In the coming weeks, I’ll be profiling some of world football's more overlooked players in a series called the Under-the-Radar All Stars.
Some will be names you've heard of but may not yet fully grasp how great they are, while others may be totally unfamiliar.
Established player or up-and-comer, each Under-the-Radar All Star has been unassumingly building a strong career, and the hope is that this series brings some of football's under-appreciated players into view.
The inspiration for the Under-the-Radar All Stars, there is perhaps no more under-appreciated player in world football than Switzerland's Ricardo Rodriguez.
An apotheosis of today's left-back, the Wolfsburg standout is simply one of the best all-around footballers in the world.
For a closer look at how good Rodriguez was last season, let's consider WhoScored.com Player Ratings. The statistical database developed an algorithm used to rate a player's performance on a scale from 1, the worst, to 10, the best.
Five players accrued an average rating of over an 8.0, and four of them should come as no surprise. Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Cristiano and Franck Ribery all finished with ratings of 8.2 or above, and some would consider them to be the four best players in world football.
That fifth player finds himself in some rarefied company, so who was the last to score above an 8.0 over the course of the season? Ricardo Rodriguez.
Squawka, too, ranked the Swiss defender as one of the world’s best players, giving him a performance score—Squawka's own performance rating metric—of 1277, tops in the Bundesliga, 16th in Europe, fourth among Europe's defenders and first among Europe's full-backs.
This wasn't in a small sample size either as the sheer amount of minutes he's logged elucidates remarkable durability—Rodriguez started all 34 of Wolfsburg's Bundesliga matches, playing the full 90 minutes in all but one game.
The only match in which he wasn't on the pitch for the final whistle was a 3-2 win against Hoffenheim, when he picked up two yellow cards to go along with two goals that game.
Similarly, during Switzerland's run to the round of 16 in Brazil, Rodriguez played the entire duration of all four World Cup matches, notching two assists in the process.
Creating goals is arguably Rodriguez's best skill as his excellent ability to pick out a teammate has led to some impressive assist totals. He racked up five assists in the 2012-13 campaign and followed that performance up with nine helpers in the 2013-14 season.
His nine assists tied him for fourth on the Bundesliga charts and were the most of any defender in the German top flight. In fact, only one defender in Europe's top-five leagues amassed more assists than Rodriguez: Lyon's Henri Bedimo.
Even when his passes didn't eventuate as assists, Rodriguez tallied 69 key passes in the 2013-14 campaign, averaging almost one more created chance per game than the next closest Bundesliga full-back, Eintracht's Sebastian Jung.
With an offensive skill set that doesn't solely consist of setting up his teammates, Rodriguez has an eye for goal himself, displaying such in his five-goal haul last season. Via WhoScored, in Europe’s big five, just 10 defenders scored five or more goals last year, seven of whom were full-backs.
Last season, Rodriguez's direct contribution to 14 goals ranked first among defenders in the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1.
So, to review, among defenders, he was the second-most prolific assist man in Europe, one of the top 10 goalscoring defenders in Europe and his 14 goals accounted for were a continental best.
These statistics merely provide a context for discussing Rodriguez as one of, if not the best, at his position in the world, if you didn’t previously ascribe to that notion.
And we've only scratched the surface of what he brings to the table.
Let's take a look at how the 21-year-old stacks up against other preeminent left-backs.
|Rodriguez vs. Europe's Top Left-Backs: A Statistical Comparison|
|Player||Goals||Assists||Key Passes/game||Crosses/game||Pass Completion||Dribbles/game||Tackles/game||Aerials won/game|
Jordi Alba only played in 15 league matches last season so he's been excluded.
He defends his position very well and is a clean, disciplined tackler—Rodriguez completed almost three tackles per foul committed and was booked just twice last year. Per Squawka, he committed zero defensive errors last season, illustrating the peerless defending Rodriguez pairs with his world-class attacking.
He delivers superb service from out wide, and his 2.1 crosses per game tied him with Jefferson Farfan for second in the Bundesliga. Oh, and that average made him the most copious crosser among full-backs in Europe's top five leagues.
Bayern star David Alaba amassed a fantastic pass completion percentage, but his passes traveled, on average, seven meters less than those of Rodriguez. Same goes for Marcelo, whose 16-meter average was also significantly less than the Wolfsburg man's; generally, the shorter the pass, the more accurate it is.
There's a trend developing here: Rodriguez ranks at or near the top of a ton of statistical categories not only among his contemporary full-backs but among all defenders and Europe's elite outfield players.
It begs the question: Why hasn't the former Zurich man been prised away by one of Europe's top clubs?
According to Sam Parker at Squawka, he iterated his desire to remain at the Volkswagen Arena for the coming season, and it's a safe decision.
He'd face competition at nearly every feasible destination save for Liverpool; his Wolfsburg team qualified for the 2014-15 Europa League; and the club has compiled enough talent to challenge for a Champions League place this term.
Too often, young players jump at the chance to make a big-money move just for the sake of being sold to a top club. Such a transfer is often followed by a string of loan moves where the club convinces itself that it's acting in the player's best interest, while the player is left to contemplate his future.
We saw a perfect example of this in Chelsea’s signing of Romelu Lukaku. The uber-talented Belgian international was phenomenal on loan at West Bromwich Albion and Everton, netting 32 goals in Premier League 66 appearances between 2012 and 2014.
The Blues were woeful up front in those two seasons yet were steadfast in their viewpoint that Lukaku was better suited to a loan move as opposed to staying at Stamford Bridge and competing with Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto'o.
Had Lukaku been given his chance in the 2012-13 season, he'd likely be donning Chelsea blue this coming season and not Everton's.
Instead, Blues' supporters were left to suffer through a misfiring Torres, a shell of Ba's former Newcastle self and a well-past-his-prime Samuel Eto'o, as opposed to watching the 21-year-old wunderkind touted as the next Didier Drogba evolve into something special.
It's refreshing to see a player such as Rodriguez evaluate his options and realize that, at 21, he could do a whole lot worse than the Europa League and a starring role for a top-five Bundesliga squad.
If only Rodriguez was willing to move this summer as he'd almost certainly have wound in the Premier League, probably with either Manchester United or Chelsea.
United signed Southampton prodigy Luke Shaw for a lavish £30 million sum, the most paid for any teenager in world football history. Shaw has tremendous potential, and by virtue of being English, his fee was always going to be inflated, but it's a risky signing.
New United manager Louis van Gaal has already sent the 19-year-old for extra training, telling Sky Sports:
Luke needs to be fit and he's not very fit and can't perform how I want. He needs to be fit and to train individually.
I can't judge why. I see what I see. I have spoken with him and we have made a programme with him.
He has agreed. We will have to see how long it takes. I don't know...
Jose Mourinho signed Atletico Madrid's Filipe Luis for £15.8 million, fresh off his La Liga winning season. Probably the best defensive left-back in the world, his exclusion from Brazil's World Cup squad was absolutely criminal and he should have no problem pipping Cesar Azpilicueta for the starting job.
The only downside of the Luis signing is his age—at 28, he's seven years older than Rodriguez and therefore can't have nearly the same impact.
Both teams would have been better off trying to convince the Swiss international, valued at just over £24.5 million by Transfermarkt, to leave Germany for the Premier League.
All of Europe's elite should monitor his situation closely as we're talking about a 21-year-old already at the top of his trade whose parent club would hold no negotiating leverage, should Wolfsburg fail to extend him past 2016.
It's not often a player who could be a viable starter for every team in the world hits the open market, and that's shaping up to be the case with Rodriguez come next summer.
Statistics courtesy of Whoscored and Squawka unless otherwise noted.