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 has created 11 chances for his team-mates — more than any other player — and has laid on three assists. If it wasn’t for the merciless line-drawing of the video assistant referee (VAR) halfway through a thrilling first have in Santa Clara, 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 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. Behind him, hard-runners and tough-tacklers Jefferson Lerma and Richard Rios can do the dirty work, 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 their 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 Costa Rica and Paraguay who worked hard to close down his preferred spaces in midfield.

Things were more open 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 teammates. Once in those areas, his delivery has been consistently inch-perfect.

james touches

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 the striker’s head.

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Seven of his 11 chances created for teammates have come from dead-ball deliveries, and with his ability when it comes to judging the weight of his passes, it is clear to see why. Something about the way he floats the ball in, almost leisurely sending it looping and spinning towards the goal, leaving it hanging in the air just long enough to strand the goalkeeper to his line, makes each and every cross incredibly easy to attack.

For the disallowed goal, 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 claim.

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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 bar.

Such is the quality and consistency of the cross, that he will trot over to take any set-piece, anywhere, to a raucous reception from the crowd.

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

There is finesse and firepower in the same left boot.

Despite what Lorenzo’s summary may suggest, Rodriguez is not low-intensity by any stretch; only Marquinhos had more touches in Santa Clara, while his four tackles could only be bettered by teammate Daniel Munoz.

Even if he has lost a yard of pace, his appetite for the national team keeps him on the move.

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(Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

“He is a player that we have to mark closely,” said Brazilian 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 Copa America quarter-final with Panama 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.

(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

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