Had Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane had a full cast of players to choose from in Saturday’s showdown with Atletico Madrid, Isco wouldn’t have featured from the start.
The Frenchman’s blueprint in marquee matches in the past has included Casemiro prowling at the base of the midfield, adding an additional defensive foundation to an otherwise attacking side. But injuries to the Brazilian, Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata prompted a rethink for the derby.
Isco was given a chance and for the first time in a long time, a chance in his preferred position, operating as a No. 10 in support of hat-trick hero Cristiano Ronaldo. And while the enigmatic Portuguese grabbed the headlines with his treble in a 3-0 win at the Vicente Calderon, it was Isco at the hub of this triumph.
It was a performance that offered a reminder of why the 24-year-old has posed such a conundrum to managers in the past and a trigger to asses his current status with the European champions.
Isco, after all, has a tendency for pulling out these aesthetic and effective displays. In the team’s two UEFA Champions League wins over the past couple of campaigns—both against Atletico—the Spain international has dazzled coming off the bench, keeping possession, committing defenders and adding a sense of calm to frantic matches.
As such, there’s no doubt Isco has the capability to perform on the biggest stages, in terms of talent and temperament. But he’s still looking to find his place in the capital; only last month he was jeered by Madridistas during a 1-1 draw with Eibar, turning in a passive display and admitting afterwards he may have to move on.
Much of his struggles are due to the personnel available to Zidane in the attacking third. Indeed, Gareth Bale arrived in the same summer as Isco, forging the revered BBC trident; the manager has admitted those three will always play when fully fit and in the main, they’ve kindled a stunning attacking dynamic.
It leaves Isco, James Rodriguez, Lucas Vazquez, Mateo Kovacic and now Marco Asensio often jostling for one position in the starting XI as a complement to that triumvirate. A position that, in the biggest matches, ceases to exist in Zidane’s 4-3-3 setup.
Subsequently, there are big doubts as to whether Isco can fully realize his full potential at the Santiago Bernabeu. He’s been linked with a host of European football’s elite clubs in recent seasons as result, with a move to Tottenham Hotspur reportedly falling through on final day of the summer window.
Yet despite the long-running speculation and stints on the periphery of the XI, he remains a Madrid man. Carlo Ancelotti, Rafael Benitez and now Zidane have worked with the Spaniard and all of them have marginalized him at times. But he’s not been sold, perhaps out of a fear implanted by the mesmeric moments he can produce.
Those rumours will continue to surface until the playmaker defines a more significant role for himself at Real, though. It means Isco, whose contract with Real Madrid expires in 2018, still faces an enormous challenge to carve out a future for himself at the Santiago Bernabeu.
But it’s not beyond him. Of course, we need to see more consistency from the ex-Malaga man, as far too often his extraordinary ability is not matched by astute decision making and defensive application. Plus, to play in one of the attacking positions with Los Blancos, tangible contributions in the final third in terms of goals and assists are a prerequisite.
Should he get a run of matches in his preferred No. 10 position, perhaps that base level of performance will be hauled up. And Zidane has hinted he may be privy to handing him that responsibility. “Isco didn’t lose a single ball in the first half,” said the Frenchman of his effort against Atleti. “I’m delighted with the way he played up front behind [Ronaldo], which I think is his best position.”
Isco’s performance would have given Zidane food for thought. Ronaldo is capable of leading the line, potentially freeing up another attacking spot in vital matches. That’s something that could be of major benefit to the Spaniard’s chances of regular football.
Admittedly, we’ve been here before with Isco, with the player having slowly slipped down the pecking order again after signs of bright promise. And it’d be premature for Zidane to discard of a formula and a BBC front three that has been the hallmark of Madrid’s success under his tutelage.
But the magnitude of Isco’s display in a position regarded as his most preferred feels significant and potentially a crucial foundation for the midfielder.
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