Real Madrid look to emerge from Clasico woe with Isco at forefront
Enough days have passed since El Clasico for Real Madrid to take stock and plot their way back to the top following a dispiriting end to the year.
Such a rare feeling of disappointment seems alien for a team that will finish 2017 with five more trophies in the cabinet than at the start. Yet Real find themselves in need of rejuvenation. One player must be at the centre of that process.
Isco has been Real Madrid's best player in 2017. While Cristiano Ronaldo won his fifth Ballon d'Or because of his exceptional performances in the latter stages of the victorious Champions League campaign, Isco has played consistently well throughout the year. It is rather cruel, therefore, that he will end the year where he began: on the bench and on the fringes.
In El Clasico he was the victim of Zinedine Zidane's decision -- a clumsy one, as it turned out -- to select Mateo Kovacic in the midfield in order to patrol Lionel Messi.
Isco uses the freedom of his midfield role to attack. He receives the ball in tight spaces and knits play with a velvet touch. By contrast, Zidane instructed Kovacic to use his freedom from the team structure to close down Sergio Busquets and, particularly in the second half, Messi. Where Messi went, Kovacic followed.
Zidane usually trusts his players to find their own solutions, so this decision was a rare move from a proactive approach to a reactive one. It didn't work, mainly because Messi is an intelligent player. He recognises when he can manipulate the attention of an opponent to his team's advantage. He did so in the La Liga match against Girona when Pablo Maffeo pursued his shadow.
Messi and Maffeo had time to get acquainted. "How old are you?" Messi asked. "Are you on loan from Manchester City?"
Between the small talk, Messi coaxed Maffeo into positions that created space for other players.
Ernesto Valverde acknowledged this after the match. "You have to take advantage of the situation," he said. "We tried to get the better of them by playing in the pace and taking advantage of Leo's movement."
Barcelona also took advantage of the situation against Real Madrid, particularly in the build-up to the opening goal. Busquets tacked and jibed like a darting schooner at the base of the midfield. He eased away from Toni Kroos and passed the ball forward to Ivan Rakitic. Messi was level with Rakitic, with Kovacic between them. The Argentine peeled to the right in the knowledge that Kovacic would follow. Or, at least, that he would hesitate. It worked. Rakitic strode through the midfield and Luis Suarez finished the move.
Isco watched this from the second row of seats in the dugout. He did not even come on as a substitute, as Dani Carvajal's red card forced Zidane to use one of his three changes in defence. Cadena SER claimed that Isco refused to warm up just after 60 minutes, which the player strenuously denied. "My two other teammates were going to go on ... since when can you make four substitutes?" he snapped on Twitter.
He was more chipper the last time he made the news from the bench, in a La Liga match at Granada on May 6, which Madrid won 4-0.
"Waiter! A Coca-Cola please!" chirped Isco at Granada manager Tony Adams, who was wearing a waistcoat. Modric and Kroos flanked Isco. The bench was a coveted position in Granada for a match sandwiched between the two legs of the Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid. A place on the bench in Granada meant a place on the pitch for the big game.
Isco is not out of favour, as such. But he remains the most dispensable player to Zidane. That is partly a consequence of his position and style. It is natural for a manager to sacrifice the talented playmaker when seeking solidity. Yet it is also a consequence of Zidane's unwavering faith in certain players regardless of their form. Karim Benzema is the clear example, while Luka Modric and Kroos also operate with impunity in midfield.
In 2018, Isco must make himself the man that Zidane cannot live without.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93