Scout Report: James Rodríguez

With Allan all but secured, and Abdoulaye Doucoure expected to follow from Watford, some would say Everton’s midfield is almost sorted (albeit open to interpretation) – and if manager, Carlo Ancelotti, continues with his preferred 4-4-2, then a midfield duo of the pair is something I expect we’ll see most matchdays in the upcoming season.

But what next? In my Everton transfer series, central-midfield was the priority this summer, ‘priority’ being an understatement here, even with the added complexities surrounding the impact of the current pandemic, the club needed at least one significant buy, it looks like they’ve now got two. After midfield, whilst others may see right-back and a ‘keeper as areas to improve on too, for me, right-midfield is undoubtedly the next position to upgrade and in James Rodríguez, it looks like Carlo Ancelotti has his man.

Following the 2014 World Cup, “Hamez” was one of the most talked-about footballers around, his stunning campaign for Colombia saw him win FIFA’s Golden Boot, missing out on the Golden Ball only to Leo Messi. What followed was a £63m move to Real Madrid, triggered by non-other than Ancelotti, with the 12 months spent together in Spain arguably the best, or at least most consistent season in his career since that World Cup, with his 17 goals and 15 assists proving that he was rightfully seen as the next ‘Galactico’.

Things began to unravel as a result of the Italian’s sacking in 2015, injuries started to creep in and when he was available, Zidane looked elsewhere. It’s safe to say that the former Porto man has been at his best when under Ancelotti, with the pair linking up again at Bayern Munich, whilst the Napoli hierarchy failing to bring the Colombian to Italy last summer, was to be a key piece in the deterioration between the manager’s relationship with the club.

Marcel Brands & co have not made this mistake, Ancelotti seemingly sees Rodriguez as integral, especially in terms of boosting the club’s performance short-term, and barring any change in circumstance, it looks like the club will have delivered what the manager wants.

The enthusiasm across social media platforms is easy to get caught up in, a spare five minutes and you’re watching Rodriguez plant free-kicks into the postage stamp, it’s easily done. But what actually will he bring to Everton? Everyone knows about *that* left-foot, his pedigree is unrivalled to any other player we currently have, and at his very best, whenever that is, he’s still probably a world-class footballer – but first, what does he do, why does he do it, and how can/will Everton use him?

Player ID –

Attempting to gauge what type of player Everton are going to get, is for obvious reasons, determined on how we’ll use him, but without knowing what formation Ancelotti goes ahead with, it’s fairly difficult to judge. I suspect that at least short-term, Everton will continue with the 4-4-2 that has been the main formation for the club since the departure of Marco Silva. If that is the case, then either position out-wide is where Rodriguez will play. Sometimes wide-left, but mainly wide-right. Drifting inside, almost in a sort-of free-role, picking up the ball on the midfielders blindside, hoping to slide in the front two.

A lot of the Colombian’s best stuff has come when playing centrally, and often he does perform better in a deeper role, as one of the #8s in a 4-3-3 or as a side’s main attacking-midfielder, and although 4-4-2 probably won’t allow for that, Ancelotti’s systems are renowned for being fairly flexible when attacking, especially in positioning and movement off the ball, and I’d expect him to find the right balance (and the right right-back, more on this bit later).

This does lead to the whole structure question for Everton, or more simply, how will they play? Only four times under Ancelotti have Everton not started with a 4-4-2, three of those games came in the final four of the restart (maybe signs were there that he was planning on switching). If the original plan was to switch to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 eventually, then fair enough, I’d be much happier with those formations in fact, but if not, do you change just because of James Rodriguez?

I’m personally of the viewpoint that you shouldn’t drastically adjust your thinking to accommodate just one player unless that player and the side will benefit greatly for it. James might be that man, there is no denying his talent or quality, and shoehorning him into the team probably shouldn’t be seen as actually shoehorning just because of how good he can be. Though planning and coaching one tactical system, to then change for a player in which you can’t even guarantee will start more than half your league games, is not something I’d personally advocate.

In essence, Rodriguez is a fairly versatile player and that’s an integral reason as to why he’s still been fairly important to both Madrid and Bayern Munich when he’s been available. His injury problems have been catastrophic for his career, I made a mental note to try and not linger on this point, but 39 games missed from a total of 16 injuries since 2017 indicates perfectly how blighted his career has been. His injury record in general, will likely be one of the key factors that determines how good, or bad, his Everton career will be.

James’ share of minutes since 2018/19 – courtesy of ‘Twenty3’ and @DAHughes_

His 2,188 minutes (out of the 4,142 minutes he was available for) on the bench over the past two seasons sums how his career has panned out, especially in recent years, nothing more than a bit-part player, especially at Madrid – in simple talk, that’s around 24 full 90s out of a possible 46, in all competitive games since the beginning of 2018/19.

When James has played though, the quality is still definitely alive, and if Everton can keep him fit and get him pushing 30+ starts in the league next season (something he hasn’t done since 2013/14 with Monaco), then I think his impact on the side’s performances could be quite something.

The above are two very vivid examples of what we’ll see quite frequently from Rodriguez, both in terms of how he influences our build-up play, in which I expect a lot of the good stuff we do will mainly come through him, and how he functions within the dangerous areas. As seen in the clips, the Colombian drops deep to get control of possession, turns, drives with the ball, attracts opposition players, quick one-two, exploit the space with a switch of play out-wide, before arriving late into the box into unmarked territory. In the second clip, similar to the latter part, James hangs back away from the crowded penalty area before arriving late to take advantage of the unmarked space.

This is essentially what Rodriguez will bring, he won’t be someone running in-behind and stretching opposition defences, neither will he take on 4 or 5 players and place it bottom corner (actually he might), but he’ll still be heavily effective when on the pitch and when you compare that to Gylfi Sigurdsson, someone who spends his time dawdling and pointing rather than actually playing footy, then Everton are upgrading by quite a bit.

The Metrics –

The numbers side to James Rodriguez is undoubtedly the trickiest part, not just in understanding him as a player or as a measure of how good he is, but also in terms of trying to interpret those numbers into what Everton will get and how they suggest where Everton can get the best out of him.

In short, as the data-visuals will convey, he is a sublime footballer. The type of player that is still on that world-class periphery, game-time depending. But the data is skewed; he’s been heavily short of minutes within the last two or three years, and a lot of the games he has played have come as a substitute (inflates per 90 numbers in particularly), he’s never really been tied down to one, sole position at either Madrid or Bayern (different roles leads to a different emphasis on certain parts of his game), he’s also been playing with the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema, which will help boost his metrics too. The signs are still pretty good though.

His data-sets from his time at Bayern probably give the most detailed portrayal into not just what type of player, but also how good of a player Everton are potentially going to get. The minutes from both campaigns are as mentioned, limited, equating to around 13 and 12 full 90s across the two seasons – considering the type of money it looks like we’ll be paying, he needs to at least double that. And yet, his underlying metrics would still dwarf any current Everton player.

Without just speaking a load of numbers, his metrics matches up to that of most people’s perception of the current Madrid-man, while he’ll definitely score a few goals (14 over those two seasons), his biggest strength is his creativity and that’s something Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin should be licking their lips at. His Expected Assists over those two seasons are strong, the percentile ranking proves that itself but his 0.42 and 0.37 xA contrasts massively when compared to Everton’s main creators, with only Theo Walcott hitting that 0.2 threshold this season, only Gylfi Sigurdsson did it the season before – both exactly at 0.20 xA90. Even last season at Madrid, he was still creating 0.38 p90, so there’s definitely a sense of consistency.

James Rodriguez, 2019/20

His campaign last season seemingly conveyed a decline in influence when he did play, when being the key word here, his 419 minutes (around four full 90s) being the lowest he’s recorded since his move to Spain after the World Cup. Strikingly, the midfielder seemingly forgot how to dribble. In the league, he didn’t attempt a single one – he’s never really been a high out-put dribbler anyways but that is a bit of a shock for a player of his position and level – I feel like anyone who is reading this and is still hoping that Rodriguez might be some sort-of explosive, dynamic winger, then please end those thoughts here. Sorry!

His impact for Madrid was also left mainly in deeper areas – his creative numbers are still excelling, peaking at high-percentiles, his quality and effectiveness on the ball still fairly prominent too, but his individual threat did drop-off. Again, it’s important to denote the lack of minutes here, coming off the bench in games won’t help either, but it’s quite transparent that he wasn’t exactly doing much in the box. And yet, his 0.19 xG90 still would have ranked 3rd highest out of Everton’s squad last season, behind only Richarlison and DCL. This is probably the right time to stress that James ‘dropping-off’ or not being as good as previous seasons, is still actually somewhat decent in comparison to what we have or other footballers in general.

The visual below is a good indication of how good he has been, when given the chance, nicely emphasises the point of if fit, we have a very, very good player on our hands here.

In consequence of the type of player he is, being someone who roams during games, especially cutting inside when played on either flank, coupled with his habit of arriving late into the box and exploiting unmarked spaces surrounding the box, Rodriguez has a very distinct (and good) shot map.

James’ shot locations from open-play, 17/18 – 19/20, Understat.com

Across the last three seasons for instance, Rodriguez has put up an xG per shot of around 0.12 which is a decent number to be putting all things considered, for context, Harry Kane had the exact same xG per shot last season. His goalscoring prowess isn’t a huge part of his game, he hasn’t netted over double figures in the league since 14/15 (that season under Ancelotti) for instance, but still his shot map portrays a player who can consistently get into efficient shooting positions and as seen through his shot map since 2017/18, clearly loves a good hopeful effort from within that right half-space – a position he’ll take up often with the Toffees, although only one of his goals from open-play has came from outside the box in the past three years.

This is something that Everton definitely needed to add to their squad though, his impact will most likely be felt more through his creativity rather than his raw shooting out-put, but the midfielder is a lot more multi-dimensional in comparison to the likes of Alex Iwobi and Bernard for instance. The pair had relatively underwhelming campaigns last season, but even at their best they still have certain limitations that almost force a lot of the goalscoring burden on the front two – James will offer a difference.

Whilst he will at times take up similar positions when attacking, functioning in similar roles too, almost adapting as a makeshift #10, Rodriguez could still grab a double figure goal return next season, the others couldn’t. In short, this is one of the biggest plus points to having him. He may not be at his peak anymore, and from watching different games stretching back to 2014/15, he’s definitely lost a sense of speed too, but if fit, he’ll almost guarantee an impact where it matters. Many will talk about his style, his South American connection, his silkiness, or his composure, but for once it will be nice to have a wide-player who can also offer substance, as well as style.

Above is the substance, here is your style.

Attacking Style –

It might seem odd to say, considering who he is, but there is every possibility that Rodriguez isn’t the type of player we actually need, that’s not to say he won’t be a good signing for what it’s worth. If you look beyond the calibre and the fascination surrounding the transfer, or his relationship with Carlo Ancelotti, and whilst he’ll definitely provide an overall sense of quality that the club are obviously missing, he doesn’t exactly tick all the boxes I personally thought Everton needed from their new right-midfielder – that’s if he’s being bought to play there, mind.

Running in-behind is something Everton definitely need, and other than Theo Walcott, who has no long-term future with the cub, we currently have an overload of wingers who don’t necessarily thrive in their movement off-the-ball, no one who looks to take advantage of the space beyond the strikers – Bernard and Alex Iwobi especially, prefer to drop-deep and influence the game with their teammates in front of them, and although there’s a contrast in quality, Rodriguez pretty much files into the same category.

This is potentially, good news for Anthony Gordon though. The young Scouser signed a new long-term contract just a few days ago, his second new deal in the less than 18 months, with it becoming quickly apparent that Ancelotti & co have a huge amount of faith and trust in the youngster. Gordon, who was one of the side’s better players after the restart, playing a part in each game, is now seemingly a key part of the club’s short-term plans, and could take advantage of the incoming James signing. The main point here, is evidently the experience and know-how that Rodriguez will share, and the levels and intensity that will consequently step-up in training. Gordon would have been 13-years-old during the 2014 World Cup, probably watching in awe as Rodriguez did his stuff, and will now be playing with him seven years later.

The biggest thing though, is that he offers something different for Ancelotti, unlike the Colombian, or Iwobi and Bernard, Gordon is comfortable in either dropping short or stretching backlines with his runs, he’s a lot more direct and forceful with his approach and has demonstrated quite rapidly that he’s adept at carrying the ball from deep into dangerous areas. It’s difficult to gauge from the short number of minutes at the end of the season how well he’ll do this year, but the signs are good. James on one side, Gordon the other, is something I’m very much here for.

James will offer a lot more composure and efficiency on the ball in comparison, he isn’t as raw as the Scouser and his overall game has become finely-tuned compared to when he first broke out at Porto. During the side’s attacking phases of play, Rodriguez like mentioned already, is someone who thrives of freedom rather than holding one position, especially if deployed out-wide. This is arguably, why a new right-back will likely be needed, to provide the width more than anything, as restraining the midfielder to a position where he’ll largely be left isolated or on the periphery of play, seems like a waste.

I suspect this is the type of positioning that we’ll see quite often with him. The expectation is that he’ll play wide-right, he won’t literally maintain that position during games, he won’t ‘hug’ the touchline and provide the majority of the side’s width on that side like Walcott might, but will still cause problems for opposition left-backs, nonetheless. The image indicates how James influences games when playing wide-right – Hertha’s defensive structure is shoddy, granted, but he’s again on the blindside of the midfielder as he pushes into the right half-space.

And as personified with the clip, drifts into the unmarked space, and plays the killer pass into Serge Gnabry to put Bayern ahead. Reminds of how Sid Lowe described Rodriguez on The Blue Room, portraying him as someone who “decides games rather than dominates them”.

This clip complies with that too, and the pass itself was just too good not to share.

Defensive Style –

Whilst writing my analysis piece on the right-midfielders Everton should be interested in this summer, midfielders that are preferably suited to Ancelotti’s 4-4-2, one of the main needs I pinpointed was for the player to be fairly comfortable in tracking-back – someone who could be almost a carbon copy in how Richarlison works off-the-ball. Rodriguez is quite well-known for his grafting in fairness, his 5.80 successful pressures (78th percentile across Europe in the last two seasons) matches up to that, as does his 0.47 tackles in the attacking 3rd p90 (over his last three league seasons) too, a number that topples both of Richarlison’s seasons at Everton (0.37 & 0.41 p90). Again, it’s only a small sample size so it’s not easy to gauge how this would translate over 30+ games in one season, but the signs are there that he definitely has the capability to make himself a nuisance for other players.

The two clips below perfectly summarises his aggression, the time of attributes that explains his good defensive numbers too.

It’s only a small example, but it emphasises his determination to win the ball back, even when he’s attempted something that hasn’t come off. This possibly explains why he’s picked up so many injuries over the years as he definitely doesn’t hold back in his effort at times, which Evertonians will love, full-throttle is something that springs to mind in describing his defensive style. Similar to Calvert-Lewin or Richarlison you will at times find him chasing lost causes or going full headless chicken mode – how that translates over to the Premier League will be intriguing, and here’s hoping his legs don’t crumble after six weeks.

There at times, as with most attacking-midfielders, lapses of concentration or apparent laziness in tracking back at times, when players are around him or when he needs to pressure and harry his opponents, he’s fine, but I do feel there’s a hole in his game when having to track runners or at least sometimes being unaware of what’s going on around him when it comes to the defensive side. Below is a solid example of that, blissfully unaware that Dani Alves has free reign on that side of the pitch, Rodriguez seemingly ball-watching.

Originally when watching the game, I thought it might have been a little unfair to single him out for it, and obviously it’s not a key part of his game, and something that wouldn’t be a worry if he played as a conventional #10 in the middle instead, but it’s still something to watch out for nonetheless.

It’s only one example, but it conveys why a right-back should be next on the list for the club. James, as pointed out, is probably more of a hard-worker than people give him credit for, he will track-back more often than not, and he will defend from the front, but there will still be scenarios when the full-back is left isolated or vulnerable and there are understandably qualms over either Kenny or Coleman coping. There is also the attacking side of needing a new right-back too. With Rodriguez having a habit of cutting inside when with the ball, and strolling into pockets of space without the ball, Everton do need someone who cannot just effectively motor up and down that right-side for the majority of the game, but also someone who can supply the same sort-of threat that Lucas Digne offers on the other side.

The defensive parts of his game isn’t why the midfielder is being brought in though, and he’s proven before, as his data backs, that he’s still a hard-worker when out of possession, and shouldn’t be seen as a luxury player who’ll coast during games, unlike someone else. In fact, it’s seemingly one of the key reasons as to why Ancelotti is such a big fan, he trusts the Colombian and that is somewhat significant.

Conclusion –

Amongst the excitement, I feel like it probably has been forgotten or at least sidestepped how much of a risk James Rodriguez is. The talent is obvious, his left-foot is quite literally a wand, and his name shadows any other Everton signing that I can remember, but the rumoured fee of £20m does seem a bit high for someone who has only played more than 30 league games once in the last decade. If Everton were a Man City or Chelsea, in which they could easily afford to spend that type of money on a player and not care whether he actually performs or not, or even if Rodriguez was just another piece in an already well-constructed puzzle, then I’d be fairly happy with the deal, and when contrasted to deals for the likes of Yannick Bolasie and Davy Klaassen, it doesn’t seem that bad at all.

Whist I completely understand the anticipation, and when I take my ‘analytical’ or sensible hat off, then I too can’t wait to see the Colombian take that #10 shirt of a certain Icelandic fella, but I am also still pretty reserved on this being our “Robinho moment”. With both club and fans aware of our current financial position, with too many ageing players on big wages, I’m not sure the answer to that will be to add another 29-year-old, on reportedly £140k+ p/w, who is undoubtedly a gamble. This very much feels like a transfer in which “if he stays fit, it will be worth it” (I’m also of this opinion in fairness), but I think that’s the type of deal you pay £10-15m for, not upwards of £20m and pay astronomical wages on.

Of course, It’s James Rodriguez, it’s not the same as signing Morgan Schneiderlin or Yannick Bolasie, but sometimes a good player doesn’t always make a good transfer.

There are though, an abundances of positives if this transfer does materialise, it’s very much a transfer that epitomises high-risk = high reward.

His spell at Bayern is probably the clearest insight into what Everton will get out of Rodriguez, in terms of someone who is a lot more central to how his side plays, an integral piece during patterns-of-play, which will benefit the likes of Allan, Doucoure and Gomes too. Under Ancelotti, Jupp Heynckes and Nico Kovac, the Colombian in many ways reinvented himself, playing more so as a box-to-box midfielder for the German side, pinging balls whenever he felt necessary (as above), progressing possession into dangerous areas at a more consistent rate. There’s definitely a sense of becoming rather unselfish in the way he played at Bayern, a player involved a lot more in underlying periods of play, a player who can impact games even when not scoring.

The simple fact is though, James Rodriguez, the name, represents one of the biggest coups for a club the size of Everton, and even if he doesn’t perform the way we want him to, the euphoria is justified. He’s one of the biggest names in world football, and the fact he’s somehow agreed to come and play in Walton after spells in Monaco, Madrid and Munich seems quite staggering, but essentially, this is why the club swerved shouts for David Moyes and instead lured Carlo Ancelotti to Goodison Park.

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