Manning a defensive position in an attack-minded side can be an onerous task sometimes. But not, that is, for Sao Paulo centre-half Rhodolfo. Rather than stand by and watch his gifted colleagues do all the scoring, the 25-year-old has got in on the act this season, chipping in with six, double his tally for last year, and bettered only by Luis Fabiano and Willian Jose.
The scorers of 56 goals in 23 games so far, O Tricolor Paulista have cause to thank the adventurous stopper for the contribution he has made at both ends of the pitch.
“The other day I was talking to Lucas and he jokingly said to me: 'The rate you’re going you’ll be past me soon. I’m rooting for you, though',” the man himself told FIFA.com. “In 2010, when I was at Atletico-PR, I scored three or four goals right at the start of the season. I’m getting a lot more now, though.”
Playing the target man
Making a mark up front is nothing new to the beanpole defender, who stands 6’4 tall. In his youth days with the Paranaense club he occupied a right-sided role in a 3-5-2 formation and was free to roam down the flank and bolster the attack.
Occasionally he would even be switched to the centre of the frontline, his height coming in useful whenever his side was in desperate need of a goal. “There were times when the coach stuck me in the box, in between two pacy forwards,” he said, taking up the story. “My job was to flick the ball on to them, but though I was there to help them score, I ended up getting a few myself.”
Such desperate measures are not needed at Sao Paulo, not with a proven goalscorer like Luis Fabiano leading the line. Where Rhodolfo has come in more than useful, however, is at set-pieces, where he has been teaming up to great effect with another Atletico-PR youth product, midfielder Jadson.
“We work on it a lot in training,” said the goalscoring stopper. “Jadson and I have come up through the ranks together and I know how well he can deliver the ball. I also know that if I keep my wits about me there’ll be a lot of chances flying around.”
Doing it for the team
Though more than happy to score goals, the rangy Rhodolfo’s main task is to prevent his side conceding them. It is a job he does well. Hard to dislodge from the ball, he is quick and agile for someone of his stature and is a rock that Sao Paulo coach Emerson Leao can rely on. What is more, his all-round qualities have not gone unnoticed in the European market.
Given the emphasis Sao Paulo put on attack, Rhodolfo’s considerable attributes are invaluable at the back, where he and his defensive colleagues work hard to cover any gaps: “These days players are more attack-minded and score more goals, and a lot of the time we’ve just got the one holding midfielder on the pitch. The rest are creative and attacking midfielders and forwards.
“Obviously that makes it harder for a central defender,” he continued. “But we talk a lot. Leao says that everyone has to help out and he works on that in training all day long, to ensure we play together as a team and move the ball around.”
For Sao Paulo, just like any side looking to play a compact game with every player fulfilling their function, Barcelona are the obvious role models, and not just in terms of the technical brilliance they display when in possession.
“We speak a lot about the example they set,” explained Rhodolfo. “They don’t have a lot of defensive midfielders. They attack as a team and defend as a team. Even Messi gets back to defend, so there’s no reason why we can’t do the same. And that’s what’s happening. We’re defending well as a unit.”
As he went on to say, Sao Paulo’s hunger for silverware this season means that everyone is committed to the cause and prepared to work for each other: “The team is a little bit younger, but the players have got their minds set on winning a title. They want to make history at the club and we’re all working together towards that.”
One for all and all for one is the message at Sao Paulo these days. And if Lucas is not at all concerned about being outscored by Rhodolfo, the centre-half will no doubt be delighted if his young midfield team-mate edges him out in the tackling stats.