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Bale or Isco: The Question for El Clásico and Beyond

Zidane’s choice is not an easy one.

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - Supercopa de Espana: 2nd Leg Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

The Pavones’ growing influence

Real Madrid - in recent times - as an entity, seems to exist in a perpetual duality. Some describe it as an identity crisis, others as a puzzled model. This internal tension between being the greatest show on earth while remaining true to its Spanish roots has grown over the last few seasons. The emergence of Spanish-born super-talents led by the prodigious Isco has re-ignited the duelling desires for blockbuster showmanship and national representation. In their first seasons, Isco and his comrades remained in the relative periphery compared to the unquestionable status of galacticos such as Ronaldo and Bale. In the last two seasons, we’ve seen a balancing of power between the two groups.

Gareth Bale’s injury struggles has been one of the factors that has led to the current dynamic. Isco, who likely would not have played as much if Bale was healthy, performed brilliantly during the Welshman’s absence — contributing to the historic La Liga and Champions League double that the team secured at the end of 2016-17.

Even the most ardent Bale supporters would have considered, if even only in passing, whether Real Madrid was a better version of itself with Isco as opposed to Bale. And to amplify the dichotomy that was manifesting itself in the Bale vs. Isco inquiry: Florentino Perez’s summer moves saw the exit of galacticos such as James, Danilo, and Pepe; and the arrival / promotion of a host of Spanish academy-groomed players including Llorente, Achraf, Vallejo etc.

The question on everyone’s lips

Fast forward to today and Real Madrid’s stumbling start to the league has resulted in a review of the current team and what the issue is. Fans have gone from believing Isco was ready to lead Real Madrid to questioning whether his style of play is hindering his teammates and the team. The question is slowly becoming a burning one when the general stagnancy and non-direct style of the Spaniard’s performances is contrasted against the immediate impact Bale provided against Fuenlabrada, Al Jazira, and Grêmio.

Isco and Bale are two vastly different players who are each excellent in their own right. We have seen Real Madrid function effectively and achieve great results with either on the field. They offer unique qualities and in many ways strongly influence the way the team plays. Bale is a direct player who enhances verticality and provides a secondary scoring option. Isco operates at his best in a possession model and with the ball at his feet. He doesn’t have Bale’s pace to offer dangerous outlets or support transition but his superior technique means he thrives in tight spaces.

Going back to the start of the 2015-16 season (due to data availability and also because it serves as a good starting point due to Bale’s evolved role under Benitez): of the 140 official matches Real Madrid has played to date, Bale has featured in 70 of them, amassing a total of 5,234 minutes in the process. Isco has featured significantly more, appearing in 109 matches and playing approximately 1,600 more minutes for a total of 6,786. In that time, Bale has scored 32 goals and assisted a further 20 for an overall contribution of 52 compared to Isco’s 46 (21 goals and 25 assists). In terms of direct attacking impact, Bale handily trumps Isco contributing at a much better rate, producing roughly 30% more goals/assists per minute.

Who is better for the team?

Bale’s attacking superiority based on goals and assists shouldn’t surprise too much given his role as predominantly a forward when he plays compared to Isco. A significant portion of Isco’s minutes were accrued as a central midfielder. And further to that, simply producing as an individual doesn’t necessarily mean the team is benefiting or in a better position because of it. To help contextualize the comparison, it is important to look at the level of team performance and the type of results achieved with each player.

Looking at the minutes (2015-16 - 2017-18) where Bale played without Isco and vice-versa shows that the team gets better results with Isco. Games with the Spaniard on the field are won an incredible 80% of the time, clearly outstripping the 64% rate attained when Bale plays. Sample size is always an issue when dealing with team sports but there is some mitigation as these numbers are based on at least the equivalent of a whole season’s worth of games for each player.

To further delve into the dynamics of performance, it is useful to look at the underlying quantitative indicators such as shots, shots on target, and goals.

The figures show that while the team has a higher level of productivity with Bale (generating approximately one shot more per match), they seem to create better and defend more solidly with Isco. They direct more shots on target and convert approximately the same percentage of those shots into goals. Additionally, on the defensive end, the team with Isco concede less shots and goals.

What does this mean?

The immediate conclusion is that while Bale as an individual is more likely to get on the stat sheet, Real Madrid as a team tends to do better when Isco is on the field. This certainly provides a counter to the narrative that paints Isco as a shackle that holds the team back.

However, that being said, things like form, opposition, and team selection are factors that have a real impact on performance. As an example, the below is a snapshot of the team’s winning percentage and how it changes depending on which midfield combination Isco or Bale play with. The below are three of the most frequent midfields selected when Bale and Isco play.

Although the differences are not big and sample size becomes even more of an issue, it is certainly interesting to note that the performance of the team as a whole appears to be in part a function of team selection. Where the win percentage doesn’t deviate significantly when Isco or Bale complete a Casemiro-Kroos-Modric midfield, Bale seems to be the better option when more “lightweight” and offensively focused midfields are chosen (i.e. James or Kovacic over Casemiro).

To further highlight the dependency of performance on external factors, the minutes Bale and Isco played can also be split based on quality of opposition.

Big games were classified as CL knockout rounds, Copa del Rey quarter-final and forward, any league game against a side with a top 4 standing, and any game against select teams (Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, PSG, Borussia Dortmund, and Tottenham).

The above chart illustrates in which settings Isco and Bale are more useful. Against low-to-moderate quality oppositions such as the early rounds in cup competitions and the majority of league ties, Isco’s inclusion proves to be a dramatic upgrade to Bale’s. Bale however gives the team a certain edge when facing the cream of the crop in Europe with the team winning against the best of the best more often (albeit ever so slightly) with him than Isco.

The right choice for El Clásico and beyond

Isco or Bale stands as perhaps the only question mark in the presumed starting line-up for the clasico. Based on the above analysis (caveats obviously include state of fitness, potential last minute availability concerns etc), Bale appears to be the better option due to his individual attacking capacity which offers a valuable threat in big games.

However, it should be acknowledged that numbers will never entirely account for the full scope of considerations that need to be made when evaluating the performance of players (especially in team sports) and determining which player will give the team the best chance of winning. And even looking at the numbers, the differences are extremely marginal.

The biggest take-away from this exercise is that Real Madrid are blessed to have two varied and incredibly useful assets on their roster. The answer may not have to be either or. The idea of the "Zidanes y Pavones” policy was always about striking a seamless balance between players scouted/developed through the youth ranks and the biggest stars in world football.

Or, in light of the intensely reactive and transfer crazy universe Real Madrid lives in, the answer could be none. The numbers show that the team wins more frequently when neither of Isco or Bale play compared to when they both do. It will always be a matter of understanding the elements that influence performance and knowing that different situations will require different players.

Data: Soccerway for line-ups for all matches; WhoScored for performance data for all league and UEFA competition matches; and ESPN Soccer for all performance data for other competitions.

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