When James Rodriguez was unveiled as an Everton player amid much fanfare last September, it was rightly viewed as a major coup and a sign of the club’s stated ambition under Carlo Ancelotti.
Reunited with the Italian for a third time in his illustrious career, the end of his six-year stay at Real Madrid was marked across the city’s landmarks through billboards and a projection on the Albert Dock.
It was not just in Liverpool where Rodriguez’s arrival was making waves. The tallest skyscraper in Bogota, the Torre Colpatria, was lit up with a spectacular blue light show displaying James’s No 19 shirt. There were also displays in New York’s Times Square and in Miami Beach.
Everton’s marketing director Richard Kenyon said at the time: “James’ popularity in these territories represents a brilliant opportunity for us – and fits perfectly with our international strategy and the associated marketing and engagement activity which had already begun in these areas.”
The 2014 World Cup Golden Boot winner signed a two-year deal at Goodison Park, while the club held the option of taking up a third year.
He was labelled as ‘one of the world’s most popular footballers’ upon his unveiling, but fast-forward to the present day, and his one-year anniversary passed last week without acknowledgement from the club.
Everton were in talks to sign Porto winger Luis Diaz as part of a swap deal but the move failed to materialise, while Rodriguez’s Turkish agent Ahmet Bulut then claimed he turned down a transfer to Istanbul Basaksehir in favour of fighting for his place on Merseyside.
For those who are yet to see him at Goodison, Rodriguez is viewed as a one-season wonder in a marriage with Ancelotti that almost seemed too good to be true. But with his mentor gone, there was a sense of inevitability the Colombian would also seek pastures new.
Rafael Benitez, who ironically also replaced Ancelotti at Real Madrid back in 2015, has outlined a vision since his controversial appointment that has focused on a united front where all parties are singing off the same hymn sheet.
Ahead of his second home game in charge against Burnley on Monday Night Football, the reaction among those in attendance has been a positive one – far removed from the perception that his weekly appearances in the Everton dug-out would resemble a popularity contest.
There has been much-needed harmony and a surprising stillness to these early months of his tenure, and victory this evening would move his side into the top four, level on 10 points with Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Creating a more intimate camp that supporters can better identify with is key to this, and weeding out those who are not committed to the cause is essential if Everton are to make sustained progress.
Rodriguez’s first season
Benitez acknowledges that winning games will keep fans happy, so parting company with a player whose creativity shone through at times in a squad short on goals last season would still be a risk.
His supporters will point to his sublime finish from the edge of the box against Leicester, his double early on in his stay against Brighton, the silky touches to set up his finish at Manchester United and to play in Richarlison for the opener in the victory at Liverpool in February.
But so too will his detractors point to the gamble the club initially took in offering a player on the wane, and with a troublesome calf, £220,000 a week. Rodriguez would undoubtedly flicker into life with more moments of brilliance, but his critics would argue that building a team around such a mercurial talent makes no long-term sense.
A major factor in the player’s failure to reproduce his best form on a consistent basis was his inability to build on an encouraging start. Rodriguez began Everton’s opening six league matches last term under Ancelotti but failed to start more than four consecutive Premier League fixtures for the remainder of the campaign.
In spite of his injury history, Rodriguez made 21 Premier League starts last term – the first time he had appeared from the off in more than 20 league games since playing for Real Madrid in 2014-15.
His last goal was typical Rodriguez, finding an improbable gap at Vicente Guaita’s near post back in April to give Everton the lead against Crystal Palace at Goodison Park. It was the 100th goal of his European club career and 12th in which the former Real Madrid midfielder had been involved in during 14 home games in all competitions.
But in keeping with his stay on Merseyside, it would not prove a winning contribution.
Everton faded to ultimately see their European aspirations dented by a late Michy Batshuayi equaliser, and so did James in a blue shirt. Indeed, it was in the only goal in his final 14 league matches, playing in only five of those games as the side finished 10th in the Premier League.
Why is he yet to feature this season?
Rodriguez’s future at Everton has never been too far from the agenda from the moment Ancelotti left, while his absence at the start of the season was less malignant in nature, caused by Covid-19 regulations.
The player’s use of streaming service Twitch to provide his followers with updates on his future has been unhelpful and his comments have infuriated supporters.
To those whose staple diet is following a club steeped in history but starved of recent success, translated soundbites surrounding his state of happiness on a gaming platform is a dish hard to digest.
The official line from the club was that Rodriguez was in Benitez’s plans ‘until August 31’ – a pointed response from a manager who had made it clear from an early conversation with the player that he did not feature in his plans.
What James said on Twitch
In late July on his future:“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know – I don’t know where I’m going to play. You know that in football and in life you don’t know anything, but all I know is that I’ve been training hard, preparing well, training for myself and that’s it. It’s complicated. [I will play] wherever I’m wanted. Someone has to be at a place they’re wanted.”
Ahead of the Southampton game on August 14: “There is a game on Saturday then, but I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll play. Anything can happen here at the end of the month, football always changes fast.”
On the eve of Everton’s game at Leeds on August 21:“I will start training on Monday, I think. On the weekend I will not play, I don’t even know who Everton is playing, can you please tell me? I think it is away because the past was here at home.”
Shortly afterwards, he added: “Ah, against Leeds they play, away from home, against [Marcelo] Bielsa, a difficult game, let’s see what happens, hopefully they win.”
Saturday, September 11: “I am physically fine. Don’t believe everything they say. I am training well, I feel good and prepared for what will happen to me and what is coming.”
Learning of how someone so handsomely remunerated became so detached from his employers to the point of not knowing who they were playing was a confession which appeared to virtually seal his exit.
It may have been a momentary lapse requiring the help of social media, but it was a prime example of the disconnect that Benitez is striving to eradicate.
There is an entirely valid and logical reason for wishing to cut ties. Everton have spent just £1.7m on four new faces this summer having racked up losses of almost £265m in the three years before 2019-20.
Speaking earlier this month, Benitez said: “The reality is that we know the financial fair play rules are there and we have to follow them. I know what is the situation and we will try to do our best with the players we have.
“If we can strengthen our squad we will try to do it. In these circumstances we have to move players on – that is simple to understand.”
The club are having to cut their cloth accordingly following years of lavish spending and in removing Rodriguez’s lucrative contract from their wage bill, they hoped to free up space for new signings while finding a solution which suits all parties.
Where would James fit in under Rafa?
Rodriguez made no secret of how Ancelotti was a huge factor in him signing for Everton, but the club need to build their future around players who see being an integral part of the first team as the ultimate goal.
Benitez’s early approach has unashamedly revolved around retaining the club’s better players and more specifically servicing their England striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
The club’s transfer strategy this summer centred on astute signings at low cost, in stark contrast to the slightly less measured approach seen under previous regimes.
In the 3-1 victory over Southampton on the opening weekend, it was the directness of the team’s approach which stirred a second-half turnaround. There had been an injection of pace and the visitors were unable to react to the change in tempo since the break.
It was not hard to wonder quite where Rodriguez would fit in the side that day as Everton embarked on their opening-day comeback, but Benitez believes there will be games where utilising the player’s specialist skill set in key moments can make a significant contribution.
“If he stays with us, it’s good news for us because he can give us something more,” Benitez said last week. “We don’t have any doubt about his quality, we have to be sure that we have players playing for 90 minutes with the intensity we’re looking for.
“Each player has his characteristics, and some games where he can be the difference.”
Finding the best solution at Everton
Rodriguez has been viewed by the club as dispensable, not least because of the team Benitez is trying to mould.
Everton’s summer transfer plans were hamstrung by the league’s profitability and sustainability rules meaning that getting their top earner off the books was vital to facilitating new signings.
But, having failed to secure a move away, the Everton boss has now set his wantaway star the challenge of showing he can still offer something to his squad. The door has been left open for a return.
Speaking ahead of the Burnley clash, live on Sky Sports, Benitez said: “I have seen what was going on at the end of the season, what was going on this season with some social media comments.
“It was not easy, because he was available in the transfer window. Now that we have just the Middle-East window open, it’s not easy.
“I think he realised he has to improve in a lot of things. He has to focus, he has to show his commitment. That’s what he’s trying to do and that is good for us.
“If James is staying with us, we need to find the right games for him, and he has to show his commitment and his desire. It’s something his team-mates, fans and staff are expecting for him. If he can do that, he can make a contribution for the team.”
Pictures emerged of the player on holiday in Ibiza during the recent international break but he is now back working hard on the training pitches of Finch Farm.
Benitez added: “Match fitness means that he has to play games, and he has to play games in a row, so, at the moment, I think he is a little bit behind the others.”
Rodriguez must now get into shape and heed the advice.
How will Everton now evolve?
Benitez is clearly trying to take Everton in a new direction but there is no mistaking the creative void Rodriguez’s departure would leave. Only Gylfi Sigurdsson provided more assists (10) than his eight in all competitions last season, and so the club must embrace the need for creative reinforcements.
Abdoulaye Doucoure marked his first appearance in front of fans since his arrival last summer from Watford with a goal in Everton’s last home outing, and the Frenchman has been urged to be more aggressive and continue to get into advanced positions.
The early indications are that Benitez will set his team up to be compact when out of possession, while exploiting wide areas with the pace and delivery of Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray. In the season curtain-raiser, the team produced 18 crosses against Southampton – six more than they averaged across the whole of last term.
Benitez has offered an early reminder of his qualities to douse the Gwladys Street scepticism.
His ties to the team across Stanley Park will never be banished, but what Everton supporters want to see is a manager who can think outside of the box and change games.
Without a recognised No 10 readily available now in the squad, finding creative ways to utilise Gray, Townsend and Richarlison in behind Calvert-Lewin forms the first phase in the reorganisation.
With seven points collected from their opening three league games, the early signs have been encouraging. Even when Calvert-Lewin was withdrawn against Brighton at the weekend, Alex Iwobi was introduced as part of an interchangeable forward line.
Richarlison’s exertions having been involved in the Copa America and Tokyo Olympics provides another challenge, but having demonstrated his expertise in handling the James affair, Benitez has shown himself to be up to the task.
Even Rodriguez himself might admit to that.
How to follow Everton vs Burnley
Everton vs Burnley is live on Sky Sports Premier League from 7pm; kick-off 8pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app.
Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.
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