Up 2-0 and receiving the ball inside Schalke’s penalty box in a match last September, Bayern’s James Rodriguez danced past two defenders before unveiling his signature move: a reverse chip pass into space cutting out oppositions defenders for Arturo Vidal’s blind side, goal scoring run. Then last month, this time up 3-2 against Werder Bremen, he attracted five defenders and waited on top of the penalty box before hitting the same pass for a Thomas Muller goal. Those passes displayed the combination of cheek and defense-unlocking-touch that put him on the international conscious four years ago at the World Cup in Brazil.
It was telling that the match versus Schalke was the 26-year-old’s first start in the Bundesliga after coming over last summer from Real Madrid on a two-year loan, and that he scored a goal and provided an assist. After all, his quality was never in question, and neither was his production. James’ inconsistent play since moving to La Liga in 2014 focused on his attacking midfield position that fails to fit inside the well drilled boxes of European play. Carlo Ancelotti’s firing by Bayern in September gave further fuel to those anxieties. Of course, any manager would have difficulty in reaching the standard set by previous manager Pep Guardiola. Whereas Rafinha gently described the Italian as not being “fascinated by tactics”, Arjen Robben did away with tact completely in saying that his son had better training than he did under Ancelotti.
Regardless of training methods, Ancelotti’s sacking could have added further unrest for a player badly in need of a consistent run of matches. Bayern brought in James to take the creative pressure off Thiago and add more versatility to their attack, particularly in Europe. His positional versatility, ranging anywhere across midfield or in attack of a 4-3-3 or as a winger in a 4-4-2, is significant with stalwarts Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller ahead of him in the pecking and political order. This was a similar situation to one he faced under Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid. The true playmaker position we saw him truly excel at in the 2014 World Cup did not exist with either Zidane, Ancelotti, or perhaps any modern European system. Either that, or each manager would have to overhaul their ideas to build around the Colombian’s creativity.
Faced with uncertainty after Ancelotti’s sacking, James instead found stability and consistency under Heynckes. He became the focal point of creativity after Thiago’s injury, still dynamic in his movement and positional variety but tasked with spreading the ball to Bayern’s attackers. Displaying both the managerial arts of the carrot and the stick, Heynckes recently described his playmaker as a “God-send” but reminded James of the long road head in reaching his potential. Heynckes built the most balanced midfield trio in European football when he won the Champions League with Bayern in 2013. Although James is a different style of player than that triangle of Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Muller.
His struggles adapting to a new culture were compounded with a lack of playing time earlier this season. But again Heynckes, fluent in Spanish, displays the importance of the human touch in understanding the adjustment period of a new league. Although his manager notes how hard James works off the ball. And he has a knack for making opponents pay when picking up the second ball in transition. He’s proclaimed a newfound happiness at Bayern, which looking ahead to the summer, comes at exactly the right moment for Colombia as well.
James was one of the first superstars to come out of the Monaco Moneyball machine, having signed in 2013 for $55 million from Porto. Following a breakout performance in the 2014 World Cup (which included this chip goal against Japan), he became the most expensive player in football with Real Madrid paying over $100 million for his services. The fee did him no favors. And as we recently discussed with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, perhaps each player’s positional versatility played against both in their inability to establish themselves with a side. Or, in a game where wingers are playmakers and midfielders controllers, they were in the wrong era.
Isco and James failing to establish a role under Zidane highlights the evolution of a European midfield as both came to the club as the focal points of an attack. But with Luka Modric flanked by another sturdy passer in Toni Kroos and the physical balance in Casemiro, either player would theoretically unbalance Zidane’s side. When faced with a decision last summer, Zidane eventually chose Isco over James. And out went James, just as quickly.
There are signs to whether Zidane chose the wrong attacker as Isco sits on the bench during important matches like the most recent El Clasico. It’s rumored that Cristiano Ronaldo would have preferred playing with the Colombian than Isco, even if the roles in Real Madrid’s attack are clear. Had the club kept James instead, where would he have played? That is the James conundrum, and shows how vital Bayern’s run in Champions League this season is in a bigger, more philosophical picture of how far a side can advance in Europe playing a true playmaker in the lineup.
Then again, the current solution is to play James further back in midfield protected by the physicality of Martinez beside him and the industry of Muller in front. In the common refrain of the demise of the true playmaker, James is an example of how an attacking midfield can adapt by focusing on the defensive aspects of his game. Bayern are in a familiar position of dominating the league by 18 points with only the Champions League left to play. Places in a lineup can be juggled in the league once Thiago returns. But perhaps when chasing a goal, there will come a point in Europe when Heynckes must decide between industry and creativity and James forces himself on on the field at the expense of Muller, Ribery or Robben.
Colombia manager Jose Pekerman implored James to remain calm during the managerial upheaval at Bayern earlier this season. Pekerman is as reliant and invested in James’ form as James himself. Colombia’s fourth place finish was one of the surprises of the CONMEBOL qualifiers. They should get out of their World Cup group this summer featuring Poland, Japan and Senegal. But beyond that in knockout play, as at Bayern, they’ll go as far as their playmaker takes them. There’ll surely be another group of young playmakers who break out in Russia, but we’ll need to temper our expectations with the reminder of James’ past that there is no straight line to a soccer career. It may have taken four years, but James is exactly where he should be in his career: pulling strings and taking responsibility for the destiny of both club and country.