World Cup Players to Know: Switzerland’s Ricardo Rodriguez
Ricardo Rodriguez kind of looks like a pirate — this much you’ll realize right away. But he also looks like an attacking midfielder. The Swiss was one of the most creative players in Europe this past season for Wolfsburg, averaging 2.3 key passes per game, the same number as the Blessed Andrea Pirlo. When he wasn’t setting up a teammates, he was breaking dudes down, completing 2.6 dribbles a game, more than someone named Cristiano Ronaldo. On the year, he notched nine assists, just as many as Yaya Touré, David Silva, and Mesut Özil.
The son of a Spanish father and Chilean mother, Rodriguez grew up playing for FC Zurich before moving to Germany. Like much of the immigrant-filled Switzerland roster, he might’ve never had the chance to play for his country had this past winter’s strict anti-immigration referendum been passed years ago. Instead, they’ve got a 21-year-old who looks set to become the next great attacking midfielder. Only problem with that: He’s a left back.
You’ve probably never seen him play — Bundesliga fanatics aside — so watch this video. Leave your sound on if you want to get funky as hell.
Rodriguez is 5-foot-11, all long arms and long legs. Normally, that’s not a winning formula for a guy who does most of his work on his heels and in spots that require sudden stops and starts, quick jabs, and shifts in leverage. Rodriguez, though, uses that size to his advantage — and not just in the he-wins-a-lot-of-headers kind of way. Instead, he can get his feet in at weird angles unavailable to someone shorter and poke a ball away. (He was second on the team in tackles per game.) In some ways, he’s a unique-to-the-sport reminder of the great perimeter defenders in the NBA; you think you’ve got a window to get past him or that you might already be — and nope, sorry, buddy: That ball is mine and now I’m gonna go wreck your defense.
“The majority of modern full-backs were adventurous wide players as teenagers before being pulled back to defence,” Michael Cox wrote for ESPN FC last month. “There’s a slightly rarer breed who grow up as centre-backs, before being shifted across to full-back.” Rodriguez certainly seems to fall into the former group — and it creates an interesting problem: Why play someone so dangerous and so creative in a spot that’s literally farther away from the other team’s goal than any other non-goalie position? But at the same time, the opportunities the position provides — lots of space, chances to win the ball and start an attack beyond a would-be defender, and twisted, uncomfortable shapes to throw at the defense — almost definitely make Rodriguez as much of a problem as he is.
Someone is probably going to spend a lot of money on him this summer. (Expect to hear a lot about how there aren’t any good defenders anymore during the World Cup.) And while Switzerland is maybe the worst of the eight seeded teams, it’s a positively un-Swiss side this time around. As in: The team will actually be fun to watch. (Writer Simon Kuper called the team’s 0-0 draw with Ukraine in 2006 “the nadir of 10,000 years of human civilization.”) How far Switzerland goes, though, will have something to do with the guy announcers might refer to as a “swashbuckling full-back.” Normally I’d call that a cliché, but for Rodriguez — with his haircut and the constant havoc he creates — it might be the one label that actually makes some sense.