James Rodriguez: The curious case of Real Madrid forward on course for Everton

When James Rodriguez scored his wondergoal for Colombia against Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup, he had the world’s biggest clubs queuing up to sign him.

By the time the tournament finished, he had won the Golden Ball and would eventually sign for Real Madrid for £63m on a six-year contract at the age of 23.

But the years that have followed have not been easy.

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His latest contract at Madrid expires in 2021 and now, a reunion with one of the few managers who got the best out of him in recent years looks likely in England. Everton are closing in on what would be an eye-catching transfer that would see the enigmatic midfielder join forces with Carlo Ancelotti for a third time, having played under him at Real Madrid and, briefly, at Bayern Munich.

From finding himself on the periphery after commanding one of the world’s highest transfer fees to hoping to rediscover his form under a long-time admirer, we look back on the curious case of the Colombian and what might lay ahead…

From Banfield to the Bernabeu

Arriving in Europe in the summer of 2010 as a supremely talented 19-year-old, Porto was his destination and the Portuguese outfit were willing to pay around £4m to Banfield – the club in Buenos Aires.

By 2013, his stock continued to rise and Monaco triggered his €45m release clause. After just one season in Ligue 1, and a hugely impressive World Cup where he was named player of the tournament, James arrived at his dream destination: Real Madrid.

The 2014/15 season was, personally at least, a successful one for James. He was named La Liga’s best midfielder and was selected in the team of the year. However, Real Madrid lost out to Barcelona in the title race, and were unable to defend the Champions League. Carlo Ancelotti was relieved of his duties, and Zinedine Zidane took control.

In Zidane’s first season, Real won their 11th Champions League. But James was a peripheral figure, as Zidane’s preference of a 4-3-3 rendered the Colombian to cameos from the bench. Indeed, James started just 21 of Real’s 52 games that season.

The odd man out as Real dominate Europe

In Zidane’s first tenure at the club, Real Madrid won an unprecedented three Champions League titles in a row. And as a result, you cannot blame the Frenchman for wanting to stick to his guns. James was surplus to requirements and was reunited with Ancelotti at Bayern Munich on a two-year loan deal in the summer of 2017.

The Colombian’s case is curious in that he somehow remains a Madrid player, back at the Santiago Bernabeu after a two-year loan spell in Bavaria.

It is no surprise James has perennially been linked with a move away from the Spanish capital; Zidane has made it clear through offering just 13 appearances in all competitions this term that he is dispensable.

When James moved to Bayern Munich at the start of his temporary spell in 2017, club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was effusive in his praise as the player tried to reboot his career.

“We are very happy that we have managed to conclude this transfer,” he said. “The signing of James Rodríguez was the big wish from our manager, Carlo Ancelotti, after the two of them worked together successfully at Real Madrid.”

Ancelotti’s dismissal in September 2017 didn’t derail the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot winner. With seven league goals and 11 assists, he was one of Bayern’s chief creative outlets on the road to a record sixth consecutive Bundesliga title.

Reflecting on his first season at the Allianz Arena, Rummenigge added: “We are completely happy with his development, especially since Jupp Heynckes became coach. He is a very, very good transfer.”

But Bayern never exercised the option to buy James on a permanent deal for €42m. Last summer, when Niko Kovac was still in charge, Bayern’s transfer policy and club strategy was heavily tilted towards building towards the long-term.

With the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller already at the club providing experience, the feeling was that signing James might stunt the development in Serge Gnabry, Thiago Alcantara, Leon Goretzka as well as Alphonso Davies, who operates in James’ secondary left-sided position.

It left him in limbo, and with little option but to return to Real’s ranks. This season, James has picked up his frustrations from Zidane’s previous tenure, not helped by a knee injury sustained on international duty with Colombia. Zidane has always denied claims of a rift between himself and the player, but his actions have spoken volumes.

He found himself back in his manager’s line-up in late June to face Real Sociedad, following the coronavirus outbreak, but that was his first league start since October. Speaking to Spanish newspaper AS in the days after, his frustration was clear.

“Many things have been said about me and the majority of it are lies,” he said. “One of the things that does annoy me is when my professionalism has been put in doubt, that is something which I won’t accept. I am very professional, that is why I have reached this far in the game.”

Why was he not playing? “That’s a good question, I’d like to know myself,” James replied. Perhaps that was the final straw in finally giving up on making it at arguably the world’s biggest club.

Enter Ancelotti. He has signed him twice after all, and it should be no surprise to learn of the links to Goodison Park, with player and manager both aware of their suitability to one another’s methods.

Ancelotti has largely kept faith in Everton’s first-choice No 10 Gylfi Sigurdsson since taking over in December, but the Icelander has struggled for consistency and scored only two league goals all season – his lowest return in almost a decade.

The Toffees’ biggest issues may lie in a porous defence but they managed to score only 44 times all season – their joint-lowest tally since 2005 – so creativity, and goals, are also in high demand for Ancelotti.

If James can rediscover anything approaching his best form, he could provide a big part of the answer. He enjoyed a good first season at Madrid when the incumbent Everton boss was in charge, scoring 17 goals in 46 games.

It was he who tempted the player to Munich two years later after failing to secure a guaranteed starting place, first under Rafa Benitez and then Zidane, but the start of his season was disrupted by injury, not long before Ancelotti was sacked. The pair were close to being reunited in Naples further down the line.

Speaking in July 2019 when Napoli manager, Ancelotti said: “I’m very attached to James, I rate him very highly and he can certainly improve our team.”

The heat map above shows James has operated predominantly on the right this season when called upon, so it would be interesting to see where he would be deployed were he to join up with Ancelotti once again.

The Merseyside club have certainly improved since Marco Silva was sacked in December, but defeats against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea – all away from home – underlined the road ahead to break into the top six.

Replacing Sigurdsson with James as part of a tactical rethink is an option Ancelotti might well have pondered during the enforced break, knowing the Colombian has the potential to provide the missing star quality in such season-defining games.

Taking first-choice front two Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin’s goals out of his team, the Toffees’ third-top scorer last season, Bernard, managed to find the back of the net only three times. Adding further firepower through an addition with such a pedigree as James, despite his more recent setbacks, certainly carries an element of risk – but if it works, he could well prove an excellent investment.

What else has been said of the player?

Speaking last September, former Real Madrid manager Jorge Valdano told radio station Onda Cero: “James is a world-class player and if he is able to commit himself like he has, we have a player who is going to give another leap in quality to the squad.

“He is more mature and has learned along the way. I am convinced that he will be able to take advantage of this second chance and he will perform at his level.”

Colombia had hoped James would go on to succeed Carlos Valderrama as the country’s greatest-ever player. Speaking this week to Caracol Radio, the man himself said: “At Madrid, he was the best player in the team during the first year.

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