There was a point in time when James Rodriguez was the fastest-rising star in world football. He captured the spotlight at the 2014 World Cup, scoring one of the best goals in tournament history, which is no exaggeration. And he finished the tournament with an outstanding six goals and two assists, earning a move to Real Madrid worth 90 million euros. At the time, only the transfers of LaLiga icons Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Luis Suarez were worth more in the history of the sport.
To say that James failed to live up to expectations would be an overly simplistic and unfair summation of his career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Because the reality is that James seemed to be worth every penny at first.
He very much performed like a superstar. The Colombian attacking midfielder scored many worldies for Los Blancos, and, above all else, he was a prime creator for the vaunted front three of Ronaldo, Bale, and Karim Benzema.
In his first season with the club, James was one of the best players in Europe, registering 13 goals and 13 assists. LaLiga was at its peak in terms of interest, and James was putting on a show for millions each week. The rapport he had with Ronaldo was exceptional.
James Rodriguez was not a flop at Bayern either
Although James was not as electric in his second season, he still amassed 15 total goal contributions, split almost evenly between goals and assists yet again. And in his final season with Los Blancos before a loan move to Bayern Munich, James had 14 goal contributions.
Even at Bayern under manager Carlo Ancelotti, James was a rousing success. In the first year of his two-year loan, the man had 7 goals and 11 assists. That is outstanding. Some of his plays were just as jaw-dropping as the ones he made as a first-year Madridista. In another historic side, James earned his spot.
However, that next season, the pragmatic Niko Kovac entered, bringing with him a playing style more suited to the mid-table side he had previously maximized. Kovac won the double but frustrated fans and players alike with a style that did not suit Bayern’s dominance. It was a year of transition for the team as a whole, and James suffered. He did not fit Kovac’s system and was eschewed by the manager despite being excellent in his efficiency. In just 13 starts and 7 bench appearances, James had 7 goals and 3 assists.
Bayern were not interested in purchasing James – not even to sell him somewhere else. And so James went back to Real Madrid. Sadly, he was not heading to a glorious Madrid, but, rather, to a Madrid that needed some saving after a horrible 2018-2019 and with serious issues in their squad.
James Rodriguez no longer fit Real Madrid
Zinedine Zidane was forced into playing the same kind of pragmatic, defense-first football in a transitional team that Kovac played at Bayern. He gave James opportunities to play to start the season, and the experienced No. 10 was actually quite good. The man even stepped up to defend, aiding Real Madrid significantly in an important 1-0 win over Julen Lopetegui’s rising Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
That would be his last hurrah, so to speak. James struggled to stay fit and just did not fit the way Real Madrid had to play. The team went on to win the title that season, with James being a mere footnote by the end of the campaign. In what would be his final year at Real, James did not even register 500 minutes in LaLiga or an even 90 minutes in the Champions League.
After showing signs of quality at Everton under Carlo Ancelotti, James is now out of the picture entirely, playing in Qatar. And things are not exactly going well for him in a league that merely has a reputation for being a payday for stars nearing the ends of their careers.
At 30, James is probably never going to play for a top club again. That seems like a safe statement. Yet it hurts to say it, not only because of the joy James brought to many of us at Real Madrid and other clubs, but also because it represents the way in which the magical No. 10 position of old is now obsolete.
For better or for worse, the position does not exist as it once did. That is the key explanation for why James, who was one of the most efficient playmakers from 2014 to 2018, could suddenly become a journeyman veteran playing out the final years of his career without glory.
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Real Madrid fans will always fondly remember James’ high points, but even those who consider him one of their favorites cannot say he was done wrong by the club. As Florentino Perez likes to say, a cycle ended for James. But not just in Madrid. In football. And not just James. But the old No. 10 as a storied positional institution. The most beautiful role in the beautiful game has been replaced, leaving a new generation of playmakers to carve a new niche.