“Never go back”, is the time-honoured maxim which has governed football since the game’s inception. It is the idea that once success is experienced at a certain club, it is near-impossible for a player or manager to replicate it.
But there are those who have bucked the trend in recent times, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matić in particular, and Jay Rodriguez could be added to that duo with a sense he has unfinished business at his hometown club Burnley.
Rodriguez has emerged as a summer transfer target for the Clarets, six years after he left Turf Moor for Southampton, with Sean Dyche keen to bolster his thin squad ahead of a draining schedule next season, with European football a possibility.
Unlike team-mates Salomón Rondón, Jonny Evans and Nacer Chadli, Rodriguez doesn’t have a relegation release or buyout clause in his contract which means the Baggies will be looking to negotiate north of the £12million they paid for Southampton, which may put Burnley off.
Rodriguez is not a prolific goalscorer while, at 28, he has possibly peaked, but Burnley are a bit of a special case in the Premier League and there is much to be admired about his style which fits in with Dyche’s collective ethic.
It would certainly be a popular move among fans. In an age of increasing distance between supporters and players, Burnley remain one of the few genuine community-based clubs in the top-flight and adding a ‘local boy done good’ to their squad would reinforce that idea.
Rodriguez made his way through the youth ranks at Turf Moor before making his debut for the club on December 29, 2007 under Steve Cotterill but after becoming a regular fixture in the first-team set-up the following season as the Clarets were promoted to the Premier League, he was sent out on loan to Barnsley and didn’t make a single top-flight appearance in 2009/10.
Relegation to the Championship then saw him emerge as a striker of real promise for his hometown club, scoring 29 goals in 79 league games and earning a £7million move to Southampton where he finally became a Premier League player.
All 137 of his Premier League appearances have been for Saints or West Brom and, although as a Baggie he surely won’t admit it, there must be a yearning desire to play in the league with his boyhood club. That alone gives a sense of aspiration and ambition that helps alleviate any concerns about a return to Turf Moor being just about nostalgia or sentiment.
Rodriguez is also a more well-rounded footballer since he left Lancashire in 2012. His touch and technique have improved while he’s more tactically astute and Southampton have, in part, acted as a finishing school for him, signified by the England cap he earned in 2013.
A cruciate knee ligament injury followed by ankle surgery, however, has dramatically stalled his progress – even threatening his career at one point – and the 2014/15 campaign was a complete write-off while the following season saw him play just 16 times. Since his solitary England cap, he’s made just 62 top-flight starts – 45 per cent of which have been this season.
Making up for lost time
He is a player clearly keen to make up for the time lost in his mid-20s. Where better place to do that in your hometown under a manager like Dyche who has a canny knack of making individuals better by committing to the team ethic.
From Burnley’s point of view, paying in excess of £12million for Rodriguez last summer would have made far less sense than this year. While his goal numbers haven’t exactly stood out, with seven in 34 appearances (one every 370 minutes), it’s key that he’s proved his fitness and that the work-rate and hunger remain undimmed.
In terms of this season’s numbers, in an attacking sense, he ranks outside the top 40-50: 58th for goals per 90 (0.24), 43rd for total goal attempts per 90 (2.28) and 58th for touches in the opposition box per 90 (3.67).
His total league goals for the season is in line with his xG of 7.44 and his solitary assist is just below the xA figure of 1.83. It’s also worth highlighting that he’s scored against Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City.
Rodriguez is a Swiss Army knife who has played in eight different positions for West Brom: 17 games as a central striker, two as a left winger, one on the right, six across the three attacking midfield roles and one apiece as a traditional right and left midfielder.
It’s notable that his goal production to games ratio is dramatically enhanced by just looking at him in a central forward’s role: five goals and one assist in 17 matches. That’s a direct involvement in a goal every 238 minutes, just over 2.5 games.
But not only is Rodriguez capable of filling in as per where his manager can or wants him to play, he’s proved that he is content with sacrificing his own individual success for that of the team – Dyche’s Burnley modus operandi in a nutshell.
Defensively, his 1.1 clearances per 90 place him 14th among Premier League attackers, 28th for interceptions (0.7) and 78th for tackles (0.86) and, while that’s hardly outstanding, there is plenty of industry.
Rodriguez is not going to transform Burnley beyond what they already are, nor is he likely to work his way back into the England set-up – that moment has unfortunately passed. But what he does offer is a malleable squad member wholly committed to the club, team and town.
Providing the price is right and wage demands, especially as he approaches his 29th birthday, aren’t excessive, what more would Dyche want from a player?
Irrespective of his status as the returning prodigal son.