Leeds had that FA Cup fourth-round tie in hand, 3-0 to the good against third-tier opposition, and there were 21 minutes of normal time to play when Rodrigo appeared from the bench. Jesse Marsch, who had the reins as head coach then, wanted the Spaniard to reacquaint himself with a fit-again Patrick Bamford. Although the latter was substituted just eight minutes later.
Rodrigo then left the pitch at full-time complaining of ankle pain, and his reward for that brief cameo was a minor operation on a fractured shinbone.
Marsch admitted that given his time again, he might not have exposed the forward to the rough-and-tumble of a match which was essentially won. Luck was not with the American on that afternoon either. As a result, Rodrigo, in the last week of January, faced the best part of two months out recovering from his injury.
In the meantime, Marsch has been sacked, Leeds have run into deep trouble in the Premier League table and their goals have dried up. There was, realistically, no player more likely to avert the last of those issues than the striker they suddenly could no longer call on.
One of the ironies of Marsch’s year-long tenure, much as it cut the image of a constant battle for impetus, was that Rodrigo had never looked more productive in a Leeds shirt than on his watch. Getting a tune out of the 27-cap Spain international was one of Marsch’s bigger success stories.
For almost two years previously, Rodrigo was the record signing who made onlookers furrow their brows, a £27million ($32.4m) investment whose impact was underwhelming and whose best position remained an unresolved matter of debate. But at this juncture, with his comeback from surgery now on the cards, it is Rodrigo who offers Marsch’s successor, Javi Gracia, the best chance of finding the goals Leeds so badly need.
Rodrigo’s intermittent influence at Elland Road has been a case of suitability rather than talent. He is a capable attacker with high-level experience and, as the first half of this campaign showed, a sharp finisher when good chances flow to him regularly.
But in his first two seasons at Leeds, there was a sense of him being asked to be something he wasn’t. He moved from Valencia, a passive, low-pressing side in La Liga, to the team in Premier League who pressed harder and more ferociously than any other.
Then-coach Marcelo Bielsa persisted with him as a No 10, even though Rodrigo’s attempts to wreak havoc from there were stunted. Rodrigo’s preference was to occupy a more advanced position, as a No 9, and his body language when deployed elsewhere often told you as much.
Marsch tried him initially as a No 10 too, but there was a telling moment in the final home game of last season — with Leeds on the brink of relegation — when the crowd groaned as Rodrigo attempted a simple through ball to Jack Harrison which opponents Brighton cut out.
His shoulders slumped, an action that spoke of a footballer who wanted to be running onto such passes not trying to play them. He might not have been a conventional English centre-forward but he was nothing if not his version of a No 9, and this term has proved it. Ten goals in the Premier League, and 12 in all, will surely see him finish it as Leeds’ top scorer — despite his injury.
Leeds, in 17th position with 13 matches to play, are craving his return because they desperately need more of that. They have scored seven times in the Premier League since the season restarted in December following the World Cup and the effect of the well starting to run dry is shown by a return of seven points from those 11 games.
Gracia has other attacking assets available and others waiting in the wings — Bamford and Luis Sinisterra are both recovering from injuries of their own.
Sinisterra has shown flashes of class in the limited minutes he has managed to accrue but Rodrigo is where most of the finishes have come from, at a rate which suggests he is the key to seeing the club out of the danger they are in.
That Marsch settled on Rodrigo up front in August owed something to the never-ending struggle for fitness which Bamford cannot free himself from, but it was also true that the 32-year-old was someone the manager specifically tried to engage on a personal level.
Making Rodrigo feel as valued as possible was a priority and, to a degree, it worked. Rodrigo was added to the leadership council of senior players maintained by Marsch at Leeds and he challenged him to be a keener influence. In Bamford’s absence, Rodrigo took himself to 10 league goals by the end of the first week of January.
That tally is fairly significant for a player at Elland Road. In all the time since Bielsa’s appointment in the summer of 2018, no Leeds player has hit 20 individually in a league season. Only five others have reached double figures: Kemar Roofe, Pablo Hernandez, Mateusz Klich, Raphinha, and Bamford (twice).
Rodrigo lays claim to more than a third of all their league goals this season, transitioning from a striker who looked a little out of place to one countryman Gracia would love to be able to call on at the first opportunity. They were briefly together at Valencia before Rodrigo was sold to Leeds.
Rodrigo’s numbers in this Premier League term are no fluke and no anomaly.
His volume of shots per game, 3.6 per 90 minutes, is very high — on a par with Erling Haaland and behind only Darwin Nunez, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Gabriel Jesus in the list of players with more than 900 minutes to their names.
He has 10 goals against an expected goals (xG) figure of 6.5 (despite his patchy form over the previous two years, he has outperformed his xG in every campaign at Elland Road so far) and has scored four times from four chances inside the six-yard box — a sign of clinical finishing from close range.
It draws the conclusion that, as things stand, there is simply no other player who a coach at Leeds would prefer up front.
Under Marsch — and in the American’s narrow, transitional system — Rodrigo was looking more often than not for through balls from the centre of the pitch and the chance to run off centre-backs and get a shot away. Gracia has shown over the past three matches that he is more inclined than Marsch to set the team up to use width, seeking out cutbacks and close-range chances for Rodrigo to poach once he returns.
An opportunity of that nature fell to Georginio Rutter in the second half of Saturday’s 1-0 defeat by Chelsea, a point-blank effort which hit home defender Benoit Badiashile before it could find the net.
But the past couple of months in front of goal were summed up by Leeds’ best chance of the contest falling to goalkeeper Illan Meslier during an attempted salvage act in second-half stoppage time.
If the Yorkshire club are to fend relegation off for a second year in a row, the dam has to burst.
Rutter has not yet opened his account since joining from German club Hoffenheim in January. Bamford’s only league goal of the season was almost eight weeks ago. Crysencio Summerville last scored against Tottenham in November. Harrison and Brenden Aaronson have been barren in the league since August. Wilfried Gnonto has two goals to his name in the Premier League this season and Sinisterra has not been fit enough to go to town.
Leeds’ most regular central midfielders, Tyler Adams and Marc Roca, boast one goal between them, and that was scored in September. When Gracia was asked where the goals to keep Leeds up would come from, it was far from easy for him to say.
The timeline for Rodrigo’s recovery from an ill-timed tackle at Accrington had him reappearing at some stage this month. He was crossing his fingers that he might be fit to feature against Brighton this weekend or, failing that, be back in the squad away at Wolverhampton Wanderers seven days later — in the mix before the international break.
His appearances used to revive an old cliche: if Rodrigo was the answer, what was the question?
But with barely a third of the season left, the answer up front seems to end at his door.
(Top photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)