Rodrigo Caio: Sao Paulo's Mr Versatility looks ready-made for Europe as both Lazio and Inter circle


Jack Lang is profiling some of the best young talents in Brazil, some of whom could be targets for European sides this summer. He has already looked at Liverpool target Luan and talented left-back Guilherme Arana, and now turns his attention to São Paulo's Mr Versatility...

There was a reunion for two of Brazil's best and most maligned defenders in Melbourne on Tuesday. David Luiz and Thiago Silva lined up together in the canary-yellow jersey for the first time since the 2014 World Cup, helping the Seleção to a commanding 4-0 victory over Australia.

But they were not centre-back partners: no, David Luiz played in midfield, with Tite preferring Rodrigo Caio alongside Thiago. It was only the defender's third senior international appearance, but he has long been viewed as a star in the making...


 

Background

Rodrigo Caio is São Paulo FC through and through: he first joined the club at the age of 12 and, alongside Lucas Moura and Casemiro, was one of the mainstays of a hugely talented age group who made smooth progress up the ranks. There were titles at U15 level, followed by success in the 2010 Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior.

He was given his first taste of first-team action the following year, at the age of 17, and his flexibility meant he instantly became a useful player to have around: he frequently filled in at right-back and in defensive midfield over the following two years, before earning a chance in his preferred position at the heart of the defence. 



"He's got great spirit," purred coach Paulo Autouri in 2013. "Everyone should learn from him. He's got a positive attitude and a winning personality, which is vital when you're building a team."

It looked like the sky was the limit for Rodrigo, but then bad fortune struck. In mid-2014 he ruptured his cruciate ligament in a game against Criciúma, an injury that kept him on the sidelines for seven months. It would take much longer than that for him to really rediscover his mojo: a proposed move to Valencia fell through in June 2015 when he failed a medical, and for a while it seemed as though his career might be petering out.

But the last couple of years have put such fears to bed: Rodrigo has reestablished himself as one of Brazil's most cultured defenders. He shone at the Rio Olympics last summer and again there is talk of a move to Europe.

 

Strengths and style

Rodrigo is the kind of player who sees defending as art rather than war. He plays the game with his head up, marshalling space and making timely interventions rather than steaming into challenges. He's talented with the ball at his feet – not for nothing have previous coaches used him in midfield – and is a natural leader and organiser.

He's also a mean man-marker when circumstances demand, tenacious and dedicated to his task. Witness this famous smother job on Neymar back in 2013:


 

Areas for improvement

At 1m82, Rodrigo is not the most physically imposing player, meaning most managers have preferred to pair him with a more snarling, dominant centre-back. Some in Brazil have even claimed that he is 'too nice' to do the real dirty work in defence, although he says this has more to do with his preppy-surfer look than it does with his actual footballing ability.

 

Who would he suit?



Rodrigo turns 24 next month, so the feeling is that he should chance his arm on this side of the Atlantic sooner rather than later. Italy would seem like a good fit for his skill set, so it's no surprise that Lazio have been linked with a summer swoop. But with his flexibility, he'd be a handy little signing for plenty of Champions League clubs.

 

What they say

Rogério Ceni, São Paulo coach: "Rodrigo is very intelligent. I have a lot of admiration for him, because I played with him and saw that he has a really good understanding of football. Left-sided centre-back is his most natural position, but he can play in front – not as an all-out defensive midfielder but as a 'third centre-back'. He's got everything to play in those positions: intelligence, a good pass, aerial ability. He's so complete and has a lot of experience even though he is young."

 

Did you know?

Rodrigo unwittingly found himself at the centre of a moral debate that gripped Brazilian football earlier this year. In a derby game against Corinthians, he went in for a challenge with Jô, who appeared to clatter into São Paulo goalkeeper Dênis and was shown a yellow card for his troubles. The booking would have kept him out of the return match between the sides, but Rodrigo informed the referee that it was in fact he who had made contact with his team-mate, giving Jô a reprieve.

It was an admirable act of fairness ("It was nothing – I did what anyone should have done," Rodrigo said), but that did not stop colleague Maicon and coach Rogério – plus loads of lesser-minded São Paulo fans – having a massive moan about it.

At least one important person was impressed. "Honesty is important in any walk of life," said Brazil coach Tite after calling Rodrigo into his squad for the Argentina and Australia friendlies. "There are two things I look for: a player's technical performance and his conduct." That prompted a pointed response from Rogério: "Maybe Tite and Rodrigo Caio are better people than me."