Forty-seven passes, four chances created and one shot in 56 minutes does not sound too bad for your average midfielder, but James Rodriguez should not be average.
The Colombia international played a bit part in Bayern Munich’s 3-2 win at Augsburg on Friday before being replaced by Thomas Muller. Given the latter’s suspension, James will likely keep his place in the starting line-up against Liverpool in Tuesday’s Champions League showdown.
That game could be a pivotal one in both Bayern’s season and the career of James. The World Cup Golden Boot and FIFA Puskas Award winner of 2014, as well as the fourth most expensive signing in Real Madrid’s history, is in a rut.
Where has it gone wrong?
THE KOVAC CONUNDRUM
As part of the loan deal with Madrid struck two years ago, Bayern have the option to sign James for a reported €42m, nearly half the fee the European champions paid Monaco in 2014. He is still valued by members of the club’s hierarchy, such as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. He has spoken fondly of life in Germany.
He has managed just one league assist this season, but only three Bayern players have created more chances than his 29 – not bad for a player limited to eight starts due to injury.
The problem seems to be Niko Kovac.
After getting over a back issue, James was a big success in his first season under Carlo Ancelotti and then Jupp Heynckes, scoring seven goals and assisting another 11 in 23 Bundesliga appearances. He described Heynckes as “a very experienced coach who exudes calm and poise”; that he could speak Spanish made life even easier.
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) May 26, 2018
Under Kovac, things have been more difficult. A troubled run of results at the start of the season – including a four-game winless run – led president Uli Hoeness and chairman Rummenigge to round on the media for sensationalising the club’s ‘crisis’. They would have to admit, though, that James and Kovac at least do not seem to be clicking.
The player does not seem to fit with his coach’s methods, either as a central midfielder or in the front three. The pair reportedly argued in December, although James insisted publicly: “There are no issues with the coach or any staff. I am happy here, I am calm and in the future, we will see what happens.”
This was always likely to be a more difficult season for Bayern. Incorporating youngsters like Alphonso Davies, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka shows they recognise the need to overhaul an ageing squad, even if they dragged their feet over the problem for too long. Kovac’s daunting task is to shape this developing side and drain the old blood, all while sustaining a treble challenge. For that, he needs players in tune with his ideas, or at least prepared to run through walls for him. James looks to be neither.
It’s time to vote for the 2018 Goal of the Year! We’ve narrowed it down to a top ten
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) January 4, 2019
WHERE COULD HE GO?
James’ predicament is indicative of a trend among attacking playmakers.
Across Europe’s elite, players blessed with creative qualities are being marginalised if they are not tactically flexible, too. Jose Mourinho was apparently a trailblazer when he dispensed of Juan Mata to accommodate Oscar at Chelsea in 2013-14.
At Arsenal, Unai Emery has kept top-earner Mesut Ozil on the fringes. At Real Madrid, Isco is fighting a losing battle for a place in Santiago Solari’s plans. Mata, now at Manchester United, is predominantly a back-up winger. Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho is failing to convince in a flat midfield at Barcelona and Paulo Dybala’s future at Juventus is unclear.
Of the teams who could afford James and his wages, few look likely to bother if Bayern pass on their option. Liverpool occasionally drop Roberto Firmino into a deeper role, but it seems unlikely they would spend a fortune on a possible reserve. Manchester City and Barca do not need him; neither do Juve, who are said to want Mohamed Salah if Dybala goes. United and Chelsea seem possibilities but, again, they are not set up to embrace James’ best qualities. Even if Arsenal were, they do not have the funds to make it happen.
What of Paris Saint-Germain? Thomas Tuchel does use a 4-2-3-1 at times and would have both money to spend and a creative void to fill if Neymar heads back to Spain, as has been persistently suggested. Even so, there are plenty of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ here – too many on which to base a decisive career move.
As unbelievable as it would have sounded just two or three years ago, James’ elite-level days are in limbo. A star turn against Liverpool might be needed if that is to change.
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