One of the most difficult aspects that derive with following your dream to play for Real Madrid is the club's glamorous transfer policy. Real's two goal victory over Schalke in a rematch of last year's round of 16 clash provided further evidence of this recurring dilemma.
The Spanish club's triumph wasn't as emphatic as their five-goal drubbing, but similar to that encounter, Carlo Ancelotti's men, led by the inspiring Isco, were rarely tested. Even with the summer departure of Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria, the arrival of James and Toni Kroos ensured Isco remained on the bench at the start of the season, despite the Spaniard's positive performances towards the end of last season.
Isco has thrived on the left of Ancelotti's midfield trio as a ball carrier, before quickly moving to the left flank to protect his full back as Madrid reverts into two banks of four. The 22-year-old operated on the left in Manuel Pellegrini's 4-4-2, but has excelled in Ancelotti's hybrid, which in fairness is set up to maximize the strengths of the front three.
Real's poor performances in recent weeks was a worry prior to kick-off, but the pattern of the match was evident from the opening whistle - the reigning champions would dominate possession and the hosts would soak up pressure and play on the counter. Roberto Di Matteo's side operated in a 3-5-2 with the shuttlers pressing Real's fullbacks and doubling up against Ronaldo and Bale, while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Eric Choupo-Moting stuck goal-side to Kroos and Lucas Silva.
Schalke's initial set up flustered Madrid's productivity in open play, and Isco, in particular, was fairly quiet. Kroos and Silva varied their movement to receive the ball freely towards the halfway line, but the duo often playing non-penetrative passes to the flanks, and Isco failed to receive the ball between the lines. It was Benzema's movement in the opening stages that proved effective, as Madrid encountered difficulties breaking past Schalke's midfield band. The French striker often drifted into the left channel, or peeled towards the exterior centrebacks before darting diagonally into central space to receive through balls.
Isco's game vs Schalke. Brilliant. pic.twitter.com/I8GtyQJg31— Lucas Navarrete (@LucasNavarreteM) February 19, 2015
Likewise, Real often lobbed balls into these wide areas due to the positioning of Atsuto Uchida and Dennis Aogo. The Schalke wingbacks were pushed higher up the pitch, leaving acres of space for their centrebacks to cover against Madrid's speedy front trio. One move saw Kroos chip the ball into the right channel for Cristiano Ronaldo, but Schalke goalkeeper Timon Wellenreuther was quick off his line to disrupt the Portuguese forward. Isco also provided Ronaldo with quality service down the left channel but an impressive Joel Matip tackle prevented Madrid from doubling their lead.
Perhaps Madrid's territorial dominance in the first half should have resulted in more goals, as Di Matteo's men struggled to create chances from open play. Similar to Benzema, Huntelaar drifted into the channels - mainly the right - to receive the ball, but apart from a move where he skipped past Kroos and tested Casillas from distance, the Dutch striker's short cameo was ineffective. Madrid's high pressing in the early stages startled Schalke, and prevented Roman Neustädter from dictating play from deep areas, whereas the German club ultimately lacked the required quality in the final third. Aogo, Choupo-Moting and Kevin-Prince Boateng attempted to exploit Dani Carvajal down the left flank, as the Spaniard produced a woeful display against Atletico Madrid a few weeks ago, but Pepe cleared the former's run, Boateng was fouled, and several Madrid players crowded out the latter.
However, it was Isco who grew in prominence with his positional awareness, as he dropped deeper into central areas and subsequently glided past challenges to link midfield and attack. Isco also drifted towards the flank to complete one of many positive individual slaloms: the Spaniard achieved a match-high 100% take-on success rate. In the first half he effortlessly ran past Marco Höger and nipped the ball to Ronaldo, who won a free-kick that subsequently forced Wellenreuther into a key save.
Madrid's slow and laboured possession has been a theme for the reigning European champions as of late, and Isco's dribbling from deep areas was the solution to shifting Schalke's organized defence. It was Isco's combination with Bale that saw the Spaniard nearly double Madrid's lead, but he fired the ball inches over the net. Although Schalke improved in the second half through Höger's vertical running and substitute Felix Piatte's dogged determination to press Madrid's centre-backs, Marcelo's wonder goal confirmed a victory for the visitors.
The gulf in class between the two sides was evident prior to the draw, and although Di Matteo employed improved defensive structure, Madrid showcased that they can rely on individual brilliance when they're not playing well.