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The Rejection of Isco and James Rodriguez at Real Madrid

We all want them to stay, but will they?

Getafe CF v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Over the past year, there have been large amounts of speculation regarding the futures of both Isco and James Rodriguez. The two talented attacking midfielders have been constantly linked with moves away from the club. Most recently, Isco has been the target, with rumors suggesting he may leave Madrid in favor of a switch to Barcelona. The validity of these rumors have been debated by many, and although Madridistas and Isco want to stay at the Spanish capital, can Madrid give players like Isco and James Rodriguez the playing time they deserve? It’s no secret that these two playmakers want more playing time, the only problem is how do Madrid get them the minutes they desperately crave?

Carlo Ancelotti and the use of a Number 10

The very first signing that Carlo Ancelotti made as Real Madrid manager was Isco. At the time, this was the perfect signing. A tactical manager that planned to use a number 10 in his midfield coupled with one of the brightest young talents in the world.

Because Isco was not yet of the level of Real Madrid’s other attacking midfielder, Angel Di Maria, he was used mostly in a reserve role. The Spaniard flashed his lofty potential in multiple instances, and even played in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona.

Real Madrid v Barcelona - Copa del Rey Final
Isco attempts to control the ball against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final.
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Madrid won the double that season, and came painfully close to a treble. It seemed like only a matter of time until Isco was a full time starter under the Italian manager.

But in the very next Summer there was a shakeup in his position. Angel Di Maria was sold to Manchester United, and world cup star James Rodriguez was brought in as the immediate replacement. The Colombian had an incredible first season with Madrid, spearheading the devastating midfield trident of himself, Toni Kroos, and Luka Modric. Both players were able to star in Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 when Gareth Bale picked up a long term injury, most notably in a 3-1 El Clasico win during Madrid’s 22 match win streak.

However, despite the long win streak Madrid went trophyless that year, and the Italian manager was sacked. It was fully expected that the next manager would emphasize playing a number 10, and maintain the same beautiful style of play the team had under Carlo. That expectation was realized under Rafa Benitez (minus the beautiful style of play), but the Spanish manager never had control of the locker room, was rumored to have been feuding with Isco and James, and was sacked halfway through the season after a disastrous start. Unfortunately for the two playmakers, their situation was hardly about to improve.

Zidane and Casemiro

Real Madrid Training Session - UEFA Champions League Final
Zidane prefers a more defensive system featuring Casemiro, unfortunately coming at the expense of both James and Isco.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

As talented as these players are, there is a very distinct reason neither is receiving the time they need. Under Carlo Ancelotti, there was a large emphasis on the attacking midfielder creating many chances. At first, Zidane continued this trend, destroying teams in his first few matches with Isco pulling the strings. But the French manager sought a more defensive lineup, and decided to insert the combative Casemiro into the midfield at the expense of James and Isco. Zidane opted to play Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Casemiro as his midfield trifecta, and he rode these 3 all the way to a Champions League victory.

As preseason arrived many expected Zidane to revert to a more attacking style with half of a season under his belt. These people were partially right, as Zidane did develop his own tactical style. However, this strategy involved a more defensive team that relied heavily on crosses to defeat teams. Games that involved 40 and sometimes 50 crosses in the span of 90 minutes became commonplace for Madrid. Despite the puzzling strategy, positive results have come.

Sadly, this success came at the expense of the two players Madrid used to covet so heavily. There was no longer a guaranteed starting spot for either player, and unless they are played out of position, or because of an injury they will not see as much time as they did under Carlo Ancelotti. You can chalk this up to a poor hire in Zidane, but then you are discounting the French manager’s success that has Madrid on the cusp of its second League title in almost a decade.

How can this be solved?

The inability to penetrate the center of the field leaves fans wondering why players like Isco and James Rodriguez ride the pine every matchday. But is there a solution to all of these problems? Madrid has so much depth in midfield, that there are bound to be players unhappy. When a world class player like Modric or Kroos go down, Madrid are able to sub on the likes of Isco, James, and even Mateo Kovacic. It’s impossible to put so much world class talent on the pitch at once.

Celta Vigo v Real Madrid CF - La Liga
In the days of Carlo Ancelotti, the two playmakers saw constant playtime.
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

There has been constant bickering among fans about which combination the midfield should have. Fans want Isco/James because of their creativity, but then others counter with the point regarding the lack of solidity that playing with a number 10 brings. No matter what your stance is on the matter, ultimately these are just fan opinions that don’t matter. It is up to Zidane to decide, and who are we to argue with results? Casemiro has his faults, but so do the others. There is a tradeoff to playing each player, and Zidane has elected to go with Casemiro because he doesn’t trust the other players around him to put in the same defensive shift even if it comes at the expense of attacking creativity.

Is there a future at Real Madrid for Isco and James?

It is difficult to envision solutions in the near future for Isco and James Rodriguez. As long as Zidane is in charge, it should be expected that he will not play with a number 10 in big matches until proven otherwise. Both have already been forced to adjust their styles to fit more defensive roles, and as expected neither look as effective as they could be with freedom in the middle. The other option is to play on the wings, which both have proven capable of doing. The only problem is that Madrid have world class players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in the position. There are simply no easy options.

Who knows what the next few transfer windows hold, both players may leave, or both could stay. It will really come down to which player wants to stay and fight for their place more, but if they are not able to play in their preferred position, then why stay?

The harsh and sad reality we might need to face is that neither has an immediate starting role in the club. Because of the system Zinedine Zidane runs, both Isco and James will either have to wait their turn or move on, such is the competitive atmosphere at the club. Waiting does not seem an easy option considering that both are approaching the prime of their careers. This is nothing against either player, just an unfortunate result of a managerial change and poor timing. While we all love the game-changing attacking midfielders, a painful breakup may be on the cards.

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