If there was ever a player who would fit the description as “magisterially talented yet painfully inconsistent”, that player would be Fransisco Roman Alarcon Suarez, or Isco for short. A technical genius, even by Spanish standards, Isco is an enigma, with the ability to glide past players on the pitch with the grace akin to Zidane, yet with the consistency level of players like Theo Walcott or Hatem Ben Arfa. On his day, Isco is one of the very best midfielders in the world, but when “his day” will come is anyone’s guess.
In his initial days at Real Madrid, he was used primarily as an attacking midfielder or central midfielder, with the former being his position of chose and the latter being a role in which he thrives because of his technical expertise. However, with the primary formations used by his first Madrid manager; Carlo Ancelotti, being a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, the attacking midfielder role did not exist, and with the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso and Casemiro taking up the slots in the middle of the pitch, Isco never managed to find a permanent home in the Real Madrid 11.
However, that seemed to have changed with the arrival of one of the greatest players of all time, and a long time advocate of Isco; Zinedine Zidane, as Real Madrid coach. In the first few games under his charge, Isco found a home in the Real Madrid 11, but after a loss to Atletico Madrid in the league, Isco found himself in and out of the team yet again.
The 16/17 season started in the same vein, but that was until Gareth Bale picked up an injury that would rule him out for the next 3 months. That is when Isco’s fortunes really changed under Zidane, and he would come to be an integral cog of the team that won the league title and the next two UCL titles.
Zidane changed the teams primary line up from a 4-3-3 to a 4-3-1-2 diamond, with Isco in the hole behind Ronaldo and Benzema, and this change provided dividends, for both Isco and the team.
Although, at first glance, it would seem that Isco would be playing in a role similar to the ones any no.10 played in; a floating creative midfielder. However, this was far from reality. Although he was able to operate as such, his role would be far more complex, and much different from the typical no.10 role.
Zidane turned Isco into the ultimate “link-man”, a player who popped up wherever he needed to, in order to act as an outlet to his teammates, and obtain numerical superiority in any and every area of the pitch. It was Isco’s job to become a ubiquitous presence and help out wherever his teammates needed him to help. One prime example of this is in build up. Of the midfield four of Kroos, Modric, Isco and Casemiro, the weak link technically is Casemiro, and he became a target of opposition presses. To counteract this, Zidane opted to station Casemiro high up the pitch during build up, and it was Isco who dropped deep to collect the balls from the center backs. This had a number of benefits as the player most prone to losing the ball while being pressed was no longer exposed, Kroos and Modric did not need to leave their positions to collect the ball, the attack still had a considerable presence as Ronaldo and Benzema still remained high up the pitch, and the center backs had a genuine outlet who they could give the ball to with no fear of him losing it due to being pressed.
Another massive benefit of Isco being used in this role turned out to be that, with his free role, he was able to pop up anywhere to help create numerical superiority. This happened especially on the left, as Marcelo stayed wide, Kroos operated in the half space and Benzema drifted out from his striker position. Usually, in such cases, a 3v3 would form as the opposition full back, right winger, and a CM or DM would arrive to defend. However, with Isco’s role, he would create a 4v3, and help to hold on to position, or create an attack.
A further benefit was that opposition presses had absolutely no clue how to deal with Isco in this role. His propensity to drop deep, be in line with the CM’s, drift wide, etc., would make it impossible to implement a man oriented or a zonal pressing system. He operated in every zone, and having a player track him around would also be dangerous as it would lead to space being created for others to exploit. Moreover, with Isco’s technical ability in tight spaces being second to none, with him averaging over 3 completed take ons a game, taking the ball off of him was also difficult for opponents. His combination play with Modric, Kroos, Marcelo and Benzema lead to Real becoming the most press resistant team of the 2010’s.
His creativity also shone through, as he was able to move anywhere to create. Although his numbers have never been spectacular, he remains one of Madrid’s key men it comes to breaking down tight defenses.
Another thing that really came to the fore when he became a starter was how good he was in big games. His exceptional performances against the likes of Atletico (multiple times), Barcelona, PSG, Bayern and Liverpool all showed how incredible of a player he was, especially in the role Zidane used him in.
From a defensive standpoint, defending in a diamond would be foolish, as it would leave the wings exposed. Thus, while defending, the team morphed to a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1, with Isco either acting as the left winger or slotting in the middle, depending on where Kroos and Benzema stationed themselves (as Modric was always the right winger while defending).
The Isco role, or so to say, is one of the most unique roles in modern football, played by a genius of a player, and a role which helped cement the modern Real Madrid side as one of the greatest to ever play the beautiful game. A syzygy of tactical and technical brilliance.