James Rodriguez has been the welcome surprise star of Real Madrid’s season after contributing a high number of goals and assists while largely playing in a role that was unfamiliar to him prior to the commencement of the campaign.
The 23-year-old joined Madrid in a reported €80 million deal last summer after starring for Colombia at the World Cup in Brazil. He had primarily been used as an attacking midfielder or wide forward prior to his arrival in Spain but was immediately placed in a deeper role as part of the midfield three in Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-3-3.
Yet he still managed to produce an excellent final-third output. Per WhoScored.com, he contributed 14 goals and 15 assists across league and Champions League play, at a rate of 0.87 goals or assists per 90 minutes.
This while making more tackles and interceptions per match than he had at either of his two previous European clubs.
Outgoing coach Ancelotti was certainly highly impressed with the 23-year-old’s performances in his debut campaign at the Bernabeu, as he made clear in his pre-match press conference ahead of the win over Almeria last month.
He has played in a number of different positions and is having an extremely good season. He is a hugely talented player and he also possesses a durable physique not often found in great talents. He has gotten used to playing in a deeper role which requires him to cover more ground. That is what has surprised me most.
Rodriguez’s talent was never in doubt. This was a player who had performed well in two different European leagues, for Porto and Monaco respectively, prior to his move to Madrid and who had led his country all the way to the last eight of the 2014 World Cup.
A player capable of scoring beautifully executed, Puskas Award-winning goals.
Neither, perhaps, should his ability to adapt have been in question. He had left his home country at the age of 16 to seek his fortune in Argentina, had succeeded there and then successfully made the transition to European football.
He had overcome tough hurdles before and emerged better for it.
Yet still, the relative ease with which he adapted to a deeper role than that to which he has previously been accustomed and just how decisive he was during his first campaign at the Bernabeu were still highly impressive.
Diego Torres of El Pais (in Spanish) wrote in April that senior figures at Madrid, including Ancelotti, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, felt that Rodriguez offered more in the midfield three than Isco—his competitor for the role when the whole squad was fit.
Rodriguez was favoured for his keen appreciation of space and the rapid and incisive manner in which he moves the ball forward, facilitating counter-attacks of greater danger.
In a later article, Torres wrote (again in El Pais) that Ancelotti also views Rodriguez as a player who provides more than Gareth Bale in both phases of play. He displays greater determination in his defensive work and has more variety to his attacking play.
“James and [Toni] Kroos have had fantastic seasons,” Ancelotti said prior to Madrid’s final-day fixture at home to Getafe. “They have adapted very well to the team in their first year at the club. Real Madrid have signed two very important players for the future.”
Indeed, Rodriguez’s ability to play in a number of roles—central midfielder, attacking midfielder, wide forward—will surely guarantee him a central role next season, regardless of the identity of Ancelotti’s successor.
The Colombian has enjoyed an excellent debut season in Spanish football and will hope to be similarly impressive next time around. This year, he was a surprise; next year, he will hope to be a decisive presence in a trophy-winning side.