It’s been a while since I’ve published an article despite my desire to do so. So, during this on-going COVID-19 crisis, I decided to publish my first ever collaborative piece. My friend Saajid, a die-hard Real Madrid fan wanted to pay a glowing tribute to Isco, whose time at Real has largely been under rated. This wonderfully written piece is largely his effort with some inputs from me. Enjoy !!
With the resumption of La Liga almost upon us after the Covid-19 Pandemic, and the excitement building amongst us all, it is always a good exercise to take a step back and remind the (often forgetful) Real Madrid fanbase on some of the key important developments that took place prior to the pandemic. Further, it is also necessary to remind the Real Madrid fanbase on why it is important to focus on continuity and build on the foundations made, in what has been quite a promising seasons for Los Blancos.
Cogwheels of Recent Success
4 Champions Leagues in 5 Years, and 3 Champions League’s in a row. It’s an absolutely colossal achievement for the Real Madrid side that has dominated the last decade of European football. Amidst this, their crowning success has centered around and been attributed to a certain Portuguese Superstar, a certain French Manager, as well as their famous midfield trio, Modric, Casemiro and Kroos, and rightly so.
For the spectacular success that has transpired, a special tribute is due for the heroics of this midfield trident, and it is worth noting that most generational and transcendent teams have historically been personified by their midfield. This has been proven by the success of dynastic teams such as the Barcelona team of Pep Guardiola, which had the mythical midfield trio of Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta as the engine behind a Messi at the peak of his powers; while the dominant Milan team of the late 2000’s comprised of the trio of Pirlo, Gatusso & Kaka. Real Madrid’s powerhouse that won the ‘Threepeat’ had their very own trio of midfield maestros, Kroos, Casemiro and Modric.
However, you would be surprised if I told you that, Real Madrid have not won anything since 2016, while playing in what is considered as the ‘staple system’(aka 4-3-3), when playing these 3 midfielders. This would appear to be quite an outlandish remark at face value. Yet, if you dig deeper, you will find that it is curiously the ‘Plan B’ setup of the team that truly propelled them to win the double in the 2016/17 season, as well as the UEFA Champions league in the 2017/18 season.
Madrid and Kroos at the Peak of their Powers
The Elusive 4th Midfielder
What is often not spoken about in most generic conversations amongst fans, is the underlying presence of a 4th midfielder who has been the perfect complement and conduit to ‘enabling’ the famous midfield trio of Kroos, Modric & Casemiro. What has gone down as a very unappreciated aspect of the history of Real Madrid (which could remain this way) is the role that this ‘4th midfielder’ played in actually helping Real Madrid find an identity and style of play; which had the swag that is associated with dominant possession based teams that dominate opponents and pass opposing out of the game.
Yes, that 4th midfielder is none other than the magic man (and who’s referred to by the name of “Magia’ in the Real Madrid dressing room), Francisco Alarcon Suarez; more popularly known in the footballing world as Isco (or Magisco). I genuinely believe that he is the most underrated football player on the planet and is a top 5 player in the world when on song (which he often is, whenever he is given a consistent run of games)
Isco at the top of his game in 2016/17
Late on the bandwagon
To eliminate the perception of prejudice that maybe received by readers of this article, I will begin by saying that I have not always been the biggest Isco fan. In fact, I was quite late to join the Isco bandwagon, possibly as late as 16/17. Yes, I was fascinated by his signing in 13/14 and was hopeful of him doing great things but I quickly fell off this bandwagon when he gradually started to fade away with the signing of Bale. Additionally, I was also enamored with the signing of James Rodriguez, fresh off a dazzling performance at the 2014 World Cup, which was succeeded by impressive performances in his debut season for Real Madrid. However come 16/17, in what actually started off as a rather turbulent first half of the season; Real Madrid was surviving at the top of the table by the skin of their teeth. Only a plethora of Ramos headers saved their blushes more often than not and something needed to change drastically. This change transpired in somewhat weird circumstances and to put it mildly, it took an injury to a ‘key player’ for a spark to ignite. This in turn rejuvenated the career of a bench player at the time, which then transformed the dynamic of this club.
Zidane’s Coming of Age
The common misguided narrative about Zidane even amongst renowned panelists is that he is a great man manager, but not an astute tactician. It must be said here that his initial objective was just to jostle a bunch of underperforming, disgruntled superstars; who under the rather awkward rein of Rafa Benitez had largely flattered to deceive. While this applied to Zidane’s first season at the club, it was in his second season where he was faced with a major dilemma that demanded his tactical nous to come to the fore.
Zidane always had a tactical fervor inside him
It was in November 2016, when something unfortunate turned into a blessing in disguise. It wasn’t the easiest thing to predict that an injury to the then talisman Gareth Bale would be just the impetus that the team needed to embark on a dominant run of form. This form would not only secure the clubs first double in 59 years, but also help the club ascertain a blueprint and an identity of what “Zidane’s Madrid” would look like. Upon the injury of Bale, instead of introducing a like for like replacement, he opted to roll the dice and turn the system on its head.
This is where Zidane’s genius comes to the fore. He began to deploy a formation and playing style that was largely considered to be archaic and redundant. He deployed a 4-1-3-2 formation which was a variation of the 4-4-2 Diamond formation. He deployed Isco, the talented but yet irregular squad player in the team at the time, in his favored role as a number 10. This was very interesting considering this came at a time when the mythological role was fast becoming obsolete. Further, it was considered a luxury position due to the growing physical demands of the game.
Looking at this in hindsight, it almost feels like Zidane had finally been given an opportunity to bring to life, a long-found inclination to deploy a player who in his mind would replicate the glory days of his time as a player. This player was talented, but had not reached the heights of his Malaga days, where he won the Golden Boy award. This was mainly due to competition from other players at Madrid, with bigger price tags chosen ahead of him.
However, Zidane with an eye for true talent, recognized the Spaniards true potential and rewarded his spectacular form in the ‘B Team’ with a permanent role in the ‘A Team’.
Cohesive Play vs Individual Brilliance
The difference between the team’s play with Isco in the team has always been night and day. With the Spanish international conducting the attacking orchestra of the team, it felt like Real Madrid had evolved from a team that previously relied on individual brilliance and lots of crosses into the box; into a team that started controlling games, dictating play, out passing teams and creating chances by means of a collective and cohesive build-up. The crowning moment that personified this was in the post-match show on BT-Sports after the return leg against Atletico Madrid in 2016/17. Rio Ferdinand famously sang the praises of the combination of Modric, Kroos and Isco, stating that they were the best thing he had seen since the famous duo of Iniesta and Xavi. This is quite a glowing tribute to the profound impact that they had on our streak of domination.
Modern Day Zidane
The question though, is how could a single player transform the way the team played as a unit? The answer lies in the type of player Isco is, or rather the player he has evolved into. A number 10, for the modern game !! Yes, it somehow feels like he was the evolution of what Zidane saw himself becoming, a decade after his retirement. Of course, from a talent perspective, Isco is no Zidane. Zidane is Zidane, an all-time great, and definitely in my top 3 players of all time, and is incomparable. However, what I also believe is that Zidane saw in Isco, attributes beyond the stereo typical number 10 who is accustomed to playing in the zone behind the center forward, and spraying passes.
The Master and Apprentice- Zidane has often seen Isco as his successor in many ways
Isco’s Passing & Press Resistance
The first noteworthy attribute to take note of is Isco’s amazing ability to receive the ball, fend off teams that press high and find space for his team mates. This is complemented by an astounding ability to spray accurate passes from any part of the pitch. The simple (yet profound) stat that stands out, is his consistently high passing accuracy, which has always hovered around the 90% mark consistently for the past few years. This is an insanely high stat for a player who is meant to play in the final third of the pitch as an attacking midfielder. To put this into perspective, a player like Kevin De Bruyne, who is widely considered to be the best attacking midfielder in the world, averages around 82% in passing accuracy. This attribute of Isco creates an additional midfield presence for the team he plays for and hence creates a numerical superiority in midfield, while adding to the creative spark of the team.
Isco’s press resistance rivals most other deep lying central midfield counterparts
Isco’s dribbling ability rivals even the most elite players in the world. Considering this season alone, he averages 2 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. This is remarkable considering that he plays as deep as he does and this matches the number of dribbles (per 90 minutes) for an outright attacking player like Vinicius Junior.
Movement off the ball and facilitation of build-up play
The next aspect is his movement. This is arguably the most quintessential aspect of his game and the reason I feel that Zidane has put so much faith in the 28-year-old Andalusian. If you see a game with Isco on the pitch, he is always moving constantly, providing an extra passing outlet to team mates in various positions, whether it be deep in midfield or just behind the striker. It is this movement, that I believe enables the team to play more centrally with greater penetration.
It’s actually quite a simple concept to fathom. Opposing teams usually defend in a particular structure and plan to defend the attacking team based on the zones that opposing players are likely to be at any given time on the pitch.
Isco in his free role turns this playbook on its head with immaculate use of space on the pitch. His constant roaming creates an anomaly for the defending team that is not easy to plan for. We witnessed this in the important knockout games of the Champions League in the 2016-17 season, in the 2017/18 season and even this season. Hence, it is no coincidence that Real’s best performances this season have been against PSG, Barcelona at the Camp Nou, against Valencia in the Spanish Super Cup Semi Final, and against Levante, which we unfortunately lost. Isco, of course, reigned supreme and wreaked havoc on the opposition.
Ball Carrying Ability
Speaking of ball progression, it must also be highlighted that Isco is a highly underrated ball carrier, which is another aspect that helps in the team’s transition to the attacking third very quickly. This is highlighted in the stat below which shows that Isco makes the 3rd highest progressive runs per 90 minutes in La Liga. This is even superior to the much-lauded Martin Odegaard who is having his breakout season at Real Sociedad.
The Pass Master
The most underrated aspect of his game (which is often taken for granted) is just how good a passer he is. He is often at the receiving end of fumbled chances by strikers, which has been even more apparent in games this season. Some of these underrated moments are shown below.
The Fixation Around the 433 and wingers by the Real Madrid Fan Base
The Average Madrid fan often has the stereotypical notion that Real Madrid must play in a 433, with 2 wingers and a Center Forward. The ironic thing is that these fans are also the biggest critics, when it comes to heckling Real Madrid about crossing the ball into the box like a 1980’s English Team.
In order to decipher this paradox, it’s important to understand the way we have structured our team when playing with a 433. It is vastly different from a team like Manchester City that plays 2 Attacking midfielders (De Bruyne & Bernardo Silva) as part of their 3 man midfield with Rodri being the anchor who is also great on the ball. This is the same case with Barcelona’s Mythical 433, with the presence of Xavi and Iniesta, who were both creative players that played in very advanced positions and occupied the spaces in between the lines to create chances.
In comparison, Real Madrid’s (current) 433 comprises of 2 relatively defensive players (Casemiro and Valverde) and Kroos, who is also not the most mobile player, with his main job being to control the tempo and direction of the game, as opposed to creating chances. Fans will point out to the healthy number of key passes that he produces every game. However, there is a major caveat to this, considering the fact that Kroos takes all the free kicks and corners in the team which may skew this stat.
So, with midfielders who are not really built to create, there is a relatively low propensity to create from the middle. This is why most of the attacks end up being funneled from the wide areas of the pitch either via crosses or via wide players attempting one on one situations with opposing defenders.
This has been a major reason behind Karim Benzema constantly dropping back to facilitate as a pseudo number 10, in order to make up for this lack of a creative player in the final third. This was especially true during the BBC era. This is another area where the Isco role comes to the fore, and it relieves the creative burden from Benzema who can focus more being at the box to put away chances.
BBC at the Peak of their Powers
Big Game Player
Isco has always been a player for the big occasion, so much so, that one of the ridiculous accusations against him this season has been how he is ‘only a big game player’. He has been a clutch player right from his Malaga days, guiding them to the Quarter finals of the champions league, and has produced countless crucial moments in Madrid’s biggest games in their most crucial victories. At the top of my head, his assist to Ronaldo in the La Liga Decider against Malaga in 2016/17, his assist to Ronaldo against Juventus that opened the floodgates and paved the way for that 3-0 victory (in a game where he famously had a 100% passing accuracy), his pivotal performance in helping our revival as a substitute in the La Decima Final, come to mind. There are more performances, like the stellar performances in 2016/17 against Deportivo La Coruna & Sporting Gijon, with his last-minute winner in the dying minutes of the game possibly being the protagonist for Real Madrid winning La Liga that year.
Isco’s Re-emergence (Yet Again)
As with the majority of his career at Real Madrid, the Andalusian has always had to overcome adversity in his quest to become a relevant player. Against the bookies odds, he has risen to the occasion and re-emerged as Real Madrid’s best player in 2020. This is a timely indication with the season looking to resume after the Covid 19 crisis, that it really is in Madrid’s best interests to build their team around the Wizard from Andalusia, Magisco. I leave you with a highlight reel of him from the 2019/20 season, which is a timely reminder on just how influential and crucial he is in getting Real Madrid to stand up.