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James Rodriguez's Real Madrid move adds to options for talent-rich club

A World Cup summer usually throws up a different recruitment strategy for Real Madrid, whose preference to sign a Ballon D’Or winner every year hasn't been able to be maintained since Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been its only winners since 2008. After the 2006 World Cup, Real Madrid signed Fabio Cannavaro, captain of Italy’s victorious side, while in 2002 it was Brazil's Golden Boot winner Ronaldo.

This month, the reigning European champion has signed two players who starred at the World Cup: Germany midfielder Toni Kroos, and, as confirmed Tuesday, James Rodriguez. It also is reportedly close to confirming a third star from Brazil, Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas. 

James will cost around €80 million and will wear the No. 10 shirt that has been vacant since Mesut Ozil left 12 months ago. His five-year contract will be worth an annual €6.5 million. If it sounds a lot for a 23-year-old who scored nine goals and made 12 assists in his only season at Monaco last year, that’s because it is. He cost Monaco €45 million a year ago, and his numbers alone do not add up to a €35 million appreciation.

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The James price carries with it the World Cup premium: he won the Golden Boot for the most goals scored, and in the eyes of many, his left-footed chest-and-volley against Uruguay was the best goal of the tournament. It probably added €10 million onto his price tag. It’s worth wondering whether he would even have been on Real Madrid’s wish list if he had a quiet World Cup (notwithstanding his agent, Jorge Mendes, who has many players at the club). 

Real Madrid, which paid top dollar for Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, is not afraid to break the bank for superstar talent, as explained excellently by Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse in her book Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment. She analyzed Real Madrid’s recruitment strategy and concluded: “It's really difficult to be a major contender in the entertainment business if you’re not willing to make that investment in superstar talent. Only a select few can compete for that talent, and the others have to settle for a model that does not involve them trying to buy that level of talent. It’s a trend we’re seeing across the entertainment industry.”

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The question of where James fits into the Real Madrid system for next season almost doesn't matter. The club buys superstars, and after his World Cup, Madrid is a logical step for James. Carlo Ancelotti is a master at managing big egos in a locker room, and what James’ arrival does bring to the club is options. It took Ancelotti a while to settle on 4-3-3 as the best combination for last season’s team, as he struggled to find a place for Isco, while Jese Rodriguez emerged as a promising ‘joker’ from the bench. 

Next season if Ancelotti sticks with 4-3-3, the likeliest midfield combination is Xabi Alonso, Kroos and Luka Modric, with Sami Khedira (if he stays), Asier Ilarramendi and Isco the back-ups. Argentina star Angel di Maria looks set to leave, although his proposed €60 million switch to Paris Saint-Germain has hit the skids after the French champion spent €50 million on David Luiz, and now needs to sell before buying again. Up front, Ancelotti could risk breaking up the Ronaldo-Karim Benzema-Bale trio by slotting James on one wing and moving Ronaldo central. 

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To play all four at once would necessitate a move to 4-2-3-1 with two from Alonso/Modric/Kroos/Khedira as the holders, and Ronaldo-James-Bale (or Isco) the attacking trio behind Benzema or Jese. A 4-4-2 would have the same personnel, just with Ronaldo pushed higher up. Whatever the permutations, two things seem apparent: One, James will not walk into the side as a guaranteed first-choice player, and two, if the lesser-heralded di Maria leaves, as seems likely, he will be tough to replace. It’s also tough on Isco as well, as di Maria leaving would have given him more opportunities. Not now though.

Real Madrid has one other issue to resolve, and that’s in goal. Last season, Diego Lopez was No. 1 for La Liga matches and Iker Casillas for the cup games. Lopez rejected the chance to move to Monaco as a makeweight in the James deal and wants to keep his place. Casillas met Florentino Perez before the World Cup and told him he also wanted to stay. Perez backed him, according to AS journalist Carmen Collino, who is close to Casillas, but has not come out and said as much publicly.  

On Wednesday, Casillas will meet with Perez again in Los Angeles and find out Madrid’s plans for him. He has no intention of making himself available to leave, which puts the club in a tricky situation: Casillas has a ‘lifetime contract’ at the Bernabeu and the decision to sack him would be poor for its image. But with Navas waiting in the wings, three top goalkeepers into one position does not go. Napoli is interested in Lopez, while Casillas would not be short of offers. 

Wednesday is decision day, but the rest of us will have to wait until Aug. 12, when Real Madrid faces Europa League winner Sevilla in the European SuperCup at Cardiff. That's when we might get some clues as to how Ancelotti plans to approach the season ahead.