Isco's blistering start to his Real Madrid career where he scored three goals - including an 86th minute game-winning header against Real Betis - in his first two games had fans on their feet and excited about this young Spanish wizard from Benalmádena. What he had done as a kid up to that point was phenomenal, and the future was bright.
He had just finished a monstrous season with Malaga prior to his signing, where, as a 20-year-old, was a key piece of Malaga's 2012-2013 Champions League run where they lost out by a hair to Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-finals. Indeed, it helped that Isco was surrounded by what was arguably Malaga's best team ever, but it doesn't discount the fact that he himself was great too.
In hindsight, the drop-off in form since then has been disappointing. His debut season with Real Madrid was his best one, and he hasn't quite rediscovered his early form for the Club. The Isco hiatus is not necessarily all his own fault, though. Despite being one of the most in-form players on the team, he was also brought over in the same Summer as Gareth Bale, while players like Ronaldo and Di Maria were, of course, still in front of him in the pecking order. Two seasons on, the situation hasn't changed. Undoubtedly, it's on Isco to prove himself, but if the plan all along was to develop Isco into an eventual starter as he matures, it was never going to happen if he wasn't going to be given a proper chance.
Under Zidane though, Isco has improved.
At the ripening age of 23, Isco has been ignited with confidence by Zidane, and, it's really amazing what a little belief can do to a player. We're now three games into the Zidane era, and Isco has started all three of them - already hitting a third of the games he started with Rafa in La Liga. He's not only playing more, but he's also not the passive player he was prior to Zidane's head-coaching appointment. The No. 10 in Zidane's scheme is a focal point - as it should be - and Isco's usage is way up. In his three last games as a starter, Isco has averaged 70 touches per game - up nearly a dozen from his 59.2 touches as a starter in La Liga under Benitez.
That Zidane seems eager to see Isco succeed shouldn't be a huge surprise. After all, he wants to prove himself right that Isco could one day be as good as he himself was at the turn of the century. It seems like a wild and deluded projection, but let's keep in mind that Zidane didn't truly arrive on the map until around age 26, and didn't quite reach his peak for another couple years still. A late bloomer he was, and relatively speaking, Isco has a head start, even if the gap between the two seems wildly disparate.
What Zidane has done with Isco in the limited sample size we have is exciting, as he's found a way to incorporate the No. 10 into a team that has two starting central midfielders and two attacking midfielders. And not only has he found room for the No. 10, but he's made him a focal point - a maestro who works diligently in recovering balls, plays intricate passes in-and-around the area, and links what was previously a disjointed transitional team which struggled finding a way to turn defense into attack. Both James and Isco are highly capable of this, and as I hinted in yesterday's mailbag, a time should come where they can both play together.
Zidane has found ways to invent the player he once was and put him on the pitch. Like Zidane, Isco can lie as a deeper No. 10 without directly being in the pocket behind the forwards where Benzema tends to hover. Isco can even drop deep enough to cover for players like Marcelo who bomb forward, and is a constant passing outlet for any of the back four as well as Modric and Kroos whose jobs are typically easier when Isco is opening up triangles on the pitch.
What Isco brings to the table actually completely goes beyond statistics. Never-mind how many dribbles or passes he conjures up every match, but think of the intangibles. Having Isco hovering around Modric and Kroos, providing cover, putting pressure on opposing midfielders, and providing constant outlets by playing in close proximity to every midfielder and attacker is huge. This is one of those times you have to throw stats out the window and just analyze the eye-test. There's a reason, for example, that Busquets is so vital to Barcelona. Despite a relatively dormant stat line game-in game-out, Busquets is involved with pretty well every Barcelona attack indirectly - channeling the ball from the back and instigating the offense.
Isco will probably never be Zidane, but he doesn't need to be either. In reality, we tend to over-compare players in general as we have no other reference points to label young players. Comparing Isco to Zidane is probably unjust to both, but having Isco under Zidane's wing at this point isn't doing harm, and the wisdom Zizou will radiate down to the Spanish maestro for the No. 10 role shouldn't be underplayed.
Zidane was a heavy part of Real Madrid's flow as a player, his linking with Roberto Carlos on the left side produced some of the most aesthetically-breathtaking football of the modern era, and his ability to find pockets of space through composed passing could completely dismantle even the best of defenses. He will now groom his heir as best as he can with his own philosophy.
It has to be noted again that both James and Isco can play this role just fine, and by inserting James alongside Isco, nothing would get over-complicated, as adding James only opens up even more channels of space and triangles for the midfielders to work with. Opposing midfielders will have a laborious time trying to cope with four technical players who are comfortable with the ball in tight spaces. James is also quite comfortable in a more advance role in the Bale / Ronaldo zone where he thrived with Monaco.
It's clear that none of this may make any sense until Ronaldo leaves and Isco has a chance to attack more from the left while James and Bale wreak havoc from the middle and right side. Isco is tremendously good at cutting inside and shooting from the left - sending a curler with pace to the far post which either translates to a dangerous cross that's difficult to deal with, or can clip inside the goal off the far-post. He could also link up well with Marcelo on overlapping runs - something he rarely gets to do with Ronaldo occupying that space.
Yet, what still remains to this day Isco's weakest point is his decision-making. Quite the opposite of Zidane, Isco tends to hold the ball longer than he should. If you go back and re-watch any of Zidane's games as a player, you will notice a common trait with all his touches - he played with the utmost simplicity. He was decisive, trusted his teammates, and was clinical in this approach. Isco has tendencies still to over-complicate things, and as a measure of showing off his talent, can sometimes opt to dribble out of space when an easy outlet to a surrounding players is way more conducive to holding possession and building the attack patiently.
Real Madrid play direct football, they always have. In the first galactico reign, although emphatically dominating possession, Real Madrid were still direct and played simple. Isco has yet to reach that stage of maturity where he can release the ball more quickly. The No. 10 needs to bind the team and create the flow of the attack, but that attack can become stagnant if Isco gets caught up playing superfluous football.
Defensively, Isco is underrated - particularly under Zidane. Isco looks interested, engaged, and his work-rate and ability to furiously suffocate players with the ball with his energy and pestilence is one of his strongest suits - very similar to the way Di Maria played without the ball. The most famous example of this was when Isco pressured Iniesta into coughing up the ball en route to Benzema's goal in the Clasico at the Bernabeu last season.
Now, that same fire has become even more fruitful as Isco's purpose has grown with the team. He feels important, and he's running away with the opportunity Zidane has provided him with.
Thus far, Isco is winning with the coaching change and perhaps exceeding expectations. It takes a lot to make a coach second-guess leaving James on the bench, and that Isco has been able to do that should tell you something. There is a natural excitement building around Isco now, and fans can be cautiously optimistic about his future.
Still, he's far from a finished product, and it's unclear what will unfold for him moving forward. The key is patience - not from fans, but from him. He needs to slow the game down and read it in a way that can ameliorate his decision-making with the ball. The hope is that this aspect of his game evolves over time, as he's still a few years away from his peak.
When James can get consistently incorporated into the team alongside Isco, it should only make the Spaniard's job easier. Certainly Isco should grow, but the rate at which he grows with can accelerate if he's surrounded by the right players.
Make no mistake that Isco has tremendous value. Not just because of his age and talent, but because of his acute understanding of how vital it is to be defensively sound and bring balance to your game. There are going to be nights where you will be horrid with the ball - your touch will be off, your passing will be disastrous, and you just have to play through it and bring other intangibles to the table like pressing opponents and closing channels. This diligence is something Isco seems to be good at, and it's an attitude that every coach looks for in a player.
Baby steps - that's what it's going to take. Isco isn't going to turn into Zidane's heir overnight, and the point is that he probably never will. But the steps he's taken under Zidane's wing are encouraging, and Real Madrid fans have every right to be excited to have a young Spanish player who could be groomed into an elite footballer.