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The view from the bench: why James Rodriguez was benched for Bayern vs Dortmund

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James Rodriguez spent the entirety of Bayern Munich’s clash with Borussia Dortmund on the bench, although he could have helped. Why?


DORTMUND, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 10: James Rodriguez of Bayern Muenchen looks on during the Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern Muenchen at Signal Iduna Park on November 10, 2018 in Dortmund, Germany. Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

James Rodriguez last played 71 minutes for Bayern Munich in their 1-1 draw against SC Freiburg on November 3. He was on the squad but did not play in Bayern’s Champions League game against AEK Athens (2-0). On the following Saturday, in Dortmund, James again watched the entire match from the bench.

James had reportedly been suffering from a minor calf issue earlier in the week. Thus, although he was healthy enough to make the squad against Athens, he did not see any action. His benching against Dortmund, however, came as a surprise.

An unused difference-maker

Head coach Niko Kovac could have played James in several ways, but ultimately chose to pass over the Colombian star. The starting lineup featured Franck Ribery on the left wing, Serge Gnabry on the right, and Thomas Müller floating in the center behind Robert Lewandowski. Leon Goretzka started to the left and ahead of Javi Martinez ahead of the center-backs.

And James remained on the bench. Twenty minutes into the second half, Kovac brought on Niklas Süle for an ailing Mats Hummels. Ten minutes later, Renato Sanches replaced Serge Gnabry — although Kovac arguably could have used James to replace a fatigued Franck Ribery on the left wing or an ineffective Thomas Müller. And ten minutes before the final whistle, Kovac at last took off Müller for a second striker, Sandro Wagner.

After the game, the press immediately sought an explanation. Sport1 asked sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic after the game why James had not played. Brazzo replied, somewhat irritated, “Do you not have a question about the game?” The only information Salihamidzic offered was that, “The coach decided in favor of the others.”

Ergo James was healthy but did not play.

Disciplinary reasons?

Could James have been benched deliberately for disciplinary reasons? It is striking that Kovac did not use James despite several opportunities. Did Kovac have other reasons?

There have been several stories — reported primarily by Bild but also other German media outlets — that suggest a strained relationship between James Rodriguez and Bayern Munich’s coach and sporting director. The latest incident that was covered at BFW occurred after James sat on the bench in Mainz earlier this month. James refused to shake hands with Salihamidzic after the game.

And there were two more incidents that seemed trivial at the time. After Bayern’s match in Wolfsburg, Kovac informed the locker room that all members of the team had to warm up together before games. Yet James was observed during warm-ups before Bayern’s game against AEK Athens standing with his arms crossed watching a video monitor. Two weeks earlier, in Mainz, he had stayed in the locker room (Bild).

And James arrived last and slightly late at Säbener Straße for the club’s final training session ahead of the Klassiker. He was dropped off by friends at 12:38, although the players are supposed to arrive an hour before training begins at 1:30.

Official excuses

Speaking to Sky, Salihamidzic denied that James was being disciplined (AZ). He said,

He didn’t come too late to training. He was a little injured last week and had minor problems.

Club president Uli Hoeness initially concurred, describing James as “pretty banged up” (ziemlich angeschlagen) after Bayern’s match against AEK (in which James did not play). Hoeness then claimed,

It (James’s benching) was for purely competitive reasons. Of course James enriches every team when healthy and fit, but the coach made the decision and one must accept it.

All other speculation is “nonsense,” he added.

But some nonsense or other seems to be precisely what is happening behind the scenes at Säbener Straße. The various reports suggest a series of minor provocations on the part of the Colombian that may have strained the patience of Kovac and Salihamidzic — and possibly further members of the front office. Perhaps James was not completely fit — or perhaps Kovac wanted to make a point.

Bayern have long touted the philosophy that no player is bigger than the team, a point reinforced as recently as this past summer amid Robert Lewandowski’s efforts to leave. Bayern have the option to buy James from Real for €42 mil this summer, an option they will surely exercise.

What happens next, whether James remains at Bayern or is sold elsewhere for a massive profit, is anyone’s guess. But it appears that whatever the real reason for James’s benching in Dortmund, whether it was fitness, discipline, or (perhaps least likely) purely tactics, Kovac has the explicit support of Bayern’s front office.