hair’ he told BT Sport).
Rodri maybe be the brightest in the class but with the last question he passes on the chance to be teacher’s pet – would you have gone to City if Pep had not have been there?
‘Ha! I don’t know,’ he says. ‘It depends on the timing. I am not there just because the boss is there. I’m there for what I can bring. The team has won a lot in recent years and still has a lot left to win.’
Celebrating with striker Sergio Aguero after the Argentine scored against Bournemouth
RODRI ON LIVERPOOL: ‘THEY ARE LIKE A KNIFE’
The connection between Rodri and Pep Guardiola is clear but what about with Diego Simeone who he worked with for just a year at Atletico Madrid? And what does he think of Jurgen Klopp who he faces next month in the Premier League?
‘He took both Dortmund and Liverpool to Champions League finals and that is not just coincidence,’ he says of Klopp.
‘He is a coach who works the defensive side of things very well but he also works the attacking mechanisms very hard too. His teams are very physical and very tough. They go at you like animals and that is what prevails in football right now.’
When he is reminded of a quote from his Spain team-mate Dani Ceballos, who told Sportsmail in interview recently that, having faced them with Arsenal, ‘Liverpool don’t let you breathe,’ Rodrigo echoes the sentiment to the point of repeating the last word.
City face Jurgen Klopp’s table-topping Liverpool side at Anfield on November 10
‘Breath’ he says, ‘yes that’s their way. When we played the final of the Community Shield, we knew they were a team that is like a knife.
‘One comes at you, then another and sometimes it seems like there is no escape. It’s a quality they have, that is clear.’
For all the obvious common ground now shared with Guardiola, Rodri is at pains to point out that his former coach Simeone was not his current coach’s polar opposite.
‘With Simeone we always tried to take the initiative,’ he says. ‘He believed that if you are just playing sideways and cannot get to the other team’s box then for all that you are playing well you are not going to hurt the opponent so it’s pointless but that seems right to me and Guardiola is the same.
The Spaniard came up against Liverpool during the FA Community Shield at Wembley
‘If we cannot reach the opponent’s area, making chances, we are not doing things properly.’
Simeone was whistled by Atletico Madrid supporters when he took Rodri off in one game early last season. But the Argentine coach trusted the midfielder implicitly.
Rodri says Simeone wished him luck as he headed for City: ‘Coaches, like your team-mates, wish you well. You don’t stop being colleagues and friends when you leave.’