About two years ago, Isco was one of the best playmakers in the world. The Spaniard helped Real Madrid win the Champions League on three occasions and there was no risk in calling him ‘world-class’. But over the last year, a lot has changed. People will now think thrice before even placing the Spaniard in the ‘world-class’ bracket.
At his best, Isco makes his teams tick. His graceful moves on the ball, technical ability, and vision can open any defence in the world. His swagger and flair makes the game look easy, with every other player benefitting from it.
It is a classic case of a footballing fall from grace. But due to his age, Isco might not have too much time on his hands to wait and make a decision. He needs to act quickly, with his career stagnating at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The recent start he got in Real Madrid’s defeat to Mallorca was promising. He wasn’t exceptional by any means. But he wasn’t the worst either – a definition of how things have been. There were players who were worse than Isco.
It is worthy to know that a player as technically gifted as Isco would need to have as much time on the ball as possible. He had that during his brighter days. Over the last two seasons, Real’s average possession statistics in La Liga have dropped.
This season, the Los Blancos have averaged 55.5% possession. That represents a drop of over 2% from the 2017-18 season (via Whoscored). That isn’t something that favours a player like Isco at all.
Another statistic that does not favour him is how many passes per 90 minutes that Real have played since the 2017-18 season. This season, they have played 528 passes per 90 minutes. Last season, it stood at 587 and 594 in the 2017-18 campaign (via Whoscored). The numbers have gone down and will never help a player like Isco.
In the 2017-18 campaign and before that, Isco’s best performances came when he was deployed closer to goal. Zinedine Zidane’s system was flexible and that was down to the Spaniard, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Karim Benzema. Their positional interchanges were key and Isco thrived on that.
In the march to the Champions League wins, Isco always played in advanced roles with almost no real defensive responsibility. Indeed, why would there be a need to track back if Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, and Casemiro were at the peak of their powers?
The loss of Cristiano Ronaldo was crucial for Isco. The Portuguese superstar was inch-perfect at running into spaces that Benzema opened up with his movement. Isco constantly picked Ronaldo out, when he made runs in behind. Real’s loss of Ronaldo meant a lot tactically – as much as it meant mentally.
The duo of Kroos and Modrić have looked past their best since the 2017-18 season. They seemed to have lost motivation after winning almost every honour in the game. Be it Champions League titles, league titles, World Cup or Ballon D’or, they have won everything. When players of that stature start under-performing, a flair player like Isco will suffer.
Santiago Solari’s style relied on tactical rigidity of players. There was no room for a player like Isco, who prefers to roam about freely on the pitch. It was this approach from Solari that saw the likes of Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vázquez get picked ahead of Isco, who will not be at his best when being asked to remain disciplined in a rigid system.
Real struggled against the high-press last season, because of that. Isco has always been an expert at beating the high-press and finding spaces in tight spots. That is where Solari went wrong in not selecting Isco enough.
A lot has changed since Isco’s gilded days. But his recent performances have given hope that he is still a key part of the side. As hard as he works – as he did against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League two years ago – he needs freedom and room to operate.
Zidane is the manager who brought the best out of him and he knows what Isco can do, on his day. Playing him in a midfield trio of James Rodríguez and Casemiro makes little sense, but it tells you that Zidane is trying to get Isco involved. He is too good a player to be sold, even though he isn’t as quick as Eden Hazard, Vinicius or Rodrigo.