There has been a lot to like about Chelsea’s resurgence under Antonio Conte: Nemanja Matić’s conversion from combative defensive midfielder to dominating, powerhouse all-rounder; David Luiz’s reinvention as a calming, composed presence at the heart of an impenetrable back three; Eden Hazard remembering that he’s one of the best and most devastating attacking players in the Premier League. Equally enjoyable, while flying somewhat under the radar — as is his wont — has been the return to form of Pedro Rodríguez.
The 29 year-old from Tenerife is a curious case: a three-time Champions League winner, a World Cup and European Championship winner and a regular starter in arguably the greatest club side ever seen, and yet somewhat easy to dismiss as lightweight and second-rate. It’s sometimes argued that rather than winning his titles alongside all-time greats like Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, he won his titles because he played alongside all-time greats like Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta.
Furthermore, it must be said that when he’s off-form and out-of-sync with his teammates, Pedro can become a bizarrely frustrating player: one to whom all attacking moves go to die. His final season at the Camp Nou, in which the choreographed positional play of the Guardiola era was forgotten in order to give the ludicrous front three of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, saw Pedro used more sparingly. When he did appear, it was in one of two decidedly unsuitable roles, and his performance inevitably dipped. The fact that he ended 2014-15 as a treble winner shouldn’t mask the fact that this was a deeply unsatisfactory campaign, individually speaking.
In the first half of the season, in which Messi played as a false-nine/number ten and the two forwards ahead of him took up narrower positions, Pedro was asked to play as something like an orthodox all-round number nine, which he most certainly is not. In the second half of the campaign, when Messi and Suárez had switched roles and equilibrium had been found, he was asked to cover whichever member of the front three was absent and play as they would have done had they been on the pitch. In case it wasn’t obvious before, this experiment only served to highlight that Pedro is not Messi, Neymar or Suárez.
Last season was another low point in Pedro’s career. Rather than reinvigorating his career, his move to Stamford Bridge only served to indicate that his time at the top had come to a close; that he, like so many others, had been chewed up and spat out by the Premier League’s maddening top-four talent churnathon. With seemingly no time set aside in training for building understanding and cohesion, he appeared unable to find his teammates’ wavelength and, as ever when things go wrong, incapable of making things happen by himself. As in his last months at Barcelona, the only thing Pedro seemed to do was remind everyone of his inadequacies.
This season, things could hardly be more different. With a far more rigorous coach, a clear and defined role and an extended run in the side in said role, we’re seeing the best of Pedro again – and the best of Pedro is pretty damn good.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. While the key players in Pep Guardiola’s 2008-2012 Barcelona vintage were far more talented, it’s arguable that without Pedro they would never have achieved the success they did. This is not to argue he’s as gifted as players like Messi, Xavi or Iniesta, but it’s certainly the case that Pedro’s strengths — selflessness, hard running and innate understanding of positional play — made everyone else on that team more effective.
When Xavi or Iniesta needed a passing option, Pedro was in space on the flank or running in behind and calling for the ball. When Messi needed someone to make a decoy run, occupy two defenders and open a pocket of space for him to drive into, Pedro made that decoy run. When Barça needed to win the ball back, Pedro was so often the first player chasing it down, hounding opposition defenders into clearing their lines and surrendering possession.
This was arguably the key to Guardiola’s era-defining team: rather than filling the side with self-obsessed galácticos, as Real Madrid have so infuriatingly done over the last 15 years, Barça supplemented their stock of ubertalented demigods with hungry, self-sacrificing youngsters and found a perfect balance.
Indeed, balancing the attack is probably the most important effect that Pedro has on his teams, and because it’s such a subtle one it often goes unnoticed. Unless he’s well-and-truly settled in a side and full of confidence on the pitch, the more noticeable, YouTube-compilation-friendly things like wondergoals, surging dribbles or defence-splitting passes are largely absent from his game. In this particular era, when individualism reigns supreme at the highest level of the game and many young players dream of winning the Ballon d’Or rather than the Champions League or the World Cup, this can mean Pedro seems relatively average.
Put simply, no-one pays attention to the guy whose intelligent off-the-ball movement opens space for the otherworldly talent to beat three players and nutmeg the keeper for the third time that afternoon.
That said, Pedro’s teammates were always well aware of his qualities and of the contribution he made to their success. When David Villa signed from Valencia after the 2010 World Cup, he admitted to struggling when it came to understanding what was required from him positionally. Truth be told, a last-shoulder poacher, even one of Villa’s calibre, was never going to fit in 100% in Guardiola’s team, especially in a role which required him to vacate space close to goal for Messi.
Despite having to jump over that stylistic hurdle, Villa made a more than decent fist of his time at the Camp Nou, and was quick to credit one particularly unsung colleague: “Pedro has helped me a lot. When I had doubts, I observed him. When I was a bit lost on the field, I would look to see what Pedro was doing on the other side and he would guide me.”
While his most important role is acting as an enabler for the more spectacular players on his team, it’s also the case that when Pedro is well-and-truly settled in a side and full of confidence on the pitch, the more noticeable, YouTube-compilation-friendly things like wondergoals, surging dribbles or defence-splitting passes do appear in his game — take last weekend’s screamer against Spurs, for example. He also has a very healthy habit of chipping in in big games, with several goals in clásicos and cup finals to his name.
All things considered, it’s not surprising that Antonio Conte’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 has brought the best out of Pedro and saved his Chelsea career. It’s even less surprising that Eden Hazard and Diego Costa are suddenly playing some of the best football of theirs too: an in-form Pedro, after all, acts not only as a potent goalscoring force but as a multiplier on his attacking teammates’ abilities. As the ultimate team player in an age of rampant individuality, Pedro’s return to prominence could just be the key to the Blues’ title charge. It couldn’t have happened to a more likable player.