Believe or not, James Rodríguez is dying to play for Atletico de Madrid. I had to read the scoop three times when someone sent me the news, but it now looks like a move close to happen.
If you believe several sources related to the player and Atleti, the Colombian has stopped all transfer talks to Napoli – where he would reunite with Carlo Ancelotti, under whom he played some of his best football in the second half of 2014, as well as in Munich two years later – and has instructed his agent to direct his efforts to play for Diego Simeone, thus moving back to Madrid, a city he really likes.
Well, this is business and James is obviously old enough to choose his next destination, or at least have a say in it. He can’t have a single complaint about how Real Madrid dealt with his exit in 2017, as the club loaned him go to a top European opponent, accepted to pay a part of his salary and even reduced his release clause to 42Mn for Bayern, approximately half of what Real Madrid had paid for him. Now that Bayern has decided not to keep him, and given Real Madrid’s excess of offensive midfielders, finding a decent and rewarding exit for James and the club was a priority of the first order this summer, but Atletico?
Real and Atletico have done plenty of business during their history, although most times the transfers showed the obvious difference in status between both clubs: Real Madrid signed players that were doing extremely well for Atletico and that had an even higher ceiling – like Hugo Sánchez or Santiago Solari – while the Rojiblancos got players that either had no place on Real Madrid’s bench or that were well past their prime. Jurado and Juanfran are good examples of the former situation, while Bernd Schuster or Miquel Soler exemplify well the latter. The case of Marcos Llorente… well, I’ll leave Mr Sobhani to categorize that one.
Of course, there’s no room for James right now in Zidane’s dressing room. With Hazard, Isco, Modric, etc. it is hard to imagine how often James would play. But even if his case fits with the profile of players who left Real for Atletico because they would not make the starting lineup at the Santiago Bernabeu, James is a little too good to be sold to Simeone’s team without giving a bit of thought to the issue.
Yes, the move will greatly depend on Atletico forking out the cash, and it’s unclear how much they can afford to pay after having signed Joao Felix at the price of a world superstar. They’ve also sold Griezmann, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to raise the transfer from the 120Mn Barcelona want to pay to the 200Mn Atletico still request.
Cash is relevant to the Bernabeu in a summer during which Real Madrid have moved fast and have spent reasonably big. But strengthening a rival in a line in which they desperately need someone of James’s profile does not seem smart. Despite being injury prone, the Colombian is a dependable scorer – on average, his good seasons saw him score once every three matches, while Griezmann’s best are slightly over one goal every two – but especially an outstanding passer, someone who can leave the striker in front of the opposing keeper a few times per match. In fact, during his career he’s assisted even more often than he’s scored, some stat for a player with good scoring numbers.
Could James occupy Griezmann’s void? Not entirely, of course, and there’s of course some doubts regarding his fit with Simeone’s system in terms of effort and physical ability, but I don’t exactly relish the idea of watching a hard working midfield behind James and Diego Costa. In fact, sounds like a handful even for any top-level defence.
If the transfer ends up happening, James would also join Alvaro Morata to replicate a duo that worked wonders for Zidane’s Real Madrid in 2016/17. Both players led the second unit that was key to win LaLiga and gave plenty of rest to the starters, who in turn ended up conquering the Champions League title as well. In that season, Morata and James combined for 23 goals and 11 assists in LaLiga, outstanding numbers given that neither of them played more than 25 matches, or started in more than 15.
Needless to say, the Bernabeu always had a soft spot for the Colombian. When in shape, he looked the part, not only skilled but also very smart on the pitch. The two or three streaks during which he took care of himself were memorable, and of course he has that knack for scoring beauties which always captivates the minds and memories of the most demanding socios.
Hopefully the transaction will work out with Napoli and Ancelotti. If Atletico end up generating the right pressure so that the Italians stop bargaining and put the cash on the table, great.
However, and unless Atletico pay (another) fortune for the Colombian, I’d rather loan him again to any other club outside of Spain than watching him take a set piece at the Bernabeu wearing the Rojiblanca. Nowadays, Atletico are a top level contender both in Spain and Europe, and reinforcing their team with a player of this calibre is hardly a good idea.