First published in March 2018.
It was the Isco show once again. Spain took on Argentina in a World Cup friendly at the very end of March and thrashed the South Americans 6-1, with Isco scoring a hat-trick and doing so much more as well, wowing the crowd like a figure skater landing a triple axel or like Journey playing the opening bars of Don’t Stop Believin’.
It was his best performance since he’d scored two goals, and nutmegged Marco Verratti as many times, as La Roja beat Italy 3-0 in World Cup qualifying in September. His efforts against the Albiceleste were all over the next morning’s front pages. A work of art, said MARCA. Isco and Olé, wrote Diario AS.
But inside the Madrid-based newspapers there were a few articles wondering why he was turning it on for Spain and not for Real Madrid. It became the big debate of the week and turned what should have been a joyous situation into an inquest. As Manuel Jabois put it in El País, “Real Madrid is the only club in the world which fears the international break not because their players might get injured, but because they might play well.”
So the fall-out from this hat-trick against Argentina provoked the following question. Why was Isco seemingly saving his best for Julen Lopetegui, and leaving Zinedine Zidane with the leftovers?
Zidane was asked this very question and he didn’t shy away from it. “Maybe with the national team Isco is different, because he has eight matches with them in a season, whereas here there are 60,” the Frenchman said, suggesting that Isco is a big-game player who thrives against the best, rather than against relegation fodder. Naturally, with a national team there are a higher percentage of important games than with a club side. It’s also true that Isco’s least exciting international performances of 2017 were against Israel and Costa Rica when there was nothing at stake, while his best showings for his club came in the knockout stages of the 2016/17 Champions League and in the crucial LaLiga matches in Gijón, Vigo and Málaga.
But rather than a motivational issue, Isco’s frustration in the Spanish capital seems to be based on tactics, specifically the fact that Real Madrid aren’t at their best when playing an Isco-friendly system. Zidane tried to change his formation to suit Isco at the beginning of this year, drawing up a 4-3-1-2, with the man from Málaga being the one, but the team as a whole wasn’t as effective and lost a lot of ground to Barcelona in the title race.
Real Madrid have won four of the five LaLiga matches Isco hasn’t featured in this season, while he did start in the defeats to Real Betis, Girona, Villarreal and Espanyol. Even more damming is the fact that Real Madrid’s five best performances of the season – the 5-0 win at home to Sevilla, the 7-1 win at home to Deportivo La Coruña, the 4-1 win at Valencia, the 5-2 win at home to Real Sociedad and the 2-1 win at PSG – all had one thing in common. Isco either didn’t start or he didn’t feature at all.
Isco’s game is all about dribbling and neat passes through the eye of the defensive needle, but this hasn’t been the Real Madrid way for some time. Instead, Los Blancos like to get the ball out wide and put balls into the box towards Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, or they like to break quickly and score on the counter attack.
It’s been said before that Isco would suit Barcelona better than he does Real Madrid and this might be why he is more effective with his national team. Although La Roja are currently less mirrored on Barcelona’s hot potato passing style than they were at the beginning of this decade, they do still play a patient passing game, the kind which Isco can thrive with. Real Madrid do have a big contingent in the Spain squad, but in the starting XI their only representatives other than Isco are in defence, with Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos. Perhaps the No.22 is so effective for Spain because he is playing next to the likes of Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and David Silva, rather than urged to get the ball to Ronaldo and Benzema as quickly as possible.
So what does this mean for Isco and for his future? Should he leave Real Madrid to play somewhere more suited to his skillset, like Manchester City, who have been linked with him? Well, perhaps the best thing to do would be to wait, rather than make any drastic decisions. Real Madrid are set for a wave of change in the near future whenever Zidane, Ronaldo and Benzema all move on. That might not be this summer, but it might not be too far away. With a new coach, a new system and new teammates, Real Madrid might soon provide Isco with the environment he needs to do his thing.
Until then, though, he can look forward to his time with the national team. Like Bonnie Tyler, the Russian World Cup needs a hero and that hero can be Isco. So long as he’s wearing red, not Real Madrid’s white.