James Rodriguez’s future is fast becoming one of the biggest transfer sagas of the summer. The Colombian’s resolve to engineer a move away from Real Madrid strengthened even further after suffering the humiliation of being left out of their squad for the Champions League final, and a host of Premier League clubs are ready to end his misery.
When he moved to the Bernabeu after the 2014 World Cup, he did so as the Golden Boot winner and one of Europe’s most talented playmakers. But each year his Galactico tag has diminished, his game time reduced and his goals dried up.
Nevertheless, he still scored or assisted every 84 minutes in La Liga last season, and his bracket of Bernabeu banishment feels as much of a potential error as the decisions to allow the likes of Arjen Robben, Gonzalo Higuain and Xabi Alonso to leave. Wherever he goes, though, he will need to be loved.
Colombia boss Jose Pekerman was keen to stress that very point on Tuesday. ‘He has tried to be happy but he needs to feel fulfilled and supported, he has lacked this support when he needed it.
James Rodriguez stats and facts
22 La Liga appearances in 2016/17
89% pass completion
64% shot accuracy
9 major trophies – Primeira Liga x 3, 2010/11 Portuguese Cup, 2010/11 Europa League (all with Porto), 2016/17 La Liga, 2015/16 Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup x 2 (all with Real Madrid)
Personal awards: 2013/14 Monaco Player of the Year, 2014 World Cup Golden Boot, 2014 Puskas award
James Rodriguez’s La Liga season
Reports emerged in Spain this week that only Arsenal and Italian giants Inter Milan had tabled official offers that got anywhere close to Real’s €80 million (£69.5m) valuation. At first glance, Arsenal seems like a strange move for Rodriguez. They are overloaded with cultured, creative midfielders already, notably raiding Real to sign the player – Mesut Ozil – that James replaced.
And yet, north London feels like it could be the perfect home. Few managers, especially in the current era, have quite as much appreciation for expressive No.10s as Arsene Wenger, and he has rebuilt the bruised egos of many players rejected by European heavyweights. From as far back as Thierry Henry, brought to Arsenal after an ill-fated spell with Juventus in 1999, to the more recent arrivals of Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
It is possible that the Chilean’s potential departure will open up a place in the squad for Rodriguez to slot into seamlessly, but even if he stays the recent switch to a back three allows Wenger to deploy an attacking triangle up front. Granted, there’s no out-and-out striker in a triumvirate of Ozil, Rodriguez and Sanchez, but it’s bustling with goals and creativity.
It would allow Rodriguez to line up almost as a second striker, and retain Sanchez through the middle where Wenger seems to like him best, with Ozil floating in behind. The Gunners notably miss Santi Cazorla whenever he is sidelined, and James offers a similar playmaking skillset that could be deployed deeper if Arsenal revert to 4-2-3-1.
Admittedly, Rodriguez would have to sacrifice Champions League football for a season, but Wenger’s brand of football and complete faith in him is a suitable counter. Throw in the fact that David Ospina is his brother-in-law, and Arsenal looks like a very good option indeed.
SUITABILITY RATING: 7/10
A potential move to Old Trafford feels like the worst fit of the lot. Jose Mourinho has already turned Rodriguez down once, last summer, and has never been particularly accommodating of No.10s in his career. At United he already has an abundance of players in that position – Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata – and tends to favour a 4-3-3 formation that Rodriguez does not really fit in to.
His other transfer targets this summer only lend further weight to the belief that he is in no great rush to sign another playmaker. Reports suggest he wants an out-and-out line-leading forward, going off the idea of signing a second striker to dovetail with the now likely to depart Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while he is also on the hunt for a midfielder to get the best out of record signing Paul Pogba.
That all points at a three-man midfield next season, eliminating the need for a No.10. Instead, he would be required to play out of position nominally on one of the flanks. Perhaps Mourinho sees Rodriguez as a more natural fit for such a role than Mkhitaryan, who has struggled to combine his hole-seeking attacking forays with the need to cover the wing.
He also brings significant goal threat, hitting double figures in all but one of his last six seasons, and Mourinho frequently complained of the absence of goals in his midfield. After Ibrahimovic, Mata was the club’s next highest scorer with just six goals.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez feels like something of an after-thought – in fact, it was suggested that Mourinho would only sanction a move for the Colombian if approaches for all other targets were unsuccessful. United are a club that would welcome his particular brand of South American flair, but their manager is more enamoured by a different kind of skillset. You sense he would still much rather sign a player like Willian, full of graft and intensity, rather than James.
SUITABILITY RATING: 4/10
As with Manchester United, it is a little hard to work out exactly how Rodriguez would fit into Chelsea’s team, especially if they successfully re-sign Romelu Lukaku. Antonio Conte rarely lined up with a No.10 last season, while the freer role James would surely demand was denied to Cesc Fabregas. But the Spaniard’s potential summer departure reveals the lack of creative options in the squad.
Last season, Chelsea were wholly reliant on their front three for creating and scoring goals, with the absence of creativity from deep frequently highlighted by the threat Fabregas posed off the bench. Moreover, some players are so good you find a way to get them into the team regardless, and James is certainly of that ilk. Conte’s preferred 3-4-3 formation is not, on paper, a natural fit, but it is pretty clear that the Italian craves another superstar attacker.
Last season he rotated between Willian and Pedro on the right wing, though his setup could accommodate a more central presence behind the frontman. With so much width being provided by the marauding full-backs, Conte has need of a player who can effectively come inside, play between the lines and link play.
With Eden Hazard likely to miss the first month of the new season after breaking his ankle, Conte could use the injury to his advantage and play two up front – as he frequently did with both Juventus and Italy – and stick James in the hole behind a devastating combo of Diego Costa and Lukaku.
Rodriguez would not be the main man at Chelsea, but he could become a trusted and useful weapon for Conte, and at the very least it would prevent two rivals from strengthening significantly. The move would mean James is close to his London-based family, even if he’s not on the same team. The question, though, is whether that role is good enough for either party. Perhaps not.
SUITABILITY RATING: 6/10