Despite a likeness to his Catalan counterparts, Isco is quickly becoming the ideal Real Madrid player.
Francisco Roman Alarcon Suarez, or Isco, should playing for Barcelona. I don’t mean that in a if-the-butterfly-hadn’t-flapped-its-wings way, but rather in a everything-would-make-a-lot-more-sense-if way. After all, he is a logical progression of the “mini maestro” role that has become synonymous with the blaugrana over the last decade (so synonymous that, after all these years, Sergio Busquets still manages to stick out of their midfield like a giraffe in a subway station) through Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, and approximately 1,294 other little Catalan wizards. Like them, Isco looks and plays as if he was built in a Farmhouse. In fact, Isco is so damn Masia-tastic that he even named his dog after Lionel Messi, because, in his own words, “Messi is the best in the world, and so is my dog.”
But, in real life, Isco dons the white of Real Madrid. Instead of migrating towards a more eloquent existence, he now exists in a side that has come to epitomize size, strength, and status. It looks and feels wrong, but that doesn’t mean it is. Maybe it’s, like so many other uncomfortable phenomena, just new and different and unnerving. Like 3-D televisions, or kids named Francisco going by “Isco.”
One of Real’s only outstanding performers against Deportivo at the weekend, Isco delighted the Bernabeu in the 22nd minute with a whipping curling effort that proved the be the game-winner. It was the kind of roped curve that was hit with such staunch precision and vigor that remnants of its path likely still adorn the pitch’s atmosphere. But the goal coupled with the performance only further asserts the opinion that the 22-year-old has become an irreplaceable commodity for Carlo Ancelotti this season. If 2013/14 was Isco’s Help, 2014/15 is proving to be his Rubber Soul. Everything changes from here on out.
It’s important to try to understand Isco’s “style,” specifically in relation to the current footballing landscape. Firstly, despite the club-caused comparisons to Zinedine Zidane, Isco’s playing style is much akin to a player like Iniesta. From the chronic chicken-playing with defenders to the immaculate close-ball-control, Isco very much boasts the kind of fundamentals that would be championed at Barcelona’s La Masia rather than Real’s Castilla. (Incidentally, Isco developed through neither system. He’s rather one of the flagship products of Valencia’s budding youth set-up known as “The Academy.”)
Though he runs with the bruting low-centered-gravity of a Sergio Aguero or a Carlos Tevez, Isco’s crafty approach makes him a near-perfect evolution of today’s attacking midfielder. His industry and workrate stand out above most comparables, even Iniesta. Some of that can be attributed to the discrepancies between Real and Barca styles, but nonetheless, a healthy measure of proof is there. It’s difficult to be a consummate two-way midfielder these days, but it’s also becoming obligatory. Where as Guardiola’s Barca relied on the collective-high-press years ago, most other elite sides, particularly in today’s game, hinge on decisive players who can put in a quality shift on both sides of the ball. It’s rare to have a genuine playmaker who can individually cover as much ground as Isco does.
He’s also quicker than Iniesta. Or it at least appears that way. Where the Barca midfielder relies on deception for much of his skillset, in a manner that often appears contradictory to the way he moves, Isco’s tricks, if you can even call them that, are as plain as day. He abuses his feint, though not in a tacky way; he rather jolts the opposing defender into an ill fate through pure force of the bluff. Also, as I alluded to above, Real’s bullet-from-a-gun countering prowess makes acceleratory speed a prerequisite. Luckily, Isco’s feet are lightning fast. So fast, in fact, that he always looks like he’s sprinting, even when he’s not. Although, if you were in a team alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, you’d be sprinting too.
These are the attributes that will set Isco apart from the average number 10 over the next ten years. So often we see unbelievably gifted players become frozen deadbeats due to their inability to meld into a team’s plans or simply work for their teammates by forgoing their own glory. This happened to Juan Mata at Chelsea and Erik Lamela at Tottenham; their flair and offensive ingenuity did not compensate for their lack of grind. Isco “works” like a completist. He sees goal-scoring in the same light as he sees goal-conceding. He sees slide-tackles around his own penalty area in the same light as one-twos around the opposing. In the current footballing age, those characteristics are likely to result in said player being inexpendable to both the manager and the fans.
Speaking of the fans…
Isco, himself, represents a foreign yet fresh shift for Real Madrid. In lieu of breaking the transfer world record every few years, Real have managed to satisfy their supporters’ desire for personal identification mirrored in the players they adore. Barcelona have long-showcased this ethos, with so many of their first-teamers sharing the same Catalan heritage as their hardcore fans. Because Real’s transfer policy is instead based on acquiring high-dollar talent from across borders and seas, those in charge have recognized a way to fill that “homegrown” void, if you will. And that is to buy the country’s best young, burgeoning talent and help finish their cultivation. It has less to do with overseeing their developmental journey, and more to do with being there at the finish line. It may not sound like the most ethically honorable way to do business, but it does address and meet the fans’ needs. Providing Madridistas with their very own Spanish mago — perhaps the next Guti or Raul — is a gesture that can go a long way.
If you needed any indication that the Real fans have fallen for Isco, look no further than last October’s Clasico, where we saw the kid from Andalusia at his most vibrant and self-indicative.
The specific moment was in the lead-up to Karim Benzema’s goal that sealed the 3-1 victory for Real. The main receiver of Isco’s wrath on the occasion? None other than Iniesta. After a headed clearance from a wayward Ivan Rakitic corner sent the ball flying towards the halfway touchline, an on-the-loose Isco managed to make-up a full five yards on a gustful Iniesta, pressuring him into playing an ill-advised back-pass to an on-rushing Javier Mascherano. Keenly aware of the situation, Isco kept his swift stride around both Iniesta and Mascherano and onto the misplayed back-pass that was on a collision course with Barca’s goal with prairies of open space. He then simply laid the ball into the path of Ronaldo, who passed to James Rodriguez, who dished to Benzema, who finished off one of the greatest counterattacks you’ll ever see. It was enough to make the Bernabeu faithful sing his name into the anointed air of the night upon him being substituted.
It was a moment that perfectly framed for us the kind of footballer that Isco has become: an aesthetically pleasing and infinitely giving fireball of strength, speed, and resilience. Not exactly a Barca-esque player. In truth, an unabashedly Madrilenian one.