There is no doubting when James Rodríguez’s career peaked. It was just before the half-hour mark in Colombia’s 2014 World Cup last-16 tie against Uruguay at the Maracanã. A clearance was headed back to him, 25 yards from goal. He took the ball on his chest, turned and, as the ball dropped, hit a dipping volley over Fernando Muslera and in off the underside of the bar. He got the second as well in a 2–0 win that took Colombia to its first World Cup quarterfinal.
It was voted goal of the tournament, and it helped James to the Golden Boot. In a vibrant Colombia side, he was the elegant young star, just 22 at the time but seemingly the embodiment of the modern No. 10, a creator of sublime ability but also with the physical wherewithal to cope with the pace and pressing of 21st-century football. Real Madrid promptly signed him from Monaco for 80 million euros, making him the fourth-most expensive player in history at the time.
Since then, James has become a cautionary tale of the dangers of signing a player based on performances in a single tournament. He has never really developed as it had been hoped he might. Injuries have played their part—a badly broken metatarsal, a recurring thigh muscle problem—but Real Madrid loaned him to Bayern Munich in 2017, and, after two years, the German champion decided against taking up an option to buy. Last season, for Real Madrid, he started just five games.
Yet somewhere, his talent remains. It’s telling that Carlo Ancelotti, having managed him at both Madrid and Bayern, wanted to sign James again at Everton, a move finally made official on Monday after days of anticipation. He clearly trusts him, clearly believes that, at 29, James still has something to offer. And whatever doubts may remain about Ancelotti and how good a fit he is for Everton, this is clear evidence of one of the upsides of his appointment: It’s unlikely James would be quite so receptive to Everton’s overtures were it not for the Italian manager.
But alarm bells sound nonetheless. There is a particular category of Premier League clubs, those with proud traditions and a sense that they should be punching higher than they are, that tend to make this kind of signing. West Ham and Everton are the masters of it. Yes, they think they can resurrect the career of Theo Walcott or Alex Iwobi or Jack Wilshere or Javier Hernández, when what they are actually doing is paying over the odds for a player already on the way down with little or no resale value. It’s not universally true, of course, but that type of player can often seem to lack hunger or fight if things go wrong.
There is a clear danger that James will fall into that category. As he enters his 30s, his value will only decline. He seems like a luxury, enormously talented but somebody who for whatever reason has not quite delivered on his potential. On one level, this seems like a preposterous signing, yet another indulgence from a club that will not learn that upper-mid-table sides thrive by identifying young talent, molding it and then selling it on. A future when James produces a few sumptuous flicks in the opening weeks of the season but then fades away to become a frustrated and isolated presence is easy to imagine.
But so, too, is the opposite. Football is not just a ruthless business. It is also about dreaming. If Ancelotti has faith in a player with whom he has worked at two previous clubs, perhaps the excitement Everton fans feel will be justified. After all, for a reported fee of under $30 million, this is not a big gamble in terms of modern football.
With the combined signing of Allan from Napoli and the expected signing of Abdoulaye Doucouré from Watford–two combative but technically gifted players–Everton’s midfield will have a very different look next season after the effective but sterile and narrow 4-4-2 Ancelotti has favored since arriving in December. Ancelotti, who has also worked with Allan, clearly believes James can be its centerpiece, the sorcerer who can cast his magic dust.
Somewhere, the promise of six years ago remains. Ancelotti’s one full season with James, in La Liga in 2014–15, was by some margin his best ever in terms of direct goal involvement, with 13 goals and 13 assists.
Ancelotti has unlocked James’s talent once before; now he has to do it again.