Isco's rise complicates Ancelotti's starting lineup at Real Madrid
There's a saying in Spain that footballers can "reparte los caramelos", or hand out the sweets. It's a saying that relates to Three Kings Day, when Christmas presents are traditionally handed out to children on Jan. 6 and where sweets are dished out in abundance at public festivals and parades up and down the country.
In footballing terms, players who can "reparte los caramelos" are players that provide luxuries. They treat their teammates, through clever passes and assists, and entertain the paying public with their silky skills. Think Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and most recently Isco, Real Madrid's man of the moment.
Rare is the sight of a home crowd applauding an opposing player, especially when that opposing player plays for Real Madrid, but that's exactly what happened on Sunday night at the Estadio Manuel Martínez Valero for the 22-year-old Benalmadena man.
Madrid were 2-0 up against Elche and heading four points clear at La Liga's summit when the midfield magician was replaced by Alvaro Arbeloa with just a minute of normal time left. Applause rang around the sold-out stadium for a man who had just left the home side tattered and torn out on the pitch. The Elche fans were on their feet.
It's a stark contrast to just last week where the fans at the Santiago Bernabeu were whistling their own stars in goalkeeper Iker Casillas and star attacker Ronaldo. Now Isco, a player not even deemed good enough for a starting role at the beginning of the campaign, had supporters of the opposition up on their feet. It was a sign of just how far the young Spaniard has come this season.
Casillas, Madrid's club captain, said immediately after the Elche win that "Isco is the most important Spanish player of the future." Quite a statement and a pedestal to put the former Malaga and Valencia man on. Casillas has played with the best players in the world at Madrid and with the Spanish national squad so his praise is praise indeed.
Praise has also been forthcoming from Catalonia, perhaps the hardest obstacle to overcome when you play in all white. Isco has often been lamented by those with ties to Barcelona as the one that got away, while the club's supporters acknowledge he would be a perfect fit for the style of football they pursue. That Isco has a dog called Messi, "the best in the world", may well have helped.
This season has undoubtedly been Isco's best as far as praise and the type of stage in which he has earned his praise goes. He received another ovation when playing and scoring in Spain's Euro 2016 qualifying match against Belarus. That he succeeded with the national team after his star showings throughout the national age groups only cemented the popular belief that he would be crucial to the next decade of Spanish football. Casillas had seen it but now everybody else has had the chance to see it too.
The handing out of sweets references his natural ability to pick out an inch-perfect pass, dance effortlessly through two or three challenges or drift a glorious shot into the top corner of the goal. It references his one-step-ahead reading of the game, his anticipation of space and the general directing of his side's performances.
That Iberian saying can also mean the player is a luxury and a luxury only. Not a player for the long haul or the big battles. A player to call on when the timing is right. With Isco, that could not be further from the truth, especially this season.
Spanish journalist Juanma Trueba put it perfectly when he wrote in Sunday's match report that "His [Isco's] ability to mix the beautiful with the useful is unique." Isco is not just for show, he does not play to the cameras. There is a method to his footballing madness and not only in attack, where he has provided eight assists from 16 league starts, but in helping the team at the back, too.
Ancelotti has not shied away from the fact that he wants his summer 2013 recruit to track back and help the team as a whole and not just in an attacking sense if he wants to keep his starting role. Madrid have one attacking luxury in Cristiano Ronaldo, whose energy is saved for the crucial attacking moments and is largely exempt from helping his teammates defensively. Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale both do their share of tracking back.
"He was well positioned in defence and was just as good offensively," the Italian said earlier in the season when Isco was handed a starting role in the absence of the injured Luka Modric. "He proved he can play in this position without a problem."
Isco usually plays on the left of Madrid's midfield three and with left back Marcelo often bombing forward, he has needed to be aware of the gaps left when the Brazilian has bolstered the attack. He has done that with great success, for him, for Marcelo and for the team.
Now comes the hard part. Injuries to Modric and more recently James Rodriguez have ensured Isco's starting role, scintillating form to one side. Now the Croatian is just weeks away from a full return and the Colombian will follow suit a few weeks after. The question remains as to whether Isco will keep his starting role, as he should, or whether Ancelotti will recall both Modric, who has been one of Madrid's most consistent over the last 18 months, and James, a player who cost a pretty penny in the summer at 80 million euros.
Perhaps Ancelotti could play Isco in attacking third of Real Madrid's lineup, though the Italian has repeatedly said he will always play the "BBC" of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano when all three are fit. But there will be mounting pressure on Bale to perform, given the welcome selection headache Ancelotti is set to have in the coming weeks. More often than not, it has been the former Tottenham Hotspur man who has been at the centre of the selection storm due to his inconsistent form.
Indeed, Isco played alongside Modric and James when Madrid secured their best result of the season with a 3-1 Clasico triumph over Barcelona at the Bernabeu. The Colombian fit into Bale's position in attack but was part of a more rigid four-man midfield when his side did not have the ball. That the system worked so well against Madrid's greatest rivals makes it a strong choice going forward and piles the pressure at Bale's door.
The other option is to leave James, Florentino Perez's star signing in the summer after his heroics for Colombia in the World Cup, on the bench. It looks the most likely option. The former Monaco man has enjoyed an impressive first season with Madrid so far and has shown more of a defensive willingness than Bale to compliment his success in attack, but Ancelotti's insistence on the BBC would leave the Colombian on the bench given Modric's more all-round role in the midfield.
Ancelotti will find it extremely difficult to leave Isco out. He is not only shining but is also hitting the headlines more than Ronaldo and more than Bale. There is growing talk that this Madrid team is Isco's team, if not now then certainly in the near future. At 27 million euros his signing seems a snip and will leave Manchester City cursing their luck that the Spanish giants wanted the Malaga man at the same time they did.
There has been plenty of dancing to Isco's disco this season and his dancing feet could be crucial in Madrid's success not only this season but for the coming decade.