James Rodriguez: how the Colombian has developed into Bayern Munich’s cornerstone under Jupp Heynckes
He might have been brought to Bayern Munich at the behest of previous coach Carlo Ancelotti, but James Rodriguez has developed into a cornerstone of Jupp Heynckes’ three-pronged title tilt, the Colombian having started more Bundesliga games (11) than any other outfield player apart from Robert Lewandowski (also 11) since the veteran took over in October 2017.
James has blossomed under Heynckes, a fluent Spanish speaker whose happy knack of getting the best out of players has been demonstrated once again with the Colombian, who has been involved in more goals (five) than any other Bundesliga player since the turn of the year.
It has developed into a mutually beneficial arrangement: Heynckes helped James to settle into life at Bayern off the field after an injury-hit, uncertain start in Bavaria, and the 26-year-old – having repeatedly professed his happiness at being in Munich of late – is turning in performances that reflect his off-field contentment, repaying his new boss with one virtuoso display after another, underlined by the fact that he has created more chances (42) than any other Bayern player since Heynckes’ arrival.
Watch: Hit play on the video below to see all of James’ goals and assists for Bayern!
That is in part because the Cucuta native has been asked by Heynckes to play a deeper role than he ever did at parent club Real Madrid, one of the coach’s subtle tactical tweaks that has Bayern purring again.
Lining up as the most advanced of a midfield three, just in front of fellow Spanish-speakers Arturo Vidal and Javi Martinez, has enabled James to thrive in terms of scoring and creating: he has found the net twice and picked up three assists in only four Bundesliga outings in 2018, a star turn at Mainz most recently helping Bayern to an eighth consecutive win.
Having featured in seven of those eight games (and afforded a rest for the 5-2 win against Hoffenheim on Matchday 20), James has been pivotal to that successful run. In fact, a closer look at the statistics shows that his influence is – if anything – underemphasised: since Heynckes’ arrival, the Colombian has played more Bundesliga minutes (939 of a potential 1260) than any other outfield player apart from Lewandowski (965).
It is not just his creativity from open play that has added another string to Bayern’s attacking bow, either; since James’ upturn in form around the turn of the year, the Bavarians have become one of the league’s most dangerous sides from set-pieces.
While the Real loanee’s stunning free-kick against Bayer Leverkusen in January deservedly stole the headlines, the serial champions have scored from a corner in every game this calendar year, James’ pinpoint centre for Corentin Tolisso in the DFB Cup win against Paderborn in midweek the latest in that trend.
In short, with James to the fore the Bavarians are a more complete attacking unit than ever, capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Such completeness is reflected in the domestic landscape: victory against Paderborn took Bayern into the DFB Cup semi-finals, while Heynckes’ troops sit 18 points clear in the top flight with only 13 games to go.
Watch: James’ stunning free-kick against Leverkusen won January’s Goal of the Month award!
Next on the relentless Bavarians’ to-do list, then, is the UEFA Champions League, where Turkish champions Besiktas await in a testing Round-of-16 tie. Bayern have reached the semi-finals in three of the last four seasons (and the quarter-finals the one season they didn’t make the last four) since lifting old big ears under Heynckes in 2013, falling agonisingly short on each occasion.
Not one to be understated, Vidal has recently claimed that with James in such sparkling form, European success should be Bayern’s aim for the season. Rowing back some of the praise, Heynckes, although still describing James as a “Godsend” for the club, insisted that there is more to come from the Colombian.
Maybe the message between those lines is that improvement could come on the European stage, where James has only picked up one assist so far this term, despite featuring in every group game.
For all his domestic brilliance, it is a curiosity that the 2014 World Cup top scorer has perhaps never quite made his mark on the Champions League. Although he has lifted the trophy with Real in each of the last two seasons, James did not feature in the final on either occasion – and was left out of Los Blancos‘ squad entirely for last season’s showpiece in Cardiff.
For his part, Heynckes has certainly made a mark among Europe’s elite, having reached the Champions League final every season he has participated in the tournament as a coach (1998, 2012, 2013). If he repeats that feat this term, it is safe to say that James will be among the starters and eager to prove a point in Kiev on 26 May.