Form of Asensio, Isco have left no room for two thirds of Real Madrid's 'BBC'
It's a conundrum any manager would welcome: How to fit Cristiano Ronaldo, Marco Asensio and Isco into the same starting XI.
For Zinedine Zidane, the issue has suddenly become unavoidable. The form of both Spain internationals makes leaving either out of his Real Madrid side something approaching a dereliction of duty. Dropping Ronaldo is clearly out of the question. So how does the Frenchman accommodate all three?
The simplest solution is to play fast and loose with his formation. There is crushing pressure in Madrid to win, but there is also an unwritten contract to entertain, and there is little that is more exciting in world football at the moment than watching Isco and Asensio.
Zidane has always extolled the virtue of using his entire squad and has remained true to that ethos throughout his tenure at the Bernabeu. Although 2017-18 is in its infancy, 20 of his 23 players have already featured this season.
Dropping Gareth Bale is a thorny issue and likely to go down as well in the Bernabeu boardroom as a €100 million vase hitting the floor. However, with Zidane's emphasis on rotation and full-squad inclusion, leaving the Welshman out to accommodate others can be dressed up as part of the process.
There are other methods to consider. The back three is something that has yet to take hold in La Liga as it has in England or Italy, but there were two precedents from last season -- a 3-1 victory at Osasuna and a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla -- and neither was caused by the same defensive shortage that required Casemiro to drop into a four-man defence in A Coruna in Real's opening league game of 2017-18. On both occasions, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Nacho formed the rearguard, with Danilo and Marcelo acting as wing-backs.
With a full complement of players, Marcelo could be deployed in a defensive three with Asensio on the left of a midfield five and Isco playing in place of either Luka Modric or Toni Kroos with Casemiro in the holding position. The only difference in the starting lineups in those two games was Isco's inclusion in place of Kroos in Pamplona.
The Germany international was Real's most used player last season, with 4,170 minutes in all competitions. In 2015-16, Kroos and Modric were behind only Keylor Navas and Ronaldo. The occasional breather in a season in which Real are challenging on four fronts will not do either midfielder any harm.
Zidane doesn't need to play his armour-plated central line in every game. Although La Liga is far from the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel exercise portrayed by some international media, the truth is that there are plenty of fixtures in which he can alter his formation and rest key personnel, particularly at the Bernabeu, where Real have been beaten just twice in domestic competition under the Frenchman.
Ramos' experience as a full-back removes some of the risk element of a back three, and Varane's pitch coverage across the defensive line adds an extra layer of security, as does Casemiro's all-action style in front of it.
Another option Zidane has used previously to good effect is a four-man midfield with a secondary striker. Against Atletico Madrid last season, Isco was handed a roving role behind Ronaldo in a 3-0 victory, with the Portuguese helping himself to a hat trick. That is clearly Isco's best position, and Spain coach Julen Lopetegui used him in a similar way against Italy. Asensio was a second-half substitute on the right in Zidane's 4-4-1-1 formation in the Calderon.
Lopetegui also gave Zidane a pointer in the Italy game, playing without a recognised striker with Isco and Asensio flanking David Silva. Ronaldo might have said recently that he will never be a centre-forward, but the Portuguese's game has evolved in the past few seasons, and he now spends more time in the area. In 2016-17, just four of his 37 Liga and Champions League goals came from outside the box, and in two appearances this season, he has been deployed as a direct replacement for Karim Benzema.
An attacking line of Ronaldo, Asensio and Isco would not go down badly in the stands, and even Florentino Perez -- for years the primary champion of Benzema's cause at the club -- would find it hard to disagree at the moment.
Zidane's greatest achievement at Real Madrid has been wresting control of on-field matters from a president who has faced criticism in the past for his overzealous interest in team selection. Now, the Frenchman has a catch-22 situation. Unless Bale and Benzema play themselves into indispensable status quickly, there is no justification for Asensio and Isco to warm the bench. With both in such irresistible form, there is little room, and even fewer persuasive arguments, for the inclusion of two thirds of the "BBC."
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.