Zinedine Zidane knows a thing or two about good No. 10s, and as he continues to get used to the feel of his feet under the desk in the top job at the Santiago Bernabeu, he’ll be happy that he’s got James Rodriguez on his side.
The Colombian scored a fine long-range goal in Saturday’s 4-2 victory at home to Athletic Bilbao, described by Sky Sports as his ninth strike from outside the penalty area since moving to the Spanish capital from Monaco, and whatever the ill feeling which festered between him and previous boss Rafael Benitez, he now looks to be back to his best and fully fit.
Of course, Benitez was always set up to be the fall guy in Madrid.
The ongoing and enchanting brilliance of Barcelona means that Real are going to look less attractive as a result, and when that happens for even the shortest period of time, then heads tend to roll at the Bernabeu.
Stories of anger and resentment within the dressing room abounded, and James was one of the key names at the centre of that.
A rift with Benitez because of what the Colombian saw as a lack of trust in him following an injury never really healed, and with the Spaniard preferring to play Gareth Bale centrally ahead of a well-drilled midfield, opportunities suddenly became limited.
You never got the impression that Benitez was going to hang around for long, of course, but if he had, then there seemed to be an ongoing worry that James’ Real career was going to end quickly and inauspiciously.
With Zidane now around, that doesn’t seem to be the case, and Real’s No. 10 can’t stop singing the praises of the club’s former No. 5, saying after the Athletic game, via AS (h/t Goal.com):
Yes, I am much better. This helps a lot and I do not think it's just me.
The coaching change has been good for everyone. Not just for me. He talks a lot with everybody and I think it's good for our play.
[Zidane] gives you more encouragement to play well and know what you are worth.
Short of dancing on Benitez’s grave in the vast Bernabeu hall that Real could dedicate to their many, many fallen managers, James could hardly do more to underline his glee.
Rafa’s gone, Zizou’s in, and he looks to be a different player again—one who is even closer to that dashing, decisive superstar we all fell in love with at the 2014 World Cup.
Real’s money men fell in love with him too, of course, and with James’ Latin American roots proving a viable commercial asset to a club which seems to care about such things like no other, there is a real desire for him to be a success in Madrid from all sides.
Crucially, on one of those sides now sits the manager, who was always likely to want to make a skilful, goalscoring No. 10 the fulcrum of his team.
Comparing James to Zidane is a pointless exercise given that one is just 24 years old, but there are similarities between the pair that are difficult to ignore.
Both have made impacts at World Cups, there are similarities between their greatest moments on football pitches—James’ volley against Uruguay and Zidane’s against Bayer Leverkusen—and they have both been tasked to be the creative hub of Real Madrid.
The point is that Zidane is likely to give James slightly more preferential treatment because of his background, and that, coupled with the relief, that the Colombian will be feeling now that he’s seen the back of Benitez should combine for some truly special performances.
Footballers can be creatures of immensely complex psyches, and if James feels as though things have now fallen into place for him in Madrid, then don’t be surprised if his level of performance keeps on going up.
He could end up being the player who profits most from the appointment of Zidane and perhaps the one Real end up turning to as a figurehead once the era of Cristiano Ronaldo finally comes to an end.
Like Ronaldo, Zidane has inspired a new generation of footballers, and in James, he would appear to have his perfect protege.