The Brazilian winger proved an uncanny ability to perfectly time deadly cuts and runs behind the defensive lines

Rodrygo Goes arrived at Real Madrid in 2019, at a time when he wasn’t of age yet and his role on the pitch was still unclear. He was signed by Santos as a dribble-maniac left-winger, grown under the myth of Neymar, but that position was taken by Vinicius Jr., even faster and keener on dribbling than him. His managers, then, started playing him on the right-hand side and, outside of his comfort zone, Rodrygo turned out to be a very different player than what was initially imagined: a player more effective without the ball rather than with it.

On his Champions League debut, he scored a perfect hat-trick against Galatasaray – a goal with his left foot, one with his right one, and one with a header – showing an unexpected ability to get himself free in the box. Since that day, Real Madrid changed manager, from Zidane to Ancelotti, and Rodrygo played on both flanks. But if he’s not able to bring the same contribution as Vinicius Jr. on the left wing, he managed to become an important player on the right wing, where he mastered his ability to move without the ball, on the edges of the pitch and – sometimes – games.

Real Madrid prefers to build up the strong side on the left, where Vinicius Jr. links with Benzema. The two of them link repeatedly, drawing many opponents toward them. On the other side, Rodrygo becomes a vital weapon to finalize plays. His ability in the box can be noted in this goal scored in the game against Sevilla in LaLiga. The play is built-up on the left wing by Vinicius Jr. and Carvajal. While the teammate on the other flank carries the ball, Rodrygo is running towards the far post.

When he realizes that his teammate is not going to cross but to just about to pass it to the overlapping fullback, Rodrygo hesitates, stops and takes a step back. The timing of movements without the ball is not based on the quickness of his runs but rather on his ability to choose when to rung and when to slow down, trying to get in the right place at the right time.

While Carvajal crosses, Rodrygo resumes his run, taking Sevilla’s defenders by surprise.

But it’s in the Champions League where Rodrygo takes full advantage of this ability. In his career, he scored more UCL goals than LaLiga goals. The last two of his five Champions League goals were scored in those two unreal minutes in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal against Manchester City. As often happens, Rodrygo started on the bench and in the last minutes – when Ancelotti’s side seems to play a different sport this year – he scored two of the most important goals of the season. 

The first is the one who changed the game for good, showing Rodrygo’s animal ability to go ‘undercover’ within the penalty box to finally find himself in the exact spot where his teammates’ crosses arrive. Camavinga passes a sweet and genius ball to Benzema. While the Frenchman is loading is pass – with his body language suggesting so – Rodrygo already got himself in the pocket between the two City defenders to receive that pass.

When the ball gets to Benzema – who’s extremely athletic in overextending to cross the ball – Rodrygo already got his movement set up to cut in the box, anticipating City’s defenders.

But it’s more than just runs and cuts in the box. Rodrygo is perfectly timed in his runs without the ball even when he’s far away from goal when the opposing defenses are on a high block and he can guess the right time and space to run behind them. In this play against Inter – once again in the Champions League – Real Madrid draw the opposing defense with a close passing game between Casemiro and Modric. Rodrygo passes the ball to them and cuts in the space left free by Simone Inzaghi’s side.

Casemiro serves him with a slightly overpowered long pass; Federico Dimarco is late and Rodrygo continues his run behind his back. He will then try a complicated shot with his right foot that was blocked by Handanovic.

The ability to move without the ball is one of the most precious and underrated skills in football. A well-timed run behind the defenders’ back, a clever cut in the penalty box, may look less exceptional than a dribble but it can make the difference between winning and losing a match. Rodrygo’s goals in the Champions League this year may have looked random – or at least influenced by Real Madrid’s mystic legend in this competition – but they’re nothing more than the fruit of his uncanny talent to read the game far away from the ball.

There was more than just the brace against Manchester City, like the goal that he scored to get the Merengues back in contention against Chelsea. A play that can only remind of Luka Modric’s majestic assist with his outside foot, wouldn’t have been possible without Rodrygo’s perfectly timed run behind Chelsea's defense and Marcos Alonso’s back. A run that ended with an exquisite volley in the net.

In this regard, Rodrygo’s movements without the ball are the perfect counterbalance to all the other Real Madrid players who love to play with the ball at their feet, often being able to imagine visionary passes. In the Champions League final, Rodrygo will meet another master of runs without the ball in Mohammed Salah, maybe the most devastating player for his runs behind the defensive lines, exalted by Liverpool’s fulminous transitions. Rodrygo should once again start from the bench, but this year he already proved how important he can be even with not much time at his disposal. He only needs a few minutes and a few inches.

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