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Rodrigo’s revival gives Jesse Marsch even more attacking options at Leeds

“It’s really pleasing to see him play so well. I’m really happy for him and he’s growing into the team,” said Jesse Marsch after Rodrigo scored a hat-trick for Leeds in their final pre-season game against Cagliari, following on from his goals against Blackpool and Crystal Palace. It’s impossible to judge a player on his form in pre-season, when the pressure is off and the aim is to gain fitness, but those goals seem to have given Rodrigo much needed confidence, something he has lacked since Leeds made him their record signing in 2020.

When the £30m deal with Valencia was announced, the transfer raised eyebrows and not in a good way. Rodrigo has never been a prolific forward. Over the last eight seasons at Valencia and Leeds, he has only broken double figures for league goals once. He only scored 38 goals in 172 games in La Liga for Valencia and he had endured a dire spell on loan in the Premier League earlier in his career, scoring just once in 17 league games for Bolton in the 2010-11 campaign.

After scoring just 13 league goals in two campaigns at Leeds, his playing time was expected to be reduced this season, especially after the high-profile additions of Luis Sinisterra from Feyenoord for £22m and Brenden Aaronson from Salzburg for £25m. However, an injury to Sinisterra and a suspension for Daniel James meant that Rodrigo started for Leeds against Wolves in the opening game of the season, playing in the No 10 role.

And he made sure not to disappoint at Elland Road. After hitting five goals in pre-season, Rodrigo scored the equaliser as Leeds came from behind to beat Wolves 2-1. He followed that up with a brace in their 2-2 draw at Southampton on Saturday. Rodrigo has already scored half as many league goals in two games this season as he managed in all of last season.

Considering Patrick Bamford’s injury issues – he missed most of last season and was withdrawn in the first half against Wolves – and Joe Gelhardt’s absence at the weekend, Rodrigo’s bright start to the season is a huge boost for Marsch. The Spaniard was even given the captain’s armband when Bamford was taken off against Wolves.

When Marsch was in charge of RB Salzburg, the team’s forwards worked hard off the ball to force defences into mistakes. Rodrigo suits that approach well. He is technically gifted, having come through the Real Madrid academy, won multiple trophies in Portugal with Benfica and made 27 appearances for Spain, but he is also willing to work.

Since Marsch took over from Marcelo Bielsa at the end of February, only two Leeds players have won possession in the midfield and attacking thirds more times than Rodrigo (37). In fact, Leeds rank fourth in the Premier League for this metric since Marsch took over, showing the fighting spirit within the squad and how quickly they have taken his ideas on board, with Rodrigo encapsulating that brilliantly.

“The way we work and talk, and the relationship we have, has been fun for me,” said Marsch when asked about Rodrigo in pre-season. “He’s very receptive to positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and honesty. The more you give him, the more he wants and I like guys like that.”

Rodrigo’s price tag has been a stick with which to beat him, but the frustration Leeds fans have felt about him is now turning to praise. He does not have the flair of the club’s wingers, but he offers something different – a physical presence and directness in the final third that means Leeds can take the game to opponents. The challenge is now to be consistent.

Leeds only just avoided relegation last season. A 94th-minute winner on the last day of the season helped them secure 17th place as they became the first side since Wigan in 2011 to survive after starting the final day in the bottom three. Fans will be hoping for a more relaxing end to the campaign this time around. With four points already on the board, things are looking good. Rodrigo’s goals could be crucial.

The start of the season could have been very different for Rodrigo had Sinisterra not picked up an injury in Leeds’ pre-season trip to Australia, but he has been given a chance and grabbed it with both hands. He has the trust of Marsch and the challenge is now to ensure this isn’t a short-term revival of fortunes as he seeks to justify that lofty price tag. The early signs are positive for Rodrigo and Leeds.

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