If Isco is so 'magic,' why is he still not a first choice for Real Madrid?
In the Real Madrid dressing room, they have a nickname for Isco. "Magic" they call him, which, when you think about it, is quite something. Imagine it: Cristiano Ronaldo is in there, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos too, players who have won it all, and it's you who's magic.
Imagine you're so talented that Madrid's footballers call you that. An opposition manager describes you as "the light," too, and Zinedine Zidane, who knows a bit about doing things other people can't, says you do things other people can't.
Imagine you're so good that Carlo Ancelotti says there's something of Zidane about you. You're "pure fantasy," one teammate says.
Not bad, eh? Now, imagine you help lead Real Madrid -- not some tiny club but the biggest, most successful club of them all -- to the best season in their entire history, that your international manager says he's "passionate" about you, and a coach who couldn't stop you admits he couldn't help but applaud you either.
"I'm an opponent but a lover of beauty too," said Gian Piero Ventura says after Spain beat Italy in the autumn. As for the fans, they mostly say "ooh" and "ahh" when you leave Marco Verratti looking silly: turned, twisted, baffled and beaten, the ball over his head and through his legs. In the net, too. If they say "ooh" and "ahh" then, they also say "Gol!" And more than once.
That night, the most decisive in qualification for the World Cup, you score twice. This Tuesday night, you score three times. Sergio Ramos runs over and kisses your boot. "Incredible," David De Gea calls you, and when you depart the Wanda Metropolitano, home of rivals Atletico Madrid, hands you a standing ovation, chanting your name just as your home town stadium, the Rosaleda, had done a few months earlier.
Back then, one match reporter ran this: "when Isco starts to play, football enters a dimension where most of us mere mortals start drooling." Now, Argentina are hammered 6-1 three days after you were gliding about in Dusseldorf, joining Andres Iniesta in the kind of performance that makes you wish he was just that little younger so he could play with you just that little longer. Spain are heading to the World Cup as favourites, and you're leading them there. "He played a huge game against Germany," writes perhaps the most respected voice in the Spanish media, "and against Argentina he 'Maradona-ed.'"
Imagine all of that. Imagine Koke saying you're "spectacular," that he "loves" you and that you if you want to play more, you could always go to Atletico. Imagine him daring to say so and thinking that you know what? He might even have a point. Imagine all that and thinking that you still might not play in Turin next week. It sounds a bit silly, and on one level it is, but imagine that. Because Isco can't help imagining it. Not least because it is a reality. The question now may be whether that's really a thing and really a problem.
At the end of Spain's 6-1 victory over Argentina on Tuesday night, in which Isco scored the first hat trick of his career, he spoke to the television. "When you don't have that 'continuity' with your team, games with the national team give me life," he said. "Here, the manager has confidence in me; maybe I haven't earned that at Madrid. Julen [Lopetegui, the Spain coach] shows his confidence in me with minutes. At Madrid I don't have the confidence that a footballer needs.
"Maybe I'm the problem; I haven't been able to earn it. I have to keep working to earn Zidane's trust."
What he said was offered up calmly and carefully. This was no rant; rather, it was quite rational and there was self-criticism too. He made no demands, nor did he attack anyone. He was asked; he didn't bring the subject up, but he did offer his response freely and still his words were striking. They've made quite an impact, too. If they were not a lament, they were an indication of a certain unease or, at least, a difference. He had told the truth. So far, so normal, but the words inevitably sparked reaction and debate -- although frankly, saying "hello" sparks a debate here. At Zidane's prematch press conference today, Isco dominated the questioning. The night before, one radio station had asked: "Who's to blame for Isco's situation?"
Situation? On the face of it, there is no "situation" and there is no blame, either. Not really. This is just normal, the consequence of competition. "The problem isn't Isco; the problem is that I have 25 players and can only play 11 of them," said Zidane. "I am very happy with Isco."
It's not as if Isco is just not playing. He's played in 25 of the 29 league games this season, 18 of them as a starter. He has started six of Real's eight so far in the Champions League. And while he has not played much in the Copa del Rey, that's usually a sign that you are important, not that you're not. He didn't start the past league game, but he did start the three before that. And although he didn't start in Paris against Paris Saint-Germain, he did start the first leg -- ahead of Gareth Bale.
And yet, there's still a sense that it's not quite enough, not for a player like him. Not least from Isco himself. Careful though he was, rational too, respectful, the fact that he said what he said shows that. Although Zidane said "people are free to interpret what he said, but I'm not unhappy with him," some have criticised him for speaking out; it wasn't the time and it couldn't help. But maybe he couldn't help himself.
Eighteen starts and seven substitute appearances represents a lot of minutes in the league, but eight players have started more, and three others have started as many. Not playing in Paris probably hurt, and the contrast with the national team was stark. As soon as he had arrived at Las Rozas, the
"It's different," Isco said. At Madrid, that's inevitable. In the summer that Isco left Malaga, Manuel Pellegrini tried to convince him to go to Manchester City. He warned Isco that chances would be fewer at Madrid. That's just a reality: the quality of the players guarantees it. He knew that and up to a point, he accepted it. In the end, he chose to head to the Bernabeu, where he has won three European Cups. It can't exactly be described as a bad decision but it does mean fewer minutes, less of a central role. At least to start with. It has long been like this, which is only normal. The thing is, this season was supposed to be different.
Isco had played two Champions League finals, but both of them as a sub -- he was superb in extra time in Milan -- and had never been to a World Cup before. When Madrid headed into the quarterfinal second leg of the Champions league last season, 21 players in their squad had played more minutes than him, including Fabio Coentrao. He was stalling on a new contract; at 25, he was no longer a kid happy to wait for his chance, and he wondered if he might be better elsewhere. Reports surfaced suggesting that Barcelona were watching closely. Madrid were concerned, but that didn't mean a guaranteed place, and that concern wasn't exactly overwhelming, either. He'd not made a watertight case for a place; there were still doubts.
But against Bayern, Isco played. He played every game after that too, becoming a regular in the league as well as in Europe. With Bale out injured, Zidane shifted the shape of the side, adding Isco behind the strikers, and Madrid were better for it. Isco was outstanding, producing the best football of his career, effective as well as aesthetic; he'd long stood accused, with some justification, of not always being as productive as his talent suggested he should be.
Madrid gained control, creativity and incisiveness. They were less of a counterattacking team than they had been. Isco added goals and assists by the game. It would not be a big claim to suggest that he was Spain's best player in the second half of last season as Madrid won the league and the European Cup for the first time since 1958. After the Champions League final, the contract question came up again. "Relax, I'm staying," he said, beaming. This time it really was a relief when he signed a new deal until 2022, with a €700 million buyout clause. He was better than he had ever been; he had earned his place.
"I don't feel like a starter because at Madrid, we all are, and the manager can only play 11 [of us], but I do feel important," he said back then. "I have grown as a footballer, I have improved, I score more goals than before because I play nearer the area and Zizou has been very important for that. I'm playing further forward, where I have played my whole life and where I can provide assists. Zidane knows to get the best out of me. I've had the patience to wait when I didn't have the opportunities I wanted," he said.
"He knows that he is an important player, he plays as if he was in the street and I like that because he doesn't worry when things don't come off. He is very comfortable on the pitch," Zidane said. Asked what has changed, Zidane replied: "Just confidence."
Confidence. The word that Isco used on Tuesday night.
Confidence needs continuity and support; confidence is not just his own but the confidence others have in him -- a confidence he needs to feel. Isco always knew of the pressure, the snap judgments and the volatility. He had his supporters, prepared to campaign for him (more than most, in fact) and he had much of the media on side, keen to support a Spaniard, but that was no guarantee of a game. Not at Madrid. How could it be, where the demands are gigantic every game?
"When you get it right, you're God," Isco had said in the winter, "but when you fail four or five passes, they want to get you out." One February morning, the headline splashed across the front of one of the sports dailies, Diario AS, said: "ZIDANE WANTS TO SELL ISCO." It was a recurring theme, not to be taken as gospel (still less considering where it came from), but it was true that that his claim on a first-team place was not as definitive as might have been assumed. He had not started in four of five league games.
Zidane rubbished the report and when PSG came around, there he was again. Madrid were superb; it is not like Zidane was mistaken, which is just another reason why "blame" is not really the word. The debate this week might have focused on confidence, but there is construction and competition too, the way the teams are built, the players that make them up.
Madrid and Spain are not the same: the styles are not exactly alike although the differences are perhaps not as great as they are often made out to be. Isco has sometimes been accused of slowing down the play, and Madrid tend to seek acceleration more than Spain. Earlier in the season when he was the outstanding player in the side, there was still that "yeah, but." Yeah, but they're losing. He played well, but his role was questioned. Cause and consequence are often intertwined, and his form dipped too.
The contrast with Spain was clear. There, he is closer to goal, more involved, more effective, more of a No. 10 and surrounded players of his type: under Lopetegui, he has scored every 75 minutes for Spain; with Madrid it's every 327. Even if there is not an issue, as such, there is an analysis to be undertaken, a search to explain the difference. With Spain there was no need to rotate like at club level, and performances there might have been conditioned by Madrid, the contrast proving a catalyst. Spain, he said, gave him "life." Madrid give him a living. Spain is different from his day-to-day.
There, the style suits him too, with Iniesta, Silva and Asensio alongside, although it is wise not to make too much of the stylistic differences, which are not so wide as they can appear.
It is not just that Isco didn't have a place in the side, but that in two of the formations Madrid most use, his natural place doesn't even exist. As Orfeo Suarez recalled in El Mundo this week, Ancelotti once said that Isco, a player of "great quality," would be one of the two second strikers in his favoured Christmas tree formation but that "in this Madrid with Cristiano, Bale and Benzema, it's necessary to play with a three and so you need other kinds of midfielders."
For Zidane, Isco was perfect against PSG in the first leg, an extra step between midfield and the forward line and also someone to block Giovanni Lo Celso, a weak link to target playing in an unfamiliar deep role for Unai Emery's side. He'd been chosen above Bale, a battle seemingly won. But for the second leg, Madrid shifted back to a 4-4-2 and Isco was gone again. Against Juventus, it would not be a surprise to see him in once more.
"I'm not unfair on him, and he's happy," Zidane said on Friday -- every question seemingly about the man they call "Magic."
"He wants to play more like all players, and maybe he hasn't been enjoying as central a role here, but I've always made it clear to him that he's important. Isco is a Real Madrid player, and he's going to stay here. He's a player I like."
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.