The 19-year-old has already made his senior debut for Diego Simeone’s side this season and has been likened to the former Rojiblancos favourite
All eyes might be on Joao Felix at Atletico Madrid this season, but there has been another teenager in Diego Simeone’s squad with whom the Portuguese could form a devastating partnership in the coming years.
Greeted by a thunderous ovation from the Wanda Metripolitano crowd, 19-year-old attacking midfielder Rodrigo Riquelme made his debut for the Rojiblancos off the bench in the come-from-behind win over Eibar ahead of the September international break.
Riquelme, or ‘Roro’ as he has been better known, was born in Madrid on April 2, 2000 – just one day before the anniversary of Atletico’s formation.
His older brother, Alejandro, had already been enrolled into Atletico’s academy by the time Rodrigo’s fondness for football was noticed by his parents.
Rodrigo would run onto the pitch to play with the round ball in the breaks between Alejandro’s matches, and it was not until his family moved to Zaragoza that he began his formal training.
He joined Real Zaragoza’s ‘prebenjamin’ and ‘benjamin mañas’ programmes for youngsters with a talent for the game before moving back to Madrid to join Rayo Vallecano. From there, he was spotted by Atletico’s talent scouts and joined their academy at the age of 10 before progressing through the various under-age sides.
Speaking exclusively to Goal, former Atletico academy director Miguel Angel Ruiz revealed that from the moment he saw Riquelme, he was convinced he was on a trajectory to the very top.
“When I arrived in 2014-15, that first season was about meeting all the boys and evaluating them. That’s when I meet Rodrigo as a first-year cadet,” Angel Ruiz explained.
“I saw him and we began to establish a system for monitoring his training and matches, so that at the end of the season it has been not only the coach’s judgement but also the coaching staff and the sports management. Through that process, we began to get to know him better. From those first reports, it was clear he was on the right path.
“It has been a difficult age for children, with puberty and permanent changes to their body. But Riquelme was cheerful, laid-back and well-behaved. From my experience as a soccer professional, I learned that there are players who stand out in technical aspects and it seems that they are in a different world. But Roro was not like that – he was a normal boy.”
Riquelme’s performances for the Atletico Juvenil side were enough to catch the eye of Simeone and he was invited to train with the club’s first-team squad in pre-season ahead of the 2019-20 campaign.
His first appearance with the seniors came in a friendly against Numancia in July, when he stepped off the bench to provide an assist for Vitolo to open the scoring in a 3-0 win.
From there, he travelled to the United States for Atleti’s summer tour, and was named in the starting line-up for their clash with MLS All-Stars in Orlando, Florida.
After 43 minutes he again showcased both his raw ability and incredible vision by producing an outrageous backheel from the edge of the box for Marcos Llorente to run onto and score. Despite many of them being asleep across the Atlantic at the time, Atletico fans had a new, homegrown talent to get excited about.
Despite those promising pre-season performances, he would have to wait until September 1, with Atleti locked at 2-2 against Eibar having fallen behind to two late goals, to make his competitive debut, replacing Thomas Lemar.
He made an immediate impact, though, very nearly scoring with a goal-bound shot that was blocked at the last second before Thomas Partey netted a late winner for Simeone’s side.
“At first I was a little nervous but I imagine it has been normal. Then, he [Simeone] reassured me by telling me to play as I would in training and that I was going to create a goal,” Riquelme told the Atletico website in the aftermath of his senior bow.
“Debuting in this stadium with all these people and being from the academy has been a dream for me. I hope there are more opportunities and I will work for them.”
Riquelme was deployed on the right-hand side in that Eibar match, but there has been still some debate as to his best position going forward. It has been agreed that he will likely spend his career playing in an attacking role behind a central striker, but whether that will be centrally or on either wing has yet to be determined.
That flexibility has already seen comparisons drawn with Antoine Griezmann; a soccer professional who Riquelme cites as one of his heroes, with the teenager even replicating one of the France international’s celebrations when scoring for the Atletico youth teams last season.
— Antoine Griezmann (@AntoGriezmann) March 31, 2019
Ruiz, however, has been sure that Riquelme will only reach his full potential if he has been allowed to embrace his superb turn of pace and be played on the left-hand side, telling Goal: “In my view, he has been a ‘trequartista’, either on the right, left or in the centre, but always behind the strikers.
“I have had conversations with national selectors and I told them that what I think has been best has been that he plays from the wing. In this way, his diagonal runs, preferably from the left, end in him shooting or passing to a team-mate.
“His change of pace has been brutal and has been something that could differentiate him with others in his age group. He has speed, change of pace and ability to overpower an opponent in one-on-one situations. On the right wing, he can do it but he will lose a little. The left has been his best position.
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“Is he like Griezmann? The Frenchman I consider more a second striker. Juninho? The Brazilian was lighter, but Riquelme has a fast pace change, and Juno didn’t have that power,” he concluded.
Riquelme may not turn out to be the new Griezmann in terms of positioning, but the signs are there that he could yet make a similar impact on Simeone’s side as he looks to reshape his squad following his summer overhaul.
Riquelme has been very much part of those plans, and might just be the missing piece of the jigsaw.