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Life Is Too Hard, Let’s Just Enjoy James Rodriguez While He’s Still Here

ndwuma
By ndwuma | self meida writer
Published 16 days ago - 122 views

The World Cup ruins everything. Not so much anymore, but it used to. Every four years there’s a soccer tournament. Max seven games. You play with a bunch of guys you rarely ever play with, and you only get to pick where you play based on where either you, your parents, or your grandparents were born. Then, whatever happens in those games defines your career; suck for you, pal. Nothing you can do about it.

Zinedine Zidane might be the closest thing there is to a walking deity. How else to explain those jeans; you ever try tailoring a hem for a celestial being? They’re fluid, man. Friar-cut intact, he won the 1998 World Cup with France, and then he almost won it again in his swansong before gently inserting the crown of his skull into Marco Matterazzi’s sternum during extra time of the 2006 final. Zidane is widely considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time. He’s the subject of some thrilling abstract art. He’s less an athletic figure to be analyzed, and more of an aesthetic icon to be held in reverence.

You knew the “And yet” was coming, And yet Zinedine Zidane, the number 10 of all numbers 10, never once scored double-digit goals in a league season and assisted double-digit goals in a season only once. After winning the World Cup in 1998, he followed it up with six goals and five assists for Juventus over the next two seasons combined. Harvey Barnes exceeded that last season. Harvey Barnes, Zidane had a fantastic career, but it was more made up of high-profile moments rather than the kind of week-in-week-out consistency we expect from even league-average players today.

I wonder if he saw a little bit of himself in one of his former players. Now, I doubt it because he never played him, and Real Madrid just sold him. But James Rodriguez really has had a similar career to Zizou; albeit on a lesser scale. He won the Golden Boot for Colombia at the 2014 World Cup, scoring six goals and assisting two more for an absurd, Cup-leading rate of 1.58 non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes. Since then, he’s played 2,000 minutes in a league season one time. In fact, James’s highlight of the past six years is probably the 2018 World Cup. After missing the first match against Japan, he came into the starting XI and absolutely obliterated Poland.


And that was that, loan at Bayern Munich, who only ever seemed to play him begrudgingly, and then this past year 419 minutes in La Liga for Zidane at Madrid. James struggled with some injuries, but he’s also played for plenty of top-tier coaches and barely anyone has taken a fancy to him. Now, finally, he’s on Everton, the team that finished last season in 12th place in the Premier League. Perhaps the soccer world has finally evolved, World Cup performances can’t paper over poor or inconsistent showings in the domestic game. Or could it be the opposite? Were the World Cups actually the true expression of James’s talent, while the, six years of not a whole lot obscured just how good he actually is? Well, if Sunday’s game against Tottenham is any indication, then it might be the latter.

In Everton’s 1-0 win against Tottenham, James led all Everton players in passes into the final third and expected assists, and he was second in progressive passes. (Completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent's goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or completed passes into the penalty area. Excludes passes from the defending 40% of the pitch). Through the weekend, he’s the only player in the Premier League to rank in the top 10 of each category.

Last year, Everton functioned as something roughly resembling a light-weight Liverpool. They moved the ball up the field through their fullbacks, while their midfield did basically nothing at all. They rarely won the ball, they rarely pushed the ball up field, and they rarely created anything for their teammates. Pretty good work if you can get it.

While James also led Everton in interceptions against Spurs with four, I wouldn’t count on that continuing. Outside of the two center backs, he applied the fewest pressures (seven) of any Everton starter. But he did all the other stuff and he often did it with a single pass.

Animated GIF

Look at how much easier a fantastic, all-in-one passer makes everything. He can drop back behind the line of pressure to receive an easy ball, take two touches, put the pass on the edge of the penalty area, and then voila, look at how simple it is from there. Two touches from Richarlison and he’s in the box. Two more touches, and he’s firing off a decent shot from a decent angle. 

James was fantastic against Tottenham, and really, he’s always been fantastic; he just never got to play. Take a look at this radar from his final season at Bayern Munich, in both the Bundesliga and Champions League. Numbers represent his percentile rank compared to other wingers and attacking midst across the Big Five leagues:

You get it all, save for the dribbling. For Bayern, he was one of the first, true, elite free eights traditional behind the striker attackers who were pushed back into the midfield but still managed to produce like an attacker. He only played about 30 full-90’s over two years, but he scored 14 goals and added 14 assists. In both seasons, only Robert Lewandowski was more productive on a per-minute basis. Plus, in both years he led the team you know, the team with Joshua Kimmich and Thiago, two of the best passers alive in progressive passes per 90 minutes.

James wasn’t quite as dynamic against Spurs he took three shots, though he was generally influencing the game from deep. However, he was also positioned a little bit differently than in the past, working as a tucked-in winger/outside midfielder. It’s a bit of a throwback feels like a position from the previous decade and the pattern of play is clear in the chances he created.

In the entirety of his last season for Bayern, you saw a couple sweeping diagonals, but a lot more intricate play around the edge of the box. There is, however, still a pretty clear right-to-left slant to all of it.

Although it’s only one game, the difference is likely the result of being on a significantly better team with way more deep possession and also playing in a different, less-central role. It could also be that he doesn’t have the legs that he used to turned 29 over the summer, which is right around when players in his role start to decline but could also be that he’s barely played competitive soccer in a year and a half and needs some time to get his sea legs under him. Either way, we’ll need a lot more evidence before deciding one way or the other.

Now, there are all kinds of financial risks to signing a 29-year-old to a three-year-deal, especially if your squad-building approach already pretty closely resembles a Jenga tower made up of post-prime long-term contracts. However, Sunday certainly showed why it might be worth the risk. The last time James played 2,000 league minutes was in 2014-15 at Madrid; he scored and assisted 13 apiece. That’s, incredibly, six years ago already, and the guy who got that performance out of him, Carlo Ancelloti, is, uncoincidentally, his coach again today. It’d be silly to expect that level of performance out of James at this point in his career, playing for an underdog like Everton. But Sunday was a great start, and it gave us something we haven’t seen in a while: We got to see James play in a shirt that wasn’t yellow.

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