Cristiano Ronaldo has long been seen as the talismanic presence at Real Madrid. The main figure, threat and marketable presence, all rolled into one. While the Portuguese forward managed to get into peak condition to help Los Blancos romp to both league and Champions League success in the dying embers of last season, Isco helped share the considerable burden of responsibility and saw his reputation surge as a result.
As the new campaign dawns, it was the latter that helped to lead Zinedine Zidane’s men into battle, as Real Madrid resigned Manchester United to a 2-1 defeat in the UEFA Super Cup – making the Frenchman his club’s fourth most decorated coach in the process. It has been a whirlwind year for Zidane, but the last six months have belonged to Isco. If this week was anything to go by, the next six could pack the same weighty punch.
Deployed in a free role, where he enjoyed his liberty to roam behind a front two of Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, Isco continues to look at home. Comfortable to receive possession in any scenario, whether it be close quarters or otherwise, he is a constant outlet. Teammates can use the former Malaga midfielder as an out ball whenever they please. Losing possession irresponsibly just isn’t in the Spaniard’s repertoire, with his perfect blend of balance, low centre of gravity and technical guile making him a nightmare for opponents to deal with.
Since Zidane took the reins at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid have been an attacking threat that has gone almost unrivalled across the continent. Scoring in 66 consecutive competitive games, they have a skeleton key for every lock, and Isco is a big part of that flexible creativity.
At full back, they boast Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, two players who are incredibly keen to hurtle forward to offer wide. This summer, Theo Hernandez has been recruited from Atletico Madrid, and the physical wing back promises to be a worthy deputy to the Brazilian. Zidane can go direct and did so in an untidy first half of their LaLiga campaign, with balls being whipped into the penalty area from out wide, but that quickly became one-dimensional and predictable.
Los Blancos were not winning games off the back of their style of play, but rather from one of their many talents popping up with a momentary solution to a much bigger problem. Isco has been key in solving this conundrum. Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have always offered balance in midfield, but having another creative presence ahead of them levels things out nicely to allow a front two to try and stretch or peg back an opposition back four.
Attack on All Fronts
The usage of Isco doesn’t negate the impact of Marcelo and Dani Carvajal’s marauding runs on the overlap, and having an extra potential cog in the interplay machine can only aid their endeavours, but it does make Real Madrid more multi-faceted. No longer can teams set up to defend the width of their 18-yard box aerially, as Isco’s bright presence flitting in between the lines brings his team’s threat very much to the opponent’s doorstep at times, as well as ensuring that general midfield ball retention is easier.
Dani Ceballos and Marco Asensio both showed during the summer’s Under-21 European Championship that they are capable of offering driving, creative presences from deep and wide midfield areas, and Isco looks set to pave the way for the number 10 role to have more of a presence in Real Madrid’s present. In their long-term futures at the club, they just might benefit from how Isco’s form has rejigged Zidane’s plans.
Against Man United, Cristiano Ronaldo’s name wasn’t first on the team sheet, with the Portugal international easing himself back into competitive football with an appearance from the bench. Instead, he got to watch on as Isco slotted home Real Madrid’s second goal of the evening in Skopje, after a neat one-two with Bale just inside the opposition penalty area.
Sharing the Load
The later months of last season ensured that Cristiano Ronaldo could relax looking forward. Rather than pushing himself to injury or an early retirement, missing certain planned matches periodically did him the world of good, and whether it was from the bench or his sofa, he could understand that this Real Madrid squad doesn’t require him to hold their hand.
Isco has been the man to do a large part of that convincing, with his abilities with the ball at his feet doing far more talking than a dressing room conversation ever could. His form maintains that there is healthy rotation between the squad’s attacking options. Confidence is near-visibly coursing through his veins, with his rhythmic slaloming between desperate defenders sure to be a fixture of the season to come.
Symbolically, his rise up the pecking order at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu is also the perfect anecdote to tell young players in the Castilla, or new summer arrivals: Show a poor attitude and you could find yourself turfed out like James Rodriguez. Keep your faith in Zidane, and you never know what the future might hold.