Norway U-21 0-3 Spain U-21
Saturday 15th June, Semi-Final, UEFA Under-21 Championship, Netanya Stadium
Having been rested for Spain’s final group game against Netherlands, Rodrigo returned to the starting line up to face Norway in the semi-finals.
Rodrigo started in his usual position as the lone striker in Coach Julen Lopetegui’s preferred 4-3-3.
Rodrigo’s interpretation of the lone striker role was to act more as a ‘false nine’ than an orthodox centre forward. He would frequently drop off the Norwegian central defenders – Stefan Strandberg and Fredrik Semb Berge, moving into the space behind the holding midfielder, Stefan Johansen. Norway sat deep, allowing Rodrigo space to roam in front of the back four. While he was willing to come off the front, he rarely did so to link the play, instead acting as a decoy to pull a Norwegian defender out of position. If the ball was played into him, he would often be tracked and closed by one of the central defenders – usually Semb Berge. When this happened, Spain had runners from midfield – Isco, Thiago Alcántara and Cristian Tello, who could move into the space behind the exposed central defender.
Isco and Johansen
Norway tried to stifle Rodrigo’s desire to come deep through the positioning of Johansen. His aim was to pull either Semb Berge or Standberg out of position and open up the Norwegian back four. In an attempt to close out this movement, Johansen would pick up Rodrigo as he dropped deep, allowing Semb Berge and Strandberg to hold their positions. This worked reasonably well for the first ten minutes, as Norway remained compact and held their shape. But as Isco became more involved – coming inside off the left and supporting Rodrigo high up, Johansen was no longer able to track the Spanish forward. This meant one of the centre-backs had to come out and press Rodrigo, with Spain able to find more space, particularly around the edge of the penalty area, as a result. With Isco increasingly occupying Johansen and Norway sitting so deep, the gap between their defence and midfield was too big.
While Rodrigo liked to come deep, he was also comfortable in wide areas. With Isco drifting inside off the left flank, Rodrigo could move into the space he vacated. He would also do similar on the right. Tello was far more rigid in his positioning than Isco, but did also occasionally moved infield, especially towards the end of the first half. Rodrigo had some of his best moments when switching into the right channel, finding space behind Strandberg and the left full-back, Vegar Hedenstad. This movement would create an opening for Tello, who had moved centrally as Rodrigo got beyond Hedenstad. The forward’s cut-back found him in space on the edge of the area, but Tello’s shot was well saved by Orjan Nyland Haskjold.
Staying out of the build up
For much of his time on the pitch, Rodrigo was often on the fringes of the contest. Spain set a reasonably quick tempo, but their build up was patient. Moving forward, they largely attacked through the wide areas, with full-backs Martín Montoya and Alberto Moreno pushing high up. Every move would be instigated by Isco. He started on the inside left, but essentially had a free role to roam as he pleased. When he came into the centre, he positioned himself close to Rodrigo and they combined on a couple of occasions. Rodrigo, however, largely didn’t involve himself in the build up. He was in the team to add the finishing touch and use his good movement to allow runners from midfield to find space beyond him. He only made 13 passes, the lowest of any Spanish player, at an accuracy of 69%. This reflects his often selfless role and also how at times his distribution was a little wayward, especially when rushed by the pressing of Semb Berge.
As Spain cut through Norway with relative ease, it seemed inevitable that they would find the net – a feat achieved just before the interval. Rodrigo got the goal, his first of the tournament. It was an instinctive strike, as he reacted quickest to Marc Bartra’s flick-on, cleverly diverting the ball into the net. Rodrigo’s alertness had almost brought him goal earlier in the half. He was first to the ball after Orjan Nyland Haskjold parried Martín Montoya’s shot, but his rebound was well saved by the goalkeeper.
Despite putting Spain ahead and having some good moments in the first half, Rodrigo was replaced 14 minutes after the break by Morata. With the Real Madrid forward subsequently netting his fourth goal of the tournament, Lopetegui will again be questioned as to whether he, or Rodrigo, should start in the final against Italy.