James Rodriguez is back to the Real Madrid and La Liga set up after spending two seasons on loan in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich. His return has been one of mixed feelings and emotions but he has not let it affect his football and has proven to be more than just another name in the squad.

Fan-favorite James Rodriguez was the subject of many transfer speculations still because reports made us understand that Zinedine Zidane did not want him at the club. He remained, however, and Zidane reluctantly stated that he would have faith in his players. James Rodriguez however, has not gotten the kind of run that would, not only allow him to feel satisfied but will be enough for him to show his talents which Madrid desperately need.

He has however taken the bull by the horn when called up to play by Zidane. Against Sevilla on Sunday, he impressed with an all-action display that included some valuable defensive work. Even though he did not pick up a goal or an assist for Madrid against Sevilla, he was one of the best players on the pitch in the time he was on it, and improvement from his bad performance in Marid’s defeat to PSG in their Champions League opening day loss last Wednesday. His performance in the middle of the park on Sunday helped Los Blancos move into a tie for first place with Sevilla in La Liga.

Against Sevilla, he played one genius key pass which almost resulted in a goal for right-back Dani Carvajal, the kind that should have been scored.  From his no. 10 role in the Madrid set up that day, he made three tackles and one interception and completed one dribble, the only one he was involved in, because of his willingness to move the ball quickly and not spend too much time on it. He was at the heart of Real Madrid’s aggressive pressing of Sevilla, as his being on the ball allowed the forwards – Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema – push forward deeper and deeper into the heart of the Sevilla defence.

James’ other two appearances in La Liga for Madrid included the 3-2 home victory against Levante and a 57-minute showing in the 1-1 draw against Valladolid. In both games, he played very well, and those performances were what made Zidane give him the minutes he has gotten so far.

He got an assist against Levante, played five key passes, put four crosses into the box, and played four long balls from his position as a wide midfielder. Defensively, he made three tackles which he won, while constantly harassing the Levante midfielders and causing mistakes to be made by them which helped Madrid win possession back a few times. In all, he was the best player behind Benzema for Madrid in that tie.

So far, James is in the midst of a strong return season for Real Madrid, despite the fact that it seemed like Zidane would sell him to the man responsible for bringing him to Madrid and taking him on loan to Bayern, Carlo Ancelotti, and his Napoli team this summer. Real fans are surely glad that the club decided to hang onto the attacking midfielder and will be hoping that Zidane gives him the chance to replicate his debut season performances (29 games all as starter, 13 goals and 14 assists in La Liga).

At his best, James Rodriguez is quite easily one of the very best attacking midfielders in the world. Among Madrid’s players, he is the best at set-pieces – corner kicks, and free kicks. With many weapons in his arsenal, the Colombian is a capable long ranger shooter and is capable of playing dangerous crosses or pin-point passes to split a defence.

While talented, his development as a player can be traced back to his time at Bundesliga. James was easy to work with, being a midfielder who could slot into any midfield position and play excellently well. However, with Carlo Ancelotti’s and treble-winning coach Jupp Heynckes’ guidance, he became more rounded. Especially under Juup Heynckes, as he had to learn how to interpret space, much like a Ramdeuter. This knowledge, coupled with his natural abilities as an attacking midfielder, saw him unlock another side to his game while in Munich. Although he couldn’t carry out the role like the original Ramdeuter, Thomas Muller, he was able to make 23 appearances (19 as starter) in the Bundesliga, scoring seven times and providing 11 assists.

Niko Kovac took over from Jupp Heynckes in the summer of 2018 and employed two major formations, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, the latter being the formation in which he used James the most. This modification helped him a lot, as he was able to put the knowledge gotten from Jupp Heynckes and Carlo Ancelotti to use while playing in the no. 10 role behind the attackers.

His biggest improvement was in his defensive capabilities, however. James was never one to press opponents often, instead choosing to just make himself an option for the pressing teammate who wins the ball to find him. On occasions he did press for the ball, he did so if the opponent happened to be near him. Now, while not exactly Casemiro, he manages to cover the whole area behind the attackers in order to win the ball back from the front before it manages to break the lines between him and the double-pivot midfield. This is where he used to differ from Luka Modric, and why the Frenchman opted to replace him with Casemiro in the squad in his first tenure as Madrid coach.

In the current Madrid squad, none of the other midfielders can offer what James offers – the ability to make runs into the box on the interpretation of space and to recover almost immediately if those runs do not yield results. Benzema is a ball-playing striker who spends quite a lot of time outside the box and can only be found in the box or close to the penalty area during attacks when he knows the ball has a chance of getting to him. In cases like this, Madrid needs an extra man who can run into the box when the ball is won and James is the only one in the current set up who can offer that effectively, and he has shown this over time with Madrid including the last game against Sevilla, where he nearly got on the end of a Benzema cross.

Even with his stats from last season, in which he barely got any minutes, his 7 goals and 3 assists would have ranked as the third-highest goal contributions in Real Madrid’s La Liga season behind Benzema (21 goals and 6 assists) and Bale (8 goals and 3 assists).

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Zidane uses James and how the Colombian playmaker merges his offensive and defensive responsibilities. However, for a Madrid team which has struggled to create chances in the past two seasons in La Liga, he should be clutch and Zidane will do well to give him an improved run in the side, and not a bit-part role.