Niko Kovac is spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing Bayern Munich’s strategy for the 2018/19 season. With so many options at hand, especially in midfield, the question of how to make the best use of James Rodriguez is still open.
It’s not like the Colombian star was misused last season as the Bavarian giants claimed their sixth Bundesliga title on the bounce. Far from it. James’ seven goals and 11 assists last season are a testament to how Jupp Heynckes was able to bring out the best in him to serve the needs of the team.
However, Bayern’s new boss has a tactical past that hints at a possible departure from the standard 4-3-3 of the previous campaign and new recruits like Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry will also need room to find their footing in the squad. Where does James fit into the title defense puzzle? bundesliga.com looks at all the possibilities.
Watch: James Rodriguez' stunning maiden Bundesliga season!
Pulling the strings from deep?
Although James started out his maiden season in Munich deployed in his more traditional role as a no. 10 in the orbit of Robert Lewandowski, he was slowly pulled further back towards central midfield, paired with either Thiago, Arturo Vidal or Corentin Tolisso in front of either Javi Martinez or Sebastian Rudy in a defensive role.
Playing from deeper allows James to conduct play and influence the start of attacking moves. It’s hard to quantify in raw statistics how important this was for his team, but James’ sixth sense for finding gaps in the opposing formation and his own teammates is a constant concern for Bayern’s rivals. Furthermore, his supernaturally potent ground passes, which defy the conventional wisdom that aerial balls are a faster method of delivery, makes it easy for the Bavarians to switch their direction of play in a heartbeat.
The ultimate key to this particular decision may be tied to the fates of others. Leon Goretzka and Renato Sanches will bolster the squad with their energetic box-to-box approach in the mold of Chilean warrior Vidal, so a double pivot with an enforcer (Rudy or Martinez) or the all-rounder Tolisso next to one of these three dynamos is a plausible choice to make the most out of the squad’s resources.
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Bayern are more than capable of running this midfield setup, but it would mean abandoning their most effective formula from last year. If Kovac feels tactically adventurous, he may even deploy James as a regista, a deep-lying playmaker to make the most of his telescopic precision to exploit the pace and power offered by his other teammates.
Final third operator?
On the flip side, the team could also benefit from letting the Colombian ace roam with more freedom up top. All the players we mentioned earlier are more than capable of handling the Bavarian engine room and one look at James’ goals and assists from last season are more than enough proof that, whether setting up a fatal final pass or finishing the play himself for a goal, the man is simply one of the best players when place right on the edge of the box.
While last season began with a big question mark over how he and Thomas Müller would be able to link up, both stars demonstrated that their talents were more than compatible. The duo fluidly switched positions when deployed together in an advanced line. With James covering more of the pitch, Müller was able to focus on his role of creating spaces for others and had his best season to date in terms of assists, leading the league with 14.
James also formed a formidable partnership with Thiago. Although they both provide different profiles of creative midfielders, it would’ve been easy for them to overlap and overshadow each other, but the the absolute opposite proved true. Whenever they shared the pitch, it was clear that they were both more than happy to enable each other with dazzling passing combinations.
His ability to maximize his teammates’ attributes as they combine might even tempt Kovac to push the Colombian ace into an even more protagonic role. A return to his roots, deployed as an advanced attacking midfielder with direct access to every key member of Bayern’s offensive setup in open play, could very well be in the cards for James.
Out on the wings?
Curiously enough, two of James’ best games last season found him deployed on the flanks. On his first Bundesliga start, against Schalke on Matchday 5, he gave a recital from the right wing. He scored his first goal in Germany and gave a further assist in a 3-0 win on the road in a performance that put any doubts regarding his adaptation to the league to bed for good.
Watch: How James Rodriguez runs the Bayern show!
On Matchday 10, he played as a left winger against RB Leipzig and found the net once more as Bayern took the lead of the table for the first time in the season with a 2-0 win. He was also used from a wider position in his best game for Colombia at the 2018 World Cup, a resounding 3-0 victory over Poland. Should Kovac consider giving James a crack at the wing?
The fact that Bayern used him so scarcely in this position last season is already a strong indicator that this may not be the case. Having more traditional wingers like Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Kingsley Coman in the squad made it difficult to justify such an approach in the long term and the arrival of Serge Gnabry will only make it more difficult.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Kovac won’t consider this option when faced with specific circumstances, especially if he wants his team to attack with a tighter trident up front or if he opts for an asymmetrical strategy, with a traditional winger on one flank and James dropped back on the other.
Finding a place for James won’t be a problem at all. If anything, he proved last season that he can adapt to the team’s needs across most attacking positions and still cause an impact on the pitch. The big question is what kind of system Niko Kovac will choose as his baseline for Bayern’s new era.
Will he keep their possession-based approach or steer them towards a counter attacking mindset like the one that helped Eintracht Frankfurt win the 2017/18 DFB Cup? Will he keep defending with four men at the back or push for the line of three? Either way, James is ready to shine in his second season in Germany.