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The James Rodriguez Conundrum

Ah, sh*t. Here we go again. Sell him? Keep him? Loan him out again? As the move to Italy gets closer, Anshuman Sharma explores the options available for the club and the player this summer .

Argentina v Colombia: Group B - Copa America Brazil 2019 Photo by Bruna Prado/Getty Images

On June 5, 2019, Bayern Munich announced that ”James Rodriguez (27) is to leave FC Bayern München after he asked the management at the German champions not to take up the purchase option agreed with Real Madrid.” In his last year under Niko Kovac, James struggled to fit into the team. He failed to get going and was blighted by injuries all season as Bayern went on to make a late comeback to win the Bundesliga.

When James signed for the German Champions back in the summer of 2017 with a £4.5million loan fee, for a two-year loan at the end of which they had an option to buy him for £35m, it looked like Real Madrid had been robbed. Bayern had done to them what they had done to Bayern when they bought Toni freaking Kroos for 24 million. James was signed at the request of Bayern manager Carlo Ancelotti -- the same guy who had brought the best out of James at Real Madrid, and it seemed like those two were a match made in heaven.

Initially, he struggled under Ancelotti as the manager laboured to fit both him and Thomas Muller in his favored 4-3-3 formation. On only two occasions did he manage to include both players in his starting line-up before he was sacked as James wrestled to fit in.

All that changed when Jupp Heynckes was brought back into an interim head-coaching role. The new boss solved the Muller and James problem. What followed was an “explosion in performance”.

Under Heynckes, James took up a role in the middle as one of three where he acted as an offensive midfielder in a 4-3-3. He played deeper, as Heynckes felt he could use the Colombian’s vision in a deeper role. In that role, James searched for open pockets of space but also had to track back and help out defensively. In the words of Heynckes, “This earned him the respect of his teammates. He feels really good. And what could be surprising for many people, he is so strong in running, he has outstanding running statistics and he helps us in the defense.” Heynckes called James a “running machine”. His teammates called him the team’s heartbeat.

James managed to reinvent himself in a new role, and as a classic number ‘8’, he became more instrumental to Bayern’s offensive scheme as the season wore on. All that peaked in that return leg versus none other than Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. With a place in the Champions League final at stake and with a point to prove to his parent club, James dropped a masterclass performance. He was the fulcrum of the Bayern side that had Real Madrid on the ropes for most of the game. He even scored that inevitable goal that every ex-player scores against Madrid. He did everything in that game but celebrate.

Stats from James’ performance in the return leg vs Real Madrid. His heat map shows how he played in a deeper number’8’ role in that great performance that night.

You can either call it respect to his former club, or disrespect to his club at the time, but one thing was certain: James was conscious not to burn the bridges at the Bernabeu. He managed two things that day: 1) He endeared himself to the Bernabeu faithful; and 2) Showed Zidane and the Madrid management what he was capable of. Even though Madrid included an option to buy for Bayern, James always made sure he did nothing to burn his bridges at Real Madrid in case he ever had the chance to come back. During that game, he risked pissing off a lot of people in Bavaria for kicking the ball out for an injured Real Madrid player when Bayern was losing on aggregate. But for the Madridistas, he showed how he still loved the club that he supported since he was a kid.

The case for staying in Madrid

A year from that game, he’s back at the club. Though it seems just a matter of time till he gets sold to recoup the money spent on the Galacticos 3.0 project, there are plenty of reasons for him and Zidane to put aside their differences and bring him back to the squad.

Okay I know some of you just rolled your eyes at the suggestion but hear me out. Across data analyzed from four domestic seasons (two each in La Liga and Bundesliga), across his time in Madrid under Zidane(2015/16, 2016/17) and two from his time in Munich (2017/18, 2018/19) his underlying numbers have been the best in his 2017/2018 year under Heynckes. His stats (per game) from that year show that he had the most tackles, second most interceptions and the most assists of the four-year period. He had the most key passes, dribbles, fouls won, number of passes, and the best passing accuracy.

What these stats show more than anything is his versatility. With the classic number ‘10’ role losing its place in the modern game increasingly, players such as Isco, Ozil, David Silva, De Bruyne or James have had to adapt their game. While Ozil has failed to do that; others have done that to a varying degree of success. With Llorente and Ceballos leaving this summer, Isco also rumored to be on the ‘transferable’ list and Luka Modric showing signs of slowing down, the midfield is the only real area of concern heading into the season. The rumored deal for Paul Pogba is still a distant dream with Madrid needing to sell over €200 million worth of talent before they can buy him.

Madrid would be quite sensible to hold onto James even if it is for a year. Heading into a season of such importance with midfield options of Kroos, Casemiro, 34-year old Modric, and Valverde (if Isco is indeed sold), seems like a bit of a gamble. Even if Pogba signs or Isco stays, with a couple of untimely injuries you risk going into a hypothetical must-win Clasico with the league on the line -- with a midfield of Casemiro, Valverde, and Isco.

James’ versatility is such an underrated part of his game. He can play on either flank in a 4-4-2. He can tuck in behind the Jovic and Benzema tandem in Zidane’s diamond. He’s improved his game to fit in as a number ‘8’ in a 4-3-3 setup. He brings directness, his ability to hold onto the ball, his double-digit goal+assist guarantee and his great set-piece ability. A handy swiss army knife heading into the season where you go with Valverde and Modric, who are on the opposite ends of the respective scales for age and experience, so you don’t know what you’re going to get from them this season. James Rodriguez is your safety net.

As for James, the options aren’t many in terms of a suitable project. In the Premier League, Manchester City and Liverpool are already stocked in every position, while Chelsea is under a transfer ban. Manchester United and Arsenal can’t offer Champions League football. With Germany out of the question, PSG also hasn’t been linked with him. And his role at Juventus doesn’t seem as straightforward as it did a few months ago with the appointment of Sarri who is known to be very rigid with his system and his profile of players that fit with it. Napoli seems the only other real option in the Italian league, a league where game for the playmakers isn’t as suitable as it is in La Liga.

The case to find another club

All that being said, it doesn’t change the fact that James craves a prominent role in the team. He aches for trust from his manager. He wants to be loved, admired, and trusted by his manager -- and be adored by his fans. He wants his manager to envision his starting line-up like Carlo Ancelotti did for Real Madrid or Jose Pekerman did for all those years with Columbia. Ever since his breakout 2014 World Cup he has been their main man -- their go-to guy for inspiration and magic. With Zidane back at Madrid and an influx of Galacticos 3.0, there seems to be no respite in the fight for the starting spots. No one really is a guaranteed starter with Zidane, unless you’re a French striker of Algerian descent whose name rhymes with Marim Tenzema. Zidane is very particular in what his gala eleven is. And with the rumored transfer of Pogba, whom Zidane has repeatedly courted for years, it will only get tougher for Rodriguez, despite the departures of Ceballos and Llorente. From his point of view, just another season as a handy substitute isn’t an option.

With the rumors from the Italian shore getting stronger and stronger, Serie A seems like the more likely destination for the Columbian. In a recent interview, former Bayern player and legend Lothar Matthäus said “I think he’ll end up at Juventus in Turin. James has been in contact with Cristiano Ronaldo since his time at Real Madrid and he told me that the Portuguese star wants him to go to Juventus. I understand why: Cristiano knows that James is a player capable of partnering with him to score and, therefore, they are able to make each other shine.” Ronaldo has never hidden his admiration for James and has always looked to have him on his team. With Juventus lacking midfield creativity in the recent Champions League campaign, and their window to win the competition with Ronaldo fast closing, Juventus may throw their hat in the ring for his signature. Napoli too has been linked with a loan move with an option to make it permanent for €40 Million at the end of the season. To sweeten the deal, Adidas is rumored to offer to pay 20% of his salary to come to Naples. What’s clear is that another summer of uncertainty isn’t an option for him.

In Madrid, every summer it seems like there is a question of where James will play next season. Whatever option that both parties choose, it seems increasingly likely that this summer James may see his future more clearly than in a long time.

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