Angel Di Maria’s departure from defending Champions League-winners Real Madrid spells big things for Colombian wunderkind James Rodrigues, the Spanish giant’s latest and greatest new signing, who thus far has had trouble fitting into an already stacked lineup.
Di Maria was always rumored to be on the out, but it took several months for Madrid to find a sufficiently rich new home for the Argentine menace. Manchester United, “rebuilding” from the relative catastrophe of last season, the first in the post-Ferguson Dark Ages, certainly fits the bill. And now, $98.97 million later, “Los Blancos” have all but made back the small forture they dropped bringing another trecherous lefty, James, over from AS Monaco.
The World Cup Golden Boot-winner was the big signing of the summer for Madrid, but the question looming up until this point was whether head coach Carlo Ancelotti ever had any intention of deploying him as something more than an overpriced backup. Jamess was always going to play, because of scheduling demands, if nothing else. But it was difficult to understand how he was supposed to fit into the System.
When he was first trotted out for the Real Madrid faithful, like a purebred cockerspaniel at the Westminster Dog Show, James was coming onto a roster that didn’t need him and a formation that seemingly couldn’t use him. He could play from the wing or out of the midfield if asked to, but he’s only really effective doing so when he finds those spaces during the natural flow of the game.
James is at his best floating between the midfield and strikers, a position that Ancelotti eliminated altogether to make room for Cristiano Ronaldo and his ego to cut in from the left side. He wasn’t going to beat out Ronald or Gareth Bale for a spot on the pure wing, and Ancelotti’s concept of a midfield is built around end-to-end players like Di Maria and Sami Khedira more than a pure playmaker like James.
On any other team, $112 million would have been an excessive amount of money to spend on a collector’s item, but on its face, the notion that the glorified pimps in the Madrid front office had bought the next big thing in soccer simply to have him blush on the sidelines and sell jerseys wasn’t that far-fetched. Di Maria wanted a transfer for his own reasons, but that Madrid actually shipped him is the first real sign that the James investment was about soccer and not just some evil fascist marketing war with Barcelona.
It’s hard to exagerate what a big deal this is in terms of the way Real Madrid approach the game. You could make the argument last season that Di Maria was the most tactically significant player on the team, a jack of all trades who connected the defense, midfield, and attacking lines, sometimes through sheer force of exertion.
That’s not going to be easy to replace, and the James move suggests that Ancelotti may not be interested in trying.
It’s worth remembering at this point that Di Maria grew into that role and the mental discipline it required of him. That was largely Ancelotti’s doing, and if he can convince an even younger, theoretically more pliable James to buy into a similar commitment, there’s no reason to think the red-cheeked Colombian ball wizard couldn’t make a similar transformation.
The more interesting possibility is that Ancelotti plans to incorporate James into a revamped midfield more geared toward invention than tactical rigor.
With Daniel Carvajal coming into his own at the right fullback spot, and Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao able to cover huge swaths of the left, Ancelotti may be willing to sacrifice the extra man Di Maria was always able to provide in the interest of bringing together a more naturally creative playmaking core to release the Big Guns up top.
The addition of Germany’s Toni Kroos suggests he may be headed in that direction, and on Sunday, Ancelotti gave us the first look of a Xabi Alonso-less midfield. On paper, the prospect of Kroos and Luka Modric sitting behind a slightly more offensive James is terrifying. In practice, it looks like it will require a bit more tweaking before Ancelotti is willing to roll it out on the big stage.
James didn’t play great, and Modric and Kroos still need to develop an understanding. But with James, as opposed to Di Maria, you have someone who can not only interchange with the wingers when Ronaldo and Bale cut inside but also can step into the gap in the middle of the attacking third and orchestrate offense.
It’s still too early to say whether that’s a worthy or even sensible tradeoff for a team that was clicking like a jet-proppelled bulldozer by the end of last year’s Champions League. But for better or worse, Madrid seems like it’s betting on James. It worked out well enough for Colombia.