I clearly remember the first two La Liga matches played by Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, Isco, at the Santiago Bernabeu. It was the start of the 2013-14 season, under Carlo Ancelotti. The kid, just 21 years old back then, impressed the stadium with two virtuoso displays in which he scored three times and assisted twice. His performance against Athletic was especially memorable, as he seemed to see the flow of the match with a couple of seconds of advantage over the rest of the players, especially those trying to intercept his passes. I also remember the reaction of the gentleman who has seated next to me for the last decade, one of the best representatives of the ficklest section of the Madridistas: “this kid will become one of the true greats”, he said during the interval the Athletic match while he chewed his bocadillo de tortilla. I begrudgingly nodded.
Isco had just arrived from Malaga after a fantastic season with the team back then coached by Pellegrini. They had been brutally robbed of a place in the semifinals of the Champions League – yes, Malaga! – after a terrible refereeing job that gave Borussia what Malaga had indeed merited (just take a look at Borussia’s third goal in a blatant double offside position the ref neglected to see). Isco had been Malaga’s best player by far that season; his 12 goals and six assists in all competitions only tell a small part of the story. He did look like the next big – not in size, of course -- #10, the trequartista Real Madrid fans always love to watch. Mostly on a free role, he enjoyed managing matches with the ball on his feet, almost like a tiny Riquelme. His first two games at the Bernabeu only confirmed the hype of the Madrid media.
I wasn’t so convinced. His legs looked a bit too short, and I wondered about him getting through a 70-match season in full shape. Also, it’s hard for any team at Real Madrid’s level to have a player who does not defend, and back then Real Madrid already had two – Cristiano and Benzema –, with frequent cameos by Mesut Ozil, who had to be in the mood to chip in on defence. Leaving aside the fact that Ozil and Isco liked to do the same kind of things on the pitch, giving up another player on defence looked reckless.
Ancelotti kept the faith on Isco for most of that season and the following one. When you take a look at Isco’s stats, considering only matches played is misleading: starts and minutes played tell a much better story. Well, Ancelotti gave Isco 23 and 26 starts in that season and the following one, amounting to 2,001 and 2,341 minutes. After Ancelotti left, Isco never played more than 1,800 minutes or had more than 21 starts, although he’s come off the bench quite often. And you know well what has happened this season: from heaven under Julen Lopetegui, who wanted him to run the team like he’d done with Spain, to hell under Santiago Solari. More on that in a second.
Even if Ancelotti trusted the diminutive midfielder as much as he could, that was not only due to his faith on Isco’s offensive skills, but also to the work Isco did on his shape. At the end of Ancelotti’s final season in charge, Isco was already playing on the left side of midfield in a 4-3-3 formation, running up and down as much as he could. He had improved, indeed, not only on his fitness but also on his tactical awareness. On specific plays you could obviously tell he was not a natural at tracking back or tackling, but his will to become a better-rounded player was there, and the effect of his work on his game was already tangible. The fact that he could not rest on defence had an impact on his offensive inspiration, but at least he was enjoying playing time and making the team more often than not.
After Benitez’s brief episode – one for my baby and one more for the road, he should have told Florentino –, things changed under Zidane. The Frenchman announced to the world that the BBC was unnegotiable, and that led to Isco missing more matches than before, as the famed forward trio worked so reluctantly on defence – perhaps the first 20 minutes of a match, assuming it was an important one – that Zidane could not afford to give up another player, even if Isco had improved on his defensive skills. Modric, Casemiro, Kroos became the default midfield, and Isco had to wait for his chance – usually the token injury on Gareth Bale’s unreliable lower body – to come back to the team. Indeed, he made the most out of those opportunities, and his numbers in LaLiga look impressive in those seasons after such a reduction on his minutes.
The fact is that, despite his BBC mantra, Zidane understood like no other what Isco could bring to the side. Again, I was still not convinced, but Zidane decided that, if Isco was to play, he had to do it on a free role of a formation vaguely similar to a 4-3-1-2. This approach had two advantages: ball possession became something natural with Isco, Kroos and Modric on the pitch, as the midfield duo welcomed that extra pass and the defensive help of the fitter, happier, more productive Isco. The team compensated the lack of pure wingers with Marcelo and Carvajal, and the forward duo enjoyed the pleasure of getting service for such an amazing array of passers.
Although it was obviously Ronaldo’s most memorable match, Isco’s climax was the final in Cardiff. He started before Bale and we saw the advantages of Iscoball in an outstanding second half in which the team kept reaching the goal line like Zidane had instructed them to in the pre-match talk (try to get a copy of “At the heart of La Duodecima”, it has fantastic inside info). That year they also won La Liga in Isco’s best domestic season: 10 goals and 8 assists in 1,638 minutes, compared to 4 and 9 in 2,341 under Ancelotti. The kid was on fire.
He indeed kept the starting place during the following season, as the team slept through most of LaLiga and only woke up for the Champions League matches. Another final, another win and then Zidane leaves, Ronaldo does the same and then Lopetegui comes along. Iscoball had not been successful during the World Cup, but the failure was also a question of the offensive resources and Spain’s problematic lack of finishers.
This season has been terrible for Isco’s reputation. His almost childish struggle with Solari left no winners, as both refused to make amends after two disciplinary issues. What Isco needed the least was a poor season after the disappointing Russian summer, and now all the doubts are back on the table. Predictably, my neighbour has turned on the tiny Malacitano, and now wants him sold to a team from Qatar for a bag of chips.
The memory of the average football fan is shorter than that of a floppy disk. Make no mistake, I include myself in that fickle group. That is why I devoted some time to remember how entertaining Iscoball was at his apex, how dominating some of those performances were and how young this talented footballer still is: 27 in less than a week, theoretically with the best of his career still ahead of him, as it is most of his future (warning: get used to Dumb and Dumber quotes from this ageing socio).
So when you’re writing your lists of rejections for the summer, think about the tiny Isco twice before including him on it. You may be surprised with Zidane’s decision when August comes.