Real Madrid: Isco is Zidane’s Key to Balance

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 02: Isco of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring a goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Deportivo Alaves at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 2, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by fotopress/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 02: Isco of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring a goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Deportivo Alaves at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 2, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by fotopress/Getty Images) /

As of late, Isco has been receiving lots of praise for his performances on the pitch. Especially his most recent performances for Real Madrid against Alavés and Gijòn, as not only was his dribbling through defenders dazzling, his movement without the ball and tracking back were also a joy to see. Not to mention that his goals were the icing on the cake in both matches. Everyone knows what Isco can give on the pitch. Yet, here is why I think the Spaniard isn’t just a great addition to an already star-studded line up, but he is crucial for the team to function properly.

In order to explain why Isco should be more than just a super sub, let us remember a player that most of us thought Real Madrid will suffer badly after his departure from the Santiago Bernabéu:

(Photo by Steve Bardens – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)
(Photo by Steve Bardens – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images) /

Ángel Di María

Di Maria played what’s probably his best football ever during his last six months with Real Madrid. He crowned those months with a phenomenal performance in Real Madrid’s historical Champions League final against Atletico Madrid, a game in which he earned the Man of Match award.

However, even Di Maria’s best football, which was vital in winning La Decima, wasn’t enough to stop Florentino Perez from sacrificing the Argentine in order to bring in James Rodriguez.

With Di María, Real Madrid was able unleash the BBC at full throttle, while still maintaining a defensive shape.

The Di Maria role

Ancelotti deployed Di María as a left midfielder in his 4-3-3 formation. From that position, the Argentine doubled as both a midfielder and a winger. By shifting into the center, he became a midfielder.

He provided passing options and penetration through the center. When he shifted to the left, he became a winger, creating width and support to the left full back. This gave Ronaldo full freedom to shift into the center to pounce on any chances that came his way.

All while still keeping width and balance. This wasn’t the whole story though.

He also deployed Di María on the left wing when the team lost possession in order to create a proper defensive 4-4-2 shape. Again, giving Ronaldo full freedom to abandon defensive duties and still not negatively affecting the team at all.

Now let’s look at Isco: He tracks back, he dribbles through the center and runs on the wings. It’s an unfortunate fact that he lacks Di Maria’s pace.

Nonetheless, Isco’s work-rate is sufficient to do Di Maria’s role with little to non-existent drawbacks and compensate for that lack of pace.

Isco by the numbers

Now let’s take a look at how Isco fares in comparison with his midfield teammates:

The stats above simply further prove that Isco has a very high work-rate both on offense and defense, which again is what’s required for the “Di María role.” He may not be statistically better than Modric and Kroos, however he isn’t far behind.

Now to the heat maps:

Di María's heat map vs Atletico Madrid in the UCL 2014 final

Ronaldo's heat map vs Atletico Madrid in the 2014 UCL final

Isco's heat map vs Alaves

Ronaldo's heat map vs Alaves

Kroos's heat map vs Villareal

Ronaldo's heat map vs Villareal

The first two heat maps are from the 2014 Champions League Final. In that match, Real were ambushed by an early goal from Godin; a goal after which Atletico parked the bus in order to keep their lead.

As the above heat map shows, Di María played from the left wing. As for Ronaldo, his heat map indicates that he frequented the center of the pitch. Obviously to get more chances on goal.

The bright blue dot on the left of the midfield is a little misleading. It simply indicates that Ronaldo was involved a lot in the build up, which is true, but that’s out of scope for today.

The information relevant to this article is his positioning once he goes near Atleti’s defensive line. Once he enters the final third his movement starts becoming more concentrated towards the center.

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  • The second couple of heat maps are from the match against Alavés. In this match Isco’s movement was more towards the left wing. I believe there is a lot of similarity between both the latter heat map and Di Maria’s heat map against Atleti.

    Ronaldo’s heat map indicates that he leans towards free movement across the whole width of the pitch in order to find space. In that match, Isco’s movement not only kept horizontal balance, but it also eased Ronaldo’s movements.

    Since when the players equally spread all over the pitch the opposition finds it hard to mark a certain area (wherever Ronaldo goes) and abandon another (i.e the left wing).

    The third couple of heat maps are from Real Madrid’s match against Villareal. In this match, Real were caught off guard at the start of the second half and conceded two goals. This prompted Zidane to employ a high pressing strategy in order to get back in the game (and ultimately Los Blancos were able to net three past the Villareal goalkeeper, while not conceding anymore goals).

    Against Villareal, Kroos’s movement was different from Isco or Di María. From the heat map, it can be seen that Kroos influences the team by playing from the center rather than the wings.

    (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
    (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images) /

    Bear in mind that he is playing in a team that depends a lot on crosses and width. Also, Villareal played with a low block after they scored their two goals to preserve their leads, so the situation was somewhat similar to the the UCL final against Atletico in 2014.

    In fact, this is one of Kroos’s most offensive heat maps all season. Usually his positioning is more defensive than that. But this was a special case, given the circumstances.

    So what can we make of all these numbers and heat maps?

    1. Ronaldo tends to go to the center a lot. He also doesn’t track back that frequently.
    2. Ronaldo’s movement disrupts the team balance. However it’s vital for Ronaldo play like that so he can influence the team in a way that plays to his strengths.
    3. Di Maria’s movements was probably the best way to counter the negatives of Ronaldo’s positioning.
    4. Kroos doesn’t replicate the movement patterns Di Maria did. Isco does (to some extent).
    5. Isco could play as a left midfielder instead of Kroos.

    What about the Cyborg

    I am not saying that Isco should outright be a starter over Kroos. I am simply stating that Isco is vital in keeping balance to the team, yet I admit I still cannot say for certain how Isco can be slotted into our starting 11.

    It’s not easy figuring out a way to replace any of Los Blancos’s midfield trio with Isco, so I’d rather leave that to another article.