There’s a Swiss revolution under way at Arsenal. After pursuing a German recruitment drive that included the likes of Per Mertesacker, Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski, Arsene Wenger appears to have turned his attention to Switzerland.
In January, Egyptian international Mohamed Elneny was signed from Swiss side Basel. He was followed by another former Basel man in Granit Xhaka. Now a third player with a background in Switzerland could be added in the space of six months: full-back Ricardo Rodriguez.
Perhaps Wenger’s focus hasn’t shifted that dramatically. Like Xhaka, Rodriguez has been plying his trade in Germany’s Bundesliga. His performances for Wolfsburg have made him one of the most prized left-backs in Europe, and now he appears to have caught Arsenal’s attention.
In an interview with Swiss newspaper Tagesanzieger (h/t Jon Harvey of Metro), Rodriguez has hinted at the possibility of following Xhaka to the Emirates Stadium.
There could well be a need for a new left-back in north London. Kieran Gibbs barely figured last season, starting just three Premier League matches in the entire campaign. He may now look to move to revive his international ambitions—Peter O'Rourke of ESPN has reported that a "frustrated" Gibbs could force through a move away from the club where he was reared this summer.
That has led Arsenal to Rodriguez. According to reports in German magazine Kicker (h/t James Cambridge in the Express), the Gunners are leading the chase for his signature. The report stated that Wenger is willing to meet the £19million release clause for a player who comes highly recommended by Arsenal’s academy head Andries Jonker.
Jonker should know Rodriguez’s qualities well enough—he was the assistant coach at Wolfsburg until 2014 and retains close links with his former club.
Like Xhaka, Rodriguez represents Switzerland but has a mixed heritage. Although born in the country he plays for, his father and agent is Spanish and his mother is Chilean. He began his career in his homeland with FC Zurich, joining the club’s academy setup as an 11-year old. By 16, he was training regularly with the first team.
Rodriguez’s name first began to be heard on the lips of Europe’s scouts when he was part of the Swiss national side that won the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup. The likes of Xhaka and Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri were also key components in this remarkably talented team. Rodriguez scored three goals as Switzerland progressed to the final, where a 1-0 win over Nigeria made them only the third European side to ever triumph in the tournament.
It seems he’s always had a taste for the big occasion: his first start came as a 17-year-old in the Zurich derby against Grasshoppers in April 2010, playing 90 minutes in a thrilling 3-2 victory. By 19, he was attracting interest from abroad, and Wolfsburg agreed to pay a hefty £7.5 million fee to secure his services in January 2012.
Despite his relative inexperience, he immediately became a regular in the team under Felix Magath.
Since then, he’s gone from strength to strength. He’s now one of Wolfsburg’s most influential players and signed a new contract in January 2015 that theoretically ties him to the club until 2019.
Crucially, Kicker (h/t Stephan Uersfeld of ESPN) suggested that the deal contained a buyout clause set at somewhere between €25 and 30 million. That clause comes into effect this summer. Suddenly, Wolfsburg are vulnerable to a bid for Rodriguez.
He’s quite different to Arsenal’s current first-choice left-back, Nacho Monreal. Monreal is relatively conservative in his play, tucking in quite narrow alongside Laurent Koscielny as the left-sided centre-half. That defensive style is important in providing balance, with Hector Bellerin relentlessly flying forward on the opposite flank.
The suspicion is that Wenger would like to build a team with two full-backs who both love to go forward and offer width, especially given that the Gunners tend to play without conventional wingers driving to the byline. That would certainly suit Rodriguez: He tends to adopt a relatively high starting position, charging upfield whenever possible to add to Wolfsburg’s attacking threat.
He’s blessed with a great left foot. In fact, Rodriguez is so technically accomplished that he has become a danger at set pieces. He’s capable of firing off shots from distance and is a reliable penalty taker. With Mikel Arteta having left the club, Arsenal no longer have an obvious spot-kick specialist. Rodriguez could fill that gap.
He does possess defensive qualities, too. At almost 6' tall, Rodriguez is built more like a burly centre-half than a winger. He combines skill with genuine power. Once he builds up a head of steam, he can be difficult to stop.
One wonders if he’s almost too big a signing for Arsenal’s needs. Monreal signed a new contract with Arsenal last season, and as one of the team’s most consistent players throughout 2015/16, he doesn’t exactly need to be urgently replaced.
However, perhaps Wenger fears wearing the Spaniard out with too much football. Last season, Arsenal leaned heavily on Monreal, with Gibbs barely figuring in the Premier League. By the end of the campaign, that was beginning to take its toll—Monreal appeared visibly fatigued.
Wenger may take inspiration from Spurs, who managed to rotate their full-backs successfully between August and May. Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier provided highly competent cover for the first-choice pair of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. If Arsenal had both Monreal and Rodriguez on the books, Wenger could change his left-back without any concerns over a drop in quality.
Rodriguez would also be a signing for the long term. He will only turn 24 in August, while Monreal will be 31 in seven months’ time. If Arsenal pay the money to acquire Rodriguez, they could be getting a player who could fill that position for years to come.
If Arsenal are prepared to let Gibbs go, they should ensure they bring in someone superior to replace him. Given the increased competition in next season’s Premier League, Arsenal cannot afford to let the depth of their squad slip.
Adding Rodriguez would enable the Gunners to improve their defensive depth, as well as potentially increase their attacking threat from the full-back positions.