It’s no secret that Isco has struggled to break into the starting line-up since his return from injury. This piece looks into what seems the likely outcome of his fight to establish himself as a starter at Real Madrid.
Isco’s role during Zidane’s first stint
In Zinedine Zidane’s first stint as manager, he was full of praise for Isco and eventually gave him a difficult but important role in the lineup during the 2016/17 season. Isco was tasked with peeling off the attacking front three (Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema) to become a link man between the midfield three of Toni Kroos, Casemiro, and Luka Modric.
He spent his time in the half spaces and was required to drift to either of the inside channels to create overloads with the midfield and advancing wing-backs. It was a difficult role, as it required him to consistently read the game and adjust his positioning between the lines. He also to show great fitness to continue to roam across the field where he was needed.
It was a role that Isco took with aplomb, contributing to Real Madrid becoming a dominant team, easily the best in the world that season. However, his trajectory since has been unexpectedly bleak since that high of a season. In 2017/18, Zidane identified the decline that the more mature players were undergoing and adjusted his system, converting it into a flat midfield of four. Real became more reliant on traditional wing play.
This change required Isco to suddenly adapt and play a different role to the one he had just nailed down a season prior. It is no surprise that his time as a winger in a system requiring good aerial crossing and running down the channels led him to fall out of form. This is a fate suffered not only by him, but also a lot of Los Blancos’ other players who never really understood or took to this system – notably Casemiro and Kroos.
The 2018/19 campaign was a total write-off of a season as it is. The bad form for players continued, and while Isco had started to look better under Julen Lopetegui, he got injured and returned to a hostile environment under Santiago Solari who did not play him.
Isco’s role during Zidane’s second stint
Zidane’s return would hence signal a chance at redemption for Isco, given this was the coach who always rated him and had given him an important role. Indeed, he did get to play a lot more as the season was wrapped up, but he did not really recapture his form.
It wasn’t until the preseason when he finally started to play again and admittedly looked better in the small sample of matches before he was struck again by injury.
Isco’s newest position seemed to be slightly further ahead of Kroos and Modric, who were playing in a double pivot during the preseason. He was required to link with those two and carry the ball further forward into the attacking midfield while playing centrally himself as a central attacking midfielder. It seemed that this was the best role for him, and things were looking okay despite poor results from a stylistic perspective. However, he got injured too quickly into the preseason before this could develop.
James Rodriguez stepped in for Isco and the same system continued, but Real’s results were patchy. While Zidane was experimenting and trying new things, Fede Valverde emerged (along with Rodrygo) and the system has become what it is now.
There is no longer a double pivot but a 4-1-4-1 that takes different shapes depending on the phase of play. Valverde has emerged as an offensive box-to-box rather than an out and out No. 10 in a double pivot system that Zidane used before. A notable difference comes in the amount of defensive work Valverde has been performing for the team, and this has corresponded to Real’s most balanced team yet.
Where does this leave Isco now?
Isco has come on as a substitute in a couple of matches and has certainly looked fit and sharp. Against Galatasaray he came on and played several positions, including on the wing and in midfield in the ‘Fede role’ once Valverde had dropped to the defensive midfield.
However, given the lack of attacking threat from Galatasaray, it is hard to assess whether Isco could challenge Valverde to become an offensive No. 8 yet. Competing with Valverde’s athleticism and contribution in defense will be a big challenge for Isco. He also seemingly has to win the favor of the coach, who, for the first time, is not as obviously positive with regards to the player’s prospects when asked about him. With Zidane, it’s often quite clear which players he is happy with and which are getting his neutral and diplomatic response.
He has an opportunity to provide the team with an option that is more cultured and decisive in the attacking phase. This is where Isco’s profile makes sense, and he did notably contribute impressively to the attack when he has played, especially against Galatasaray. However, it does seem certain that for now Valverde is leading the case to retain the starting role. Isco will have to take his chances when he comes on by continuing to show himself in attack but also prove to Zidane that he can do a similar job as Valverde in the defensive phases to maintain team balance.
Isco has had a difficult career at Real Madrid. He came as a young player with a big reputation and has taken on difficult and varied roles. Those are tough conditions for any talented player to develop a foothold, but Isco has survived.
He now has the chance to apply all of his ample ability for one last stand – and if he can finally live up to his potential and show a balanced game, I do not see a reason why he can’t displace Valverde for the time being and become Real’s starting option permanently. He has the talent for it, and now we will have to wait and see if he has the motivation.