Rodrigo Hernández (Madrid, 1996) has been one of the cornerstones of Manchester City in the conquest of the Premier. Two days later he visits the AS newsroom. A goal of his was key for the comeback that meant the fourth Premier in the last five years. “Guardiola told me that the important ones were those of Gündogan, that mine was put in by the fans”, he jokes.
—Only 48 hours have passed since they conquered the Premier…
“It was a special celebration. It is the first time that I was able to celebrate a Premier with people, because the previous one with the Covid issue was not the same. I remember the final whistle and how the fans jumped onto the pitch. I told my colleagues: ‘When the years go by and we look back we will realize that it has been a unique moment’. He had it all: winning my second Premier League, winning four of the last five and also winning it over the best Liverpool in history.
—How do you feel now, once success has been assimilated?
—That it is an honor to be part of this great team that Txiki Begiristain and Guardiola have created. Conquering the Premier is the reward for a great effort in every way. It is the most brutal competition there is. Winning the title was coupled with how we won it. It seemed that we were losing all the work of nine months. We were leaving. That’s why after the comeback people ended up crying, euphoric.
—I had seen Guardiola dancing, but only a few strokes (laughs). Crying like he did comes from inside you. He indicates what it costs to win. We have had to score 93 points to be champions; the other time it was 96. Liverpool lost two games in the entire Premier, the three of us. We knew that whoever played would be left without a title, it was very hard.
—Did they find out the result of the other game?
—When we conceded 0-2 I was praying for the result of Liverpool. I didn’t even know how they went. And from the bench they deceived us. They told us: ‘Go on, go on! They go 1-1! 1-1!’ But the information is not sure, I did not trust it. He thought: ‘This smells bad to me’. There was a lot of confusion, and then the coach was right with the changes. People came in who contributed a lot to us: Zinchenko, Sterling, Gündogan… People who also haven’t started. The Aston Vlla was having a good game, Gerrard had planned it very well. Gundo’s 1-2 was key. From there you are already fully involved. You see it possible.
—And on top of that you marked…
—Later Guardiola told me that Gündogan’s goals were the important ones, that mine had been scored by the fans…! With what it costs to score a goal like that! (laughs). I told Zinchenko that the key had been his pass, because he came to me with a lot of tension. I thought about sending her to the long pole, but he came out the short one and went in. Olsen, the goalkeeper, who is two meters tall by the way, was about to fuck her. Now I look at the goal and say: ‘Thank goodness!’
-Seven goals in the Premier has achieved.
—Yes, I am happy to have taken a small step to the scoring level. When you see that you have more and more presence near the area and that the rivals defend us very far back, it is normal to try. We have not had a scorer, but we have all contributed goals. I think almost the entire squad has scored.
—What about Guardiola?
– A born worker. An hour and a half before training, he is already there. In the breaks it is more about giving directions than shouting. He transmits tranquility. Help. Sometimes, when we are losing, I think: ‘he is going to give us a voice…’. But no. It is more to tighten when things go well than when they go wrong. I remember one day that we were winning and playing well and yet he let me out: ‘What do you think, the best?’
“Guardiola pushes harder when things go well than when they go bad”
Has this season been the best of your career?
Yes, my best year. Little by little you grow, you adapt. There is an acclimatization that everyone needs. I have been understanding my work better, I have grown in it. Midfielder is the position in which you must dominate the most aspects. I’ve always played with another midfielder next to me, but now I’m on my own. Lillo tells me I’m like a guard dog. I must protect what I have without losing it. I must bark, not always bite. If I jump to a pressure at the wrong time I can get dislodged. I am happy. The club made a strong commitment to me and I want to return all that confidence.
—Do you see yourself prolonging your career in Spain or England?
“In football, you never know. They call me the projects in which I can grow and I think that right now the City project is spectacular.
—And so, now comes Haaland…
—We are waiting for the arrival of the Viking (laughs). He is a player who changes the way we play. We use a false 9, which gives you things but also takes away others. It was clear to me that Haaland could come. We had a space in the template that he is going to occupy. He is a physical wonder. After playing against them in Dortmund I said to Rúben Días, who is also a prodigy: ‘This one has taken you ahead!’ (laughs).
“And Manchester?” Is it red or sky blue?
—When I arrived they told me that there are more people from City in the city and from United in the country. I have always noticed a 50%. I live in downtown. I was alone for two or three years, until now she has come with me, my girlfriend. I prefer to soak up the city than be isolated on the outskirts, so I can go outside and walk around. It is different from Spain. In England, the fan takes more distance from the player when he crosses paths with him.
—How is the changing room of the City?
—When I arrived, emblematic players like Kompany or Silva had just left. The locker room is like the UN: there are Algerians, Portuguese, Spanish, French… There is a very good atmosphere. Spanish is spoken a lot. The English props also help. I can’t imagine a Madrid prop man throwing himself on the ground like ours in the locker room at the title celebration!
“The Bernabéu match was the worst day of my life, the key was in the first leg”
“De Bruyne is the boss?”
—He’s spectacular, the best footballer I’ve ever played with. A modern midfielder. Nothing to do with Modric or Iniesta, for example. He is vertical, always close to the area.
—Where is the ‘citizen’ project going?
—A team is being built with a clear idea. We lack Europe, it is evident, but we are touching it. That winning mentality is also built, I always say. These years are serving us as experience. Little by little we are there: finalists last year, about to be in this…
-How do you remember the Bernabéu debacle?
“It was the worst day of my life. We ended up disappointed. I remember that Guardiola gave us two days off after that, he made us disconnect. It was key. When we came back he made us see that we had something else to fight for. We regain strength.
—What happened to them in those minutes of disconnection?
—The key was in the first leg, I think. I ended up pissed off because I knew they had gotten out alive. It was a game to score 5 or 6 goals. We know what the Bernabéu is like, what can happen. In those moments of madness it is difficult to organize. Madrid got messy and messed us up. But we will try again. We have a young generation.
—How do you see the Madrid-Liverpool final?
—Liverpool is a tough rival. Madrid is better on stage, but as a team Liverpool dominates all aspects. Before it was unbalanced on the counter, now it has incorporated many more registers. It is a forceful team in the areas. Madrid has great players and experience. Anything can happen to a game.
-In Spain the Premier is not valued enough?
“Can I be honest? (laughs).
—The Spanish player in the Premier does not have as much visibility, it is like that. I notice that it is not followed as much, and that it is an impressive league. In England it is different. For the English, the most important thing I would say is the Premier, while in Spain there is no discussion: it is the Champions League. I see the League. I have seen Atletico. Winning after winning is tough, but they still have a squad to compete with anyone.
-They made things complicated for you with an ultra-defensive approach…
“It was difficult, yes. It is one thing to live it when you play with them and another when you play against them. Wanda’s second half was not good at all. Guardiola had reasons to be angry.
“We have won the Premier for the best Liverpool in history”
What did you learn from your coaches?
“Each coach is different. I have had Marcelino, Simeone, Guardiola and Luis Enrique. They are different, but what characterizes them is how competitive they are. Simeone told me: ‘With the ball I see you well, without it I’m going to squeeze you’. With Pep, for example, he moved me a lot. Now I move less. And with Luis Enrique he is different: he asks me to push forward if I have the possibility and space… That is to say, each one with his mentality makes you improve.
– Was he always a midfielder?
—Yes, at the age of 12 I came to Atlético. In my first year, the coach, Fran Alcoy, already put me there. I played for Rayo Majadadonda and had Lucas Hernández as a teammate. One year they signed him, the next me. Then we were together again in the Atleti first team. At the beginning it was plus 8. My father told me that he wanted me to play there, to reach the area more. He didn’t like it on defensive duties. Until he saw that it’s for the best.
Did you have references?
—My idol was always Zidane, although I didn’t look much like him (laughs). In my time we lived through the Barça boom and that is why a player I paid a lot of attention to was Busquets. Also Bruno and Senna at Villarreal. I got soaked in them when they were my companions. From Xabi Alonso too, although he had a different style. He was more Premier.
-Busquets is also your partner.
—I have a good relationship, he gives me advice. You are born with what he has or not. Physically he is not prodigious, but he has been able to adapt. Busi is the fastest midfielder, because in football speed comes from the ball. How do you move it? Then there are other midfielders like Casemiro, who is different but also top.
—Can you repeat the successes of the champion Spain?
—That generation at the beginning was not so well known either. We are in that process. In the European Championship and in the Nations League we showed that we can beat anyone. The problem is that it is very difficult to win titles, because there is a lot of competition. We will see this year. I believe that the World Cup in November will make us all reach physical fullness. There are still iconic players like Busquets, for example, and my generation should be the next to settle there. And then the fingerlings come from behind, as I call them (laughs).