Real Madrid's Isco Conundrum
There is always something brewing behind the scenes at Real Madrid -- a team generally too deep in too many positions to satisfy every star’s playing time. Every season there are head-scratchers on the bench -- James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale -- but those absentees weren’t noticed as much with Zinedine Zidane winning as prolifically as he did. Winning masks everything. This season, with the team struggling, and Isco coming off the bench, the noise surrounding the Isco - Solari union keeps mounting.
Isco plays a theoretical position in Real Madrid -- just like James did, just as Coutinho does at Barcelona, and just as Mesut Ozil does at Arsenal. These players are labelled, at mass, as a ‘10’ -- stereotypical turtles who grind the offense to a painstaking hault. They’re great at controlling tempo, but sometimes the offense needs an extra jolt. Under Lopetegui, Real Madrid had plenty of the ball, but not many clear-cut chances or goals. Solari wants to have his offense slightly more rigid positionally, which leaves less room for roaming creators.
Media outlets throwing around skewed stats don’t help the narrative. Real Madrid haven’t won a good percentage of games with Isco in the team -- but that’s mostly because Isco has been coming in late off the bench when Solari’s men are chasing games against stubborn defensive schemes.
Isco is not without his faults. This season, he’s struggled to show his form from the 2016/2017 campaign (or some of his great showings in the Champions League in ‘17/18). Since returning from injury, he hasn’t looked match-fit (almost reasonably, to be sure, given that appendicitis is not an easy procedure to return from). In his return against Levante earlier this season, he was dispossessed multiple times, and gave the ball away in deep areas. Against Viktoria Plzen at home, he was whistled for a selfish attempt -- when a simple square pass to Benzema would’ve resulted in a goal. When he came on at half-time for an injured Bale against Villarreal, Real Madrid’s entire tempo decelerated, as Isco dropped deeper to combine with the midfielders rather than pushing high up the pitch as an outlet in transition as the Welshman did.
But the sample size with Isco in the team is hard to ignore, and his form under Zidane shouldn’t be that unrecoverable for a player who’s 26 and in the prime of his career. We’re witnessing a Real Madrid team that can’t deal with an opposing high press, nor can they find the ingenuity needed on a consistent basis to break down stubborn low-blocks. Isco fits both needs -- he is press-resistant, and like Marcelo, can find space in impossible situations.
It’s hard to decipher just what the reason is for Isco finding himself coming off the bench. There are signs from within the team that Solari’s decision is less personal, and more logical: The Spanish midfielder is still not 100% match fit, and you already know what you’re going to get from the players ahead of him. Vinicius is a gung-ho, line-breaking menace (raw, full of mistakes, and yet the biggest offensive threat Real Madrid have had of late), and Lucas Vazquez is a two-way winger with a ceaseless motor. Solari has not favoured Isco in deeper positions either, as after the Modric / Kroos tandem, the Argentine coach has opted to roll with a box-to-box, decisive player in Fede Valverde; or a frenetic, energy-filled Dani Ceballos.
And energy, as intangible as it sounds, is something Real Madrid have missed badly. Dani Ceballos fuelled the team with his off-ball movement and defensive coverage against Sevilla, in what was one of the team’s best performances of the season:
That was a sequence where Ceballos sprinted back to cover for Ramos, who was caught out of position after a giveaway. Ceballos then helps Reguilon dispossess Jesus Navas.
On an ensuing play, he’s on the opposite flank, covering the passing lane behind Dani Carvajal:
Neither of these plays are foreign to Isco, which makes the entire situation so bewildering. Isco is a highly intelligent defensive player, and his work rate has been exemplary in the past. Against PSG in last season’s Champions League round-of-16 first leg, Isco ran himself into the ground, pressed like a maniac, won the ball high up the pitch, and was efficient covering defensively for surging wingbacks. He can play either the left central midfield or left wing positions just fine -- and isn’t only reliant on being shoehorned as the spearhead of a diamond formation. Isco isn’t playing well now, looks a step slow, and is missing some mojo -- but the attributes that Ceballos, Valverde, Vinicius, or Vazquez have are not beyond him.
Even amid one of the most forgettable seasons in Isco’s career, he remains a steady contributor. Only the great Marcelo and the ever present Lucas Vazquez sling more open play key passes per 90 (1.68) in La Liga on the team than Isco; and the Spaniard completes 2.51 dribbles per 90 -- only Vinicius Jr, in very limited minutes, has more on the team, at 2.89
But Solari doesn’t pick his team based on what he knows Isco is capable of. He’s in ‘win-now’ mode, in what is perhaps a fleeting, short-term job for him. He needs players who are in top shape and ready to contribute. The Argentine has not been shy about benching players who aren’t up to speed physically -- with Marcelo taking a backseat against Sevilla; while Sergio Reguilon put in a strong defensive shift in his place. There is a directness, speed, verticality, and positional rigidity that Solari wants to play with, and other players are like-for-like puzzle pieces that can fit his scheme seamlessly.
There is an expectation from coaches in general to play their best players. Egos are expected to be put aside (as they should be), and tactical flexibility should go hand-in-hand with getting the best out of your best players in order for both team and player to thrive.
There is one thing that Real Madrid would want to consider: How much do they want to disgruntle Isco to the point where he desires to leave, at the hands of a transitory coach who’s likely at the helm for just a few months? It’s easy to pick your poison. Isco is one of the best players in the world, and Solari is an unproven manager whose value is not hard to replace. But looking at it that way is not that easy, even if tempting. While Solari is at Real Madrid, he should be given the reigns to make the decisions he feels are best for the team.
That’s a gamble Real Madrid has to take, anyway. Trusting a caretaker doesn’t come without its perils. Leaving Isco on the bench while implementing a hyper-rigid system didn’t work out at first. The team hit rock bottom in a 3 - 0 defeat away to Eibar, when they couldn’t escape a press (while one of their most press-resistant players, Isco, wasn’t on the field). They struggled again in narrow wins over Huesca and Eibar.
Trusting Solari seems to now be paying off. Of late, the team has been picking up steam. Solari seems to have found the balance between rigidity and fluidity -- there is more off-ball movement between the lines, and the now in-form Luka Modric is picking out his teammates in dangerous spots. While Solari may have issues on a personal level with Isco, there are enough tactical reasons for his decisions. But the team has to sustain this form, which is not easy, in order to fully justify not having Isco in the regular scheme.
This isn’t a repeat of the Pogba - Mourinho trial, where Mourinho repeatedly threw Pogba under the bus publicly, and the tension was clear. Solari has shown respect to Isco publicly, stating that he “loves” him. Nacho has come out and said that Solari is “on Isco’s side”. Marcelo publicly stated after the 0 - 2 win away to Roma: “I’m not saying that he (Isco) is not working but when you see you have made a mistake you must improve.”
Isco is not a lost cause -- his form is within reach, and the squad is on his side. He has come off the bench in most games under Solari, even if the outcome hasn’t all been successful. The team has gone through enough injuries and suspensions this season (and in the past) to assume Isco will always have a chance to claim his spot -- just as he rose in the 2016 / 2017 season amid Bale’s big injury to form a cohesive, control-based midfield alongside Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
But he didn’t crack the starting XI in any big games during this stretch with Bale and Asensio injured. Now Bale and Asensio (neither of whom are in form either) are inching their way back into the team. Marcos Llorente has also resumed training. While he’s not a comparable player positionally to Isco, his emergence on the scene this season means Solari will play either him or Casemiro as the team’s single pivot -- taking away one more starting XI spot as Toni Kroos will no longer be pushed back as a defensive midfielder, which would free up a LCM slot for Isco.
Real Madrid are famously thin at the striker position, but have loaded depth in midfield, where the great Isco resides. The ideal scenario for everyone involved is for Solari to unearth the Isco from two seasons ago and get Real Madrid ticking at a fluid tempo, retaining possession high up the pitch and attacking their opponents relentlessly. But whether he can do that, when hungry players like Ceballos, Valverde and Vinicius are exiting the realm of fringe rotation, is a different question.
“Competition within the squad is an essential part of football,” Solari told the media ahead of Thursday’s Copa del Rey clash with Girona. “Everyone must feel they have an opportunity and can lose their place ."
Image courtesy of the Press Association