On 25 June 2013, Carlo Ancelotti was introduced as Real Madrid's new manager. Less than 24 hours later, Florentino Pérez confirmed a deal had been reached with a slightly unknown Málaga starlet named Isco Alarcón.
Ahead of Isco on the depth chart were Luka Modrić, Xabi Alonso, Angel Di María, and Mesut Özil. No one quite knew where or how he'd fit into the lineup, and the only international exposure Isco had thus far was in a wild Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund. At the time of his presentation, Real Madrid were openly pursuing Gareth Bale, further muddying Isco's place in the club -- all of this before he'd even played an official game.
1 September 2013: Real Madrid announce the signing of Tottenham winger Gareth Bale.
2 September 2013: Arsenal announce the signing of Real Madrid midfielder Mesut Özil.
All signs pointed to Real Madrid switching to a 4-3-3 with two wingers (Ronaldo and Bale) and a striker up front (Benzema). Xabi, Modrić, and Di María were already keys ranging the midfield, so yet again, Isco had nowhere to play.
Fast forward one season. Colombian dynamo James Rodríguez ignites the World Cup, and Real Madrid's interest, and Toni Kroos rode the wave of a World Cup win right into the Bernabéu. In a week from 17 July to 22 July, Kroos and James each sign, respectively. Isco watches on.
Space was cleared out again with late-August departures of Angel Di María and Xabi Alonso. Carlo Ancelotti had completely rebuilt his midfield over two summers, but one thing remained constant: Isco was on the fringe.
What could have possibly been going through Isco's head when Real Madrid brought in James and Kroos? Through the 2013-14 season, he was mostly a situational substitute, and he seemed doomed to repeat that role early in the 2014-15 season as Carlo Ancelotti clearly favored the 4-3-3 with Luka Modrić, and newcomers Kroos and James. It took a Luka Modrić injury to open the door for a regular starting role for Isco, and he's been going up and up ever since.
At Málaga Isco showed immense offensive talent with many common flaws held by young starlets -- too easy to lose the ball, a bit lackadaisical in defense, and an excess of flair. He's steadily been erasing these tendencies, as well as the criticism that he's a one-dimensional midfielder.
Here's his heat maps in two of his earlier games as a starter: at Liverpool in the Champions League and against Barça in La Liga:
In the 4-4-2, he's asked to clog the midfield and help in defense, and he's done so extremely well. Against Liverpool he recorded seven tackles (his season average is two), and when Ancelotti demanded the entire team help defend against Barcelona, Isco sacrificed about half as many touches and passes as usual and did his part defending (no one on the team had more than four individual tackles, and Isco, Modrić, and James each had three).
And it's not just his positioning and defensive abilities which have rocketed him into stardom. He can pass to create chances, as well as to start the attack.
Against Elche he pushed the ball forward relentlessly and created chance through passes and dribbles. Here's his passing map from yesterday's game:
But when Ancelotti needs him in a specialized, more defensive role, he can do that as well. Here's his passing map against Barça:
Considerably fewer passes, and most of them to the left side of the midfield. But that was his role, and he received a standing ovation against both Barcelona and Elche.
I highlight these games (vs Liverpool, vs Barcelona, at Elche) because I think they highlight his range of ability. Yes, Isco has turned in a few forgettable performances. He looked lost against Atléti and was uninspiring against Valencia in Real's two most recent league losses. But his dominance has largely outweighed these performances, and very few teams have found a way to deal with him.
Heretofore, Isco's time at Madrid was unclear and uncertain. The constant turnover in midfield talent under Ancelotti left Isco as an afterthought, but he is demanding to be noticed now. He can play the 4-4-2 or the 4-3-3. He can play defensively or push the ball forward. Not since the days of Robinho and Robben has the Bernabéu seen such breathtaking dribbling, and Isco seems to outdo himself in that regard every week.
A few very concentrated windows of time through the last two summers have affected Isco massively. Many feared he was wasting away on the bench behind newcomers, but he shouldn't be worried about losing his starting spot now, even with Luka Modrić's imminent return.
Not once during the signings of Bale, James, Kroos, or even Lucas Silva did Isco show any signs of malcontent. Isco's success is the result of his staying the course and taking full advantage of the opportunities he's been given. Now, thanks to his patience and immense ability, he's a vital cog as Madrid push toward the spring.