How do you solve a problem like James Rodriguez?

Nobody seems to know quite what to do with James Rodriguez – with the best player of the 2014 World Cup, still only 25, increasingly becoming a big problem that neither Real Madrid nor any of Europe’s other top clubs are able to solve.

A few weeks ago it seemed certain that James’ three up and down, but mostly down, years at Madrid were coming to an end. He very clearly said goodbye to the Bernabeu crowd when substituted during the team’s final La Liga home game of the season against Sevilla, and was then not even named on the bench by Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane for their Champions League final win over Juventus in Cardiff.

Despite some rumours of off-field distractions during his time in Spain, and a couple of late returns from international breaks, he has generally been fully committed to the Los Blancos cause. He still has the talent and character showed with his six goals for Colombia at the 2014 World Cup which lead Madrid to pay €80 million to Monaco for his services that summer. Even while being clearly far down the pecking order at the Bernabeu last season he still managed to chip in with 11 goals and 13 assists in just 18 starts [33 appearances in total]. 

So it should not really have been difficult to find interested parties and get a deal done - even with Florentino keen to recoup most of the money spent three years ago. But a month later, the first bunch of Madrid’s players were back on Monday for medical tests ahead of pre-season preparation for 2017/18, and James was among them. 

There has been no shortage of transfer speculation, with pretty much all of Europe’s top clubs mentioned as potential purchasers. Just last weekend well connected Colombian reporter Javier Hernandez Bonnet said that Bayern Munich had jumped to the head of the queue - with Carlo Ancelotti keen to reunite with a player who he had got excellent performances out of during the 2014/15 season, and the hierarchy at the Bundesliga outfit said to be “readying a bid”.

This followed a recent string of stories in AS from a reporter very close to James’ [super] agent Jorge Mendes, which had been pointing towards Manchester United as his most likely destination. 

Other clubs popping up in speculation over recent weeks and months included Paris Saint Germain, Arsenal, Juventus Liverpool and Inter Milan. But nobody has yet firmed up their interest, and James remains in limbo.

Meanwhile Madrid have already moved to bring in this summer's Under-21 European Championships player of tournament Dani Ceballos to fill a back-up midfield role. Ceballos is just 20, but has over 100 senior games for Real Betis under his belt already, and held firm during negotiations after Los Blancos hierarchy had first hoped to send him back to Real Betis on loan for 17/18. 

Ceballos is also a more natural fit than James for Zidane’s preferred 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 shape - and also meets Florentino’s new found aim of rounding out his superstar-heavy squad with the best of Spain’s emerging talents. The Andalusian is good mates with his fellow underage starlet Marco Asensio, and will join similarly aged Theo Hernandez, Jesus Vallejo, Marcos Llorente and Borja Mayoral as one of Zidane’s bright eyed back-ups.

Such youngsters are generally also happy to start games against the likes of Legia Warsaw, Getafe and Espanyol, or the Copa del Rey early rounds, and then delighted if they get minutes in bigger Champions League or La Liga outings. As a bona-fide superstar with a big commercial deal with Adidas, such a role does not really fit James.

But the exact role that fits James remains a puzzle. His breakout performances for Colombia [and also mostly for Monaco and Porto previously] came when he was given a relatively free ‘number 10’ role, was able to drift around from a central starting position off the centre-forward in a 4-2-3-1 shape. That system was all the rage a few years ago, but is starting to look a bit old fashioned now.  

Madrid are due to fly out to California to begin pre-season training at UCLA on Tuesday, and it is clear that neither Florentino, Zidane nor James himself want him on the plane. But it looks like he will have to go anyway unless a last minute deal gets done.

It seems strange that such a super-talented player, who was widely tipped as a future Ballon D’Or just a few years ago, now cannot seem to find a place to play. Time is still on his side, and 12 months ahead of the next World Cup a move to the right club and the right coach could revitalise his career. But nobody seems yet to have found a solution to the problem that is James Rodriguez.