Liverpool-Manchester City: Rodri Is the Premier League’s Best Player

Pep Guardiola would, in an unguarded moment, probably concede that he has a slight tendency toward hyperbole. With eyes wide and voice breathless, he will sing the praises of some hopelessly overmatched opponent his Manchester City team has just beaten by 6-1, his players’ jerseys untainted by sweat. “Guys,” he will say, “guys, they are so good. So, so good.”

Where this reflex comes from is a matter of interpretation. The likeliest explanation is that it is just who Guardiola is: passionate and intense and deeply enthusiastic, still, about his sport. There might be just a dash of noblesse oblige in there, too, a little well-intentioned clemency from soccer’s great conqueror. And it is easy to wonder if Guardiola resents how much of his — and City’s — success is presented as an economic inevitability, and so feels the need to get his rebuttal in first.

Whatever the truth, the effect is the same: At times, it can be difficult to be absolutely certain when Guardiola is being sincere and when he is indulging in some light lily-gilding.

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s Manchester derby, for example, he suggested that Phil Foden might be the “best” player in the Premier League. It is by no means an outrageous claim. Foden, 24, has been outstanding for City this season, the finest campaign of his young career. He has sparkled in a suite of roles, and deserves a considerable portion of the credit for the fact that City did not particularly seem to miss Kevin De Bruyne while he was injured.

But at the same time, there is a good chance that Guardiola was exaggerating, just a touch. Not because he does not appreciate Foden’s brilliance, but because he — more than anyone — should be aware that Foden is not even the best player on his team. The best player at Manchester City, and the best player in the Premier League, is Rodri.

He is the one individual who completes City. He is the one player for whom Guardiola does not have a plug-and-play replacement. If Foden is unavailable, City can always shuffle its shimmering deck and deploy Jeremy Doku, Jack Grealish, Julián Álvarez or Bernardo Silva, the game’s pre-eminent Swiss Army knife, in his place.

Without Rodri in midfield, though, Guardiola’s team is somehow diminished. The numbers bear that out. When the Spaniard is present, as he will be for a potentially decisive meeting with Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, City just does not lose.

The last time Rodri played and Manchester City lost was in February 2023. Since then, he has featured in 60 games. He has not tasted defeat in any of them. The common thread to all of City’s defeats this season — to Wolves and to Arsenal and to Aston Villa — was Rodri’s absence.

That is not to say he does not get the credit he deserves. Most fans — both of City and its rivals — are well aware of Rodri’s significance, and not just because of his helpful habit of scoring crucial goals in high-stakes games. He is a leading candidate to win at least one of the individual awards that decorate the Premier League season, the player of the year prizes handed out by fans, writers and the players themselves.

And yet to pitch him, a defensive midfielder, as the “best” player in the league seems, at best, counterintuitive and, at worst, downright pretentious.

In part, of course, that is because the word itself is not desperately helpful in the context of sports as a whole. Is the best player the one with the most talent? Is it the one who has the biggest impact, or the highest output? Or is it, as Guardiola likely meant with Foden, the one who is most in form?

But that lack of clarity is also testament to the fact that we tend to place greater value on skills we can easily see and understand and (increasingly) quantify over ones that are a little harder to identify. To a generation of fans reared on fantasy leagues and video games, where points are won and decisions made on a player’s metrics, the fact that nobody has better numbers than Erling Haaland settles the debate.

In an era when everything is broadcast — and even that which is not is clipped and shared, bite-sized and comestible, online — it is possible to place an aesthetic value to the sight of Foden gliding past a defender with a drop of the shoulders and a shimmy of the hips, to watch him exert his gentle command over an obedient ball and assert that he is the most gifted.

Rodri’s skill set is not quite so well-suited to those gauges. His passing is immaculate, of course, and both visible and quantifiable, but the way he controls space, or twiddles with a game’s tempo, is much more difficult to measure.

Most complicated of all, though, is the fact that Rodri’s genius is not — like Haaland or Foden — in making things happen. He is employed, at least in part, to make sure they do not.

That, of course, has always been the issue not only for defensive midfielders, but for defenders and goalkeepers of all stripes: The brain is wired to give more weight to things it can see than things it cannot.

A defender’s success is in rendering things hypothetical, and it is hard to base a concrete judgment — the sort required to assert that someone is the best at what they do — on goals that were not scored. But these are all talents, too, ones no less influential on the outcomes of soccer games than Haaland’s finishing or Foden’s technique. They are just not treated as such.

This season has offered a perfect illustration of why that bias is worth correcting. Liverpool’s relatively unlikely challenge for the Premier League title has been built, in no small part, on the indomitability of center back Virgil van Dijk and, before the injury that will ensure his absence against City this weekend, goalkeeper Alisson Becker. Both have a claim to the title of best player in the Premier League. Neither has been described as such.

Arsenal, hoping to claim its first league title in two decades, has based its recent form both on its swashbuckling attack — it is the first team to score five or more goals in three consecutive away games in English history — and a particularly miserly defense. Manager Mikel Arteta will know from the bitter experience of last year how damaging an injury to William Saliba, Gabriel or, now, Declan Rice would be.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that these are the players whose contributions to a game make the heart soar. It is, and it always will be, the likes of Haaland and Foden who cast the most dazzling spells, who fill the stadiums and sell the broadcasting contracts, who pin crowds to the edge of their seats. What they do, after all, can feel like the purest, cleanest manifestation of talent: a sort of magic, something otherworldly and inexplicable.

But there are lots of different types of talent, and lots of different ways to be the best. What van Dijk and Alisson and, above all, Rodri do might not be as thrilling, as pulsating or as delicate as scoring a goal, but that should not reduce its value. What, after all, could be more magical than making something disappear?

No team cherishes the Champions League quite like Real Madrid. No team has an identity quite so entwined with what used to be the European Cup. And so maybe it wasn’t surprising to see Real Madrid doing its best to lift the ennui that had settled on this year’s round of 16 by trying its best to be eliminated by RB Leipzig this week. It failed, of course, but the effort was admirable.

Other than that, this week was a procession: Bayern Munich swatting aside Lazio, Paris St.-Germain breezing past Real Sociedad, Manchester City wafting through F.C. Copenhagen — “Guys, guys, they are so good” — all bore testament to quite how thoroughly the competition has been disemboweled by the elite and the financial inequality they have engendered.

The hope for a break with recent reality comes from next week’s matches — the ones between Inter Milan and Atlético Madrid and Barcelona and Napoli should both be compelling — and from the possibility of a more evenly matched quarterfinal draw. As the stakes rise, the equations change: Bayern suddenly seems at least some sort of threat by virtue of its experience alone. P.S.G.’s weight of talent, and its demob happy vibe, gives the team, under Luis Enrique, a jagged edge.

That might, of course, be clutching at straws, but it is in the interests of everyone involved that something unexpected occurs, and soon. The Champions League is supposed to be appointment viewing, but this week — these last few weeks — have been intensely forgettable. And that gives both the clubs and UEFA a real problem.