James Rodriguez languishes in limbo as Everton change direction under Rafa Benitez

Colombian has gone from flagship signing to fringe figure after mentor Ancelotti departed for Real Madrid job

Last season began with James Rodriguez illuminating Times Square, the Albert Dock and Goodison Park. The current campaign started with Everton’s most glamorous signing for many a year in self-isolation, issuing corrections on social media after a phrase he tweeted turned out to be Atletico Madrid’s motto.

The former Real Madrid man is not bound for a return to the Spanish capital, apparently. Instead, he languishes in limbo, an extraordinary talent who feels unwanted. Whether or not the Colombian is available for Saturday's trip to Leeds, regardless of how fit he is, it is unlikely he will start.

A team that was built around him is being reconstructed without him. Rafa Benitez’s game plan will be concentrated around wingers and crosses. He is looking for new signings Demarai Gary and Andros Townsend to supply Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison. The role of the No 10, the fantasista afforded special privileges however he is crowbarred into the team, has been abolished.

The descent from flagship signing to fringe figure can be traced to the departure of his mentor Carlo Ancelotti back to the Bernabeu and his replacement with Rafa Benitez, who had wanted to drop Rodriguez when at Real himself.

Cracks in the relationship had appeared before, however, with an unusually unsympathetic Ancelotti attributing Rodriguez’s absence from the final home game of last season to “fatigue.” It was not a reason to impress Evertonians; couple in Rodriguez’s tactless tweet of him on a plane heading across the Atlantic before their campaign culminated in the 5-0 thrashing at Manchester City and sympathy for him has been reduced.

Rodriguez could have been a cause célèbre, especially for fans antagonised by Benitez’s Liverpool past. Rewind a year and he was a coup: Everton displayed his image on Merseyside and in New York, as well as Miami and Bogota, in an advertising ploy. The hype felt justified. He introduced himself to Goodison with three goals and two assists in his first two home games. Everton went top.

There were more sporadic sightings of his magic subsequently: spectacular goals in the home draws with Leicester and Crystal Palace, a high-class strike at Old Trafford and a wonderful pass to unlock the Liverpool defence for Richarlison’s opener in Everton’s first win at Anfield since 1999. His quality was undoubted, his fitness rather more fragile. His absences became longer.

HALEWOOD, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10 (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE)  Carlo Ancelotti (L) and James Rodriguez pose for a photo before the Everton press conference at USM Finch Farm on September 10 2020 in Halewood, England.  (Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)

Rodriguez’s eventual tally of 21 league starts was his highest for seven seasons. Everton only scored 16 goals in the 17 games he did not start. If they could be a two-tier team, with and without him, they were less potent without an increasingly unreliable figure.

There felt a contradiction in that Everton had one of the worst seasons at home in their history, but Rodriguez’s goals and assists were largely confined to Goodison. He was the natural crowd-pleaser in the season when Everton had no crowd.

He feels the great player most Evertonians never saw play. His brilliance came amid emptiness and in underachievement, as Everton tailed away to finish 10th. Their first defeat came at Southampton, who exposed Rodriguez’s lack of devotion to his defensive duties. Ancelotti’s task thereafter felt to hide him when Everton did not have the ball and find him when they did, a balancing act that involved many a formation.

Benitez evidently believes the trade-off is not worthwhile, that a luxury played cannot be accommodated. And the price of trading is instructive. Rodriguez felt a bargain when it was revealed Real gave him away. Now perhaps Everton would do the same, to get his huge wages off the bill, to fund another arrival, to prioritise the functional over the flair player.

Updated: August 20th 2021, 5:24 AM