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James Rodriguez is lighting up Copa America and at the heart of Colombia’s incredible run


Nestor Lorenzo often has a neat way of summing things up. Asked about the enigmatic James Rodriguez before a crunch match with Brazil on Tuesday, Colombia’s smooth-talking coach delivered once again.

“Now he runs a little less, but he thinks a little more. It’s good for him. He’s well surrounded, and that’s what’s making him play well.”

Already, after just three games at the 2024 Copa America, the 32-year-old Rodriguez has created 11 chances for team-mates — more than any other player in the tournament — and laid on three assists. If it wasn’t for the merciless line-drawing of the video assistant referee (VAR) halfway through a thrilling first half against Brazil in Santa Clara, California, last night, he would have made it four.

“I know the love he has for the jersey, his commitment for the national team,” continued Lorenzo, “and that’s why I trusted him.”

Rodriguez’s involvement with the Colombian national team has not been assured in recent years, missing out on the 2021 Copa America squad as his club form continued to wander. Now at Brazilian side Sao Paulo, fitness and form have allowed him to play just under 700 league minutes in 12 months.

Nonetheless, Lorenzo has found a place for Rodriguez’s technical ability to breathe in a 4-3-1-2 system, pulling the strings in a positionally fluid role behind the two strikers. Hard-runners and tough-tacklers Jefferson Lerma and Richard Rios can do the dirty work in midfield, leaving the No 10 free to combine with the intelligent Jhon Arias, pick out the relentless channel runs of Luis Diaz, or look to the box for bustling centre-forward Jhon Cordoba.

With the freedom to roam into pockets of space, Rodriguez will react to the game in front of him. As we can see from the graphic below, he likes to drop into the build-up phase and collect the ball from the centre-backs, particularly against the aggressive low-blocks of Paraguay and Costa Rica, who worked hard to close down his preferred spaces in midfield during the first two group matches.

Things were more open in the 1-1 draw against Brazil, allowing him to stray into dangerous areas in the right half-space, where he did not hesitate to cut inside and find his team-mates. Once in those areas, his delivery has been consistently inch-perfect.

One of the last contributions to his lock-picking clinic against Brazil was to create the following opportunity for Cordoba from exactly that space.

With that extra thinking time mentioned by Lorenzo — created as he peels out wide to receive the pass — Rodriguez picks out a perfectly-judged cross that drops right on the six-yard line, sailing over the defenders and landing on his striker’s head.

Seven of his 11 chances created for team-mates in this tournament have come from dead-ball deliveries, and with his ability to judge the weight of his passes, it is clear to see why. Something about how Rodriguez floats the ball in — the almost leisurely way of sending it looping and spinning towards goal, leaving it hanging in the air just long enough to nail the goalkeeper to his line — makes each cross incredibly easy to attack.

For the disallowed ‘equaliser’, look how close Davinson Sanchez is to goal when he makes contact. The delivery is lofted over the defensive line but is not too high to allow the goalkeeper to come and claim the ball.

From corners, too, Rodriguez constantly delivered the ball to the edge of the six-yard box. On this occasion, it is Cordoba again who heads over the crossbar.

Such is the quality and consistency of these crosses, that he will trot over to take any Colombia set piece, anywhere on the pitch, to a raucous reception from their fans in the crowd.

Rodriguez can switch it up too. Early in the first half against Brazil, he grazed the bar with a vicious free kick, the ball dipping and swerving as it careered over the wall.

He also sent a shot flying towards Alisson’s near post from a crossing position. Strolling up to the ball, leaning back, he suddenly closed his body and wrapped his foot around the ball, forcing the goalkeeper to scramble back and push a spinning shot over the top.

There is finesse and firepower in his left boot.

Despite what Lorenzo’s summary may suggest, Rodriguez is not low-intensity by any stretch; only Brazil defender Marquinhos had more touches last night in the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, while the four tackles he put in could only be bettered by his team-mate Daniel Munoz.

Even if he has lost a yard of pace as he prepares to turn 33 in just over a week’s time, Rodriguez’s appetite for the national team keeps him on the move.

(Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

“He is a player that we have to mark closely,” said Brazil midfielder Bruno Guimaraes before the game, “someone will always have to keep an eye on him.”

Colombia are now 26 games unbeaten and head into their quarter-final against Panama in Glendale, Arizona, on Saturday as strong favourites to make that 27.

Rodriguez has been the beating heart of that historic streak and is offering the world one final glimpse of his galactico days at Real Madrid.



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(Top photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

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