When Bayern Munich first signed James Rodriguez on loan almost two seasons ago, fans and pundits hailed the transfer as a total slam-dunk. The Colombian, who had been languishing on the bench for Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid up until that point, was expected to take the Bavarians to exciting new heights with his incredible skills and vision. The notion that Bayern wouldn’t make his stay permanent seemed laughable at best.
Now, as we near the end of James’ two-year loan, things have clearly not worked out as planned — neither for him nor his new club. There are now only a few weeks left in the season, and James still has yet to secure a place in the starting lineup — in fact, that goal seems more distant than ever.
One would think that it is because of his performances, but James has been nothing but excellent since he came to Bayern. His starts usually produce goals and assists, and he is one of the team leaders in key passes. On the surface, keeping him seems like a no-brainer. Then where is it all going wrong? Why doesn’t James Rodriguez fit in at Bayern Munich? There are several subtle reasons, and they can all be traced back to 2013.
The Jupp Formula
When Jupp Heynckes won the treble in 2013, his squad had a very specific setup, one that subsequent coaches have been unable or unwilling to change (for one reason or another). Here’s a recap of the basic components of that system:
- A tall, imposing target man (Mario Mandzukic)
- Two inverted wingers on the wings (Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery)
- A raumdeuter behind the striker (Thomas Müller)
- A versatile holding midfielder (Bastian Schweinsteiger)
- A proper, traditional central defensive midfielder (Javi Martinez)
- A pair of technical and creative offensive fullbacks (David Alaba and Philipp Lahm)
- A pair of ball-playing central defenders (Jerome Boateng and Dante)
- A sweeper keeper (Manuel Neuer)
Now, what’s missing from that litany of roles? A traditional attacking midfielder — i.e. the very role James prefers to play. In 2013, our attacking midfielder was Toni Kroos. Kroos played in most games in the first half of the season, but he was injured early in the second half — which meant that Heynckes had to move Müller inside, permanently opting for the system described above.
It worked wonders. Heynckes’ relatively simplistic setup took full advantage of the team’s talent, and Bayern Munich soared to a dominant treble while thumping giants like Juventus and Barcelona along the way.
Pep Guardiola also saw the benefit of the system, which is why he didn’t change any of the basics. Guardiola merely gave it a new spin and added some personnel changes to it. In his last season in charge of the club, Bayern were playing an identical system, but with players like Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal brought in to better suit the manager’s tactics.
Carlo Ancelotti — well, he tried to change things up by using a 4-3-3, but it just didn’t stick. Eventually he was fired. Heynckes came back and re-implemented his system, and it still worked as well as it did all those years ago. Now, on Saturday, Niko Kovac deployed that same system against a high-flying Borussia Dortmund and thrashed them 5-0.
Unfortunately for James, the 2013 formula seems to be here to stay — Bayern’s buying pattern in the summer indicates that the front office intends to keep that approach intact. This is bad news for the future of the Colombian, because he just doesn’t fit the 2013 setup in any way. But why is that, exactly? James is obviously talented. Can’t Kovac figure out a way to work him in? Well, the problem with that is ...
James is no Thomas Müller
Thomas Müller’s importance to Bayern Munich cannot be overstated. Without Müller, the team’s offense simply cannot function, as was demonstrated against Liverpool. After a tough game against Hertha Berlin in February, things got so bad that Robert Lewandowski came out and publicly expressed his desire for Müller to return to the lineup. He knows what he’s talking about, as the stats back him up.
The problem for James is this: he started and played those games against Liverpool and Berlin, but he simply could not replicate Muller’s impact. It is not even the case that he played badly as an individual. Sure, he struggled mightily against Liverpool, but statistically his season has been far better than Müller’s (go ahead and compare them if you don’t believe me).
For all of his individual skill and influence, though, James does not make the impact that we would like. In fact, when we did a similar analysis of his season back in December, we found that Bayern actually score less when he’s on the pitch. The problem is that James is not a raumdeuter, he cannot do what Muller does, and he needs Müller himself to be effective.
For a time, the two existed in an uneasy equilibrium. Müller was shunted out wide to accommodate James in his preferred attacking midfield position. However, this was always an inefficient use of talent, and it only worked because one of Kingsley Coman or Serge Gnabry always needed rest or was injured. Ideally, Müller should never be removed from the second striker position.
Last season, Jupp Heynckes understood this. He always played Müller in the second striker position no matter what, even when he had James as an option. It was only after Coman and Robben both went down injured that Jupp had no choice but to move Müller out wide and shift James into the attacking midfield; it was a compromise made due to injuries. That should have been our clue — any lineup with Müller on the wing is a compromise.
This fact was made incredibly obvious by the recent Klassiker — as Müller returned to his natural position, Bayern drubbed a high-flying BVB team 5-0, when most analysts expected it to be a close game. At this point in time, James seems surplus to requirements. And that’s not a good situation for a player that sees himself as a starter for a big club.
An unwillingness to compromise
It doesn’t have to be this way. James could stay if he was willing to accept more time on the bench. There are still teams against whom James could be useful, and as bulletproof as Müller is, we can’t be certain that he will never get injured.
Unfortunately, spending time on the bench simply isn’t an option for James. Like any other footballer, James wants to start, and this desire of his is what is keeping him from a potential future at Bayern. To be fair to him, it’s fair to ask whether a future on the bench is a future worth having. Surely James can go to Juventus (or a smaller club like Arsenal or Chelsea) and get what he wants.
On Bayern’s part, it’s hard to give James large amounts of playing time, given how crucial Müller is to the team. Jupp’s solution from last year — playing James in central midfield — is also completely unworkable now because Leon Goretzka is a part of the squad and performing brilliantly in the role. James is a player without a position at Bayern.
Unfortunately, if we take all these things into consideration, it seems inevitable that James will leave Munich in the summer, unless he changes his mind about playing time. It’s seems an unfortunate situation: the player is obviously talented, but he’s just not what the club needs. James himself will probably be happier at a club where he fits in.
Hopefully, come summer, all the parties involved make the right decision.