The evidence from the first few games of Real Madrid’s season is that Rafael Benitez does not have a clear role for Isco in his plans. Which means the supremely talented 23-year-old playmaker is likely to figure heavily in transfer speculation between now and the opening of the January 2016 transfer window.
Pre-season it seemed that Spain international Isco’s chances of finally nailing down a regular starting role in the team might be favoured by Benitez’s decision to use a 4-2-3-1 shape for the 2015/16 campaign.
But that idea only lasted as long as it took Rafa to move Gareth Bale into a roving number 10 position, in the middle of the line of three deep attackers behind centre-forward Karim Benzema. With €80 million galactico James Rodriguez also undroppable when fit, it means that Isco once again appears to be the odd man out among Madrid’s big name attackers.
Being a back-up player whose coach is not really sure how to fit him properly into the team is nothing new for Isco. He arrived for €30 million from Malaga just over two years ago, and hit the winner against Real Betis on the opening day. The Estadio Santiago Bernabeu immediately loved his impish style of play and twinkle-toes on the ball in tight spaces. But then Bale arrived a few weeks later for a world record fee, and coach Carlo Ancelotti had his untouchable ‘BBC’ strikeforce, also including Benzema and Cristiano.
Since then things have not gone too badly - he made over 100 appearances and scored 16 goals in his first two seasons at Madrid. He even played a key role as a substitute in May 2014’s dramatic Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid in Lisbon.
These stats are slightly misleading however - most of the starts have come when filling in for someone else, often out of position. Once everyone is fit and available he is always on the bench for big games. And this summer’s €30 million outlay on Croatian starlet Mateo Kovacic has meant further competition for places in an already crowded area. You could argue Isco is now the fifth ranked ‘number 10’ at the Bernabeu.
The local sports media have always been very supportive of the former Spain underage star. Many Madrid fans continue to rate him above Bale, and even supporters of other clubs clearly admire his style of play, as he regularly gets ovations from the entire stadium when Los Blancos play away from home.
Benitez looks unconvinced however. With James currently out with a thigh injury, last Saturday’s La Liga trip to Espanyol looked an ideal opportunity for Isco to show what he could do, but the game could not really have gone worse.
Ronaldo got all the headlines with his latest five star haul, while Bale also stood out with his eager running and three assists. By contrast Isco was not involved in any of his team’s six goals, and did not manage even one shot on or off target even as his team were running riot against a hapless Espanyol back-line.
Speaking ahead of Tuesday night’s Champions League group opener at home to Shakhtar Donetsk, Benitez was quite critical when asked what he thought Isco had to do to improve his game.
“[Isco] is a great player and what he must do is work with intensity and dedication,” Benitez said. “And take advantage of his quality to score some more goals. That would be better for everyone.”
It looks pretty clear that Benitez is following in Ancelotti in not seeing an easy way to get a regular end product out of such a natural talent. The Italian appeared to have had concerns about Isco’s physicality and stamina, while well-placed rumours last year claimed unnamed attacking teammates at the Bernabeu were frustrated with his tendency to try and beat an opponent on receiving the ball, not play it forward quickly to them.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque also seems unsure how to get the best out of someone who has long been seen as a long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta with the national team. Isco started and starred in the Euro 2016 qualifying wins against Belarus and Ukraine earlier in the group, but was back on the bench for the crunch match with Slovakia during the most recent international break.
Club coaches elsewhere, however, would clearly accept the challenge of getting the best out of a player who should soon be reaching his peak years. Manchester City came very close to signing Isco back in summer 2013, with the Malaga connection through coach Manuel Pellegrini almost swinging the deal, before the lure of Madrid won out.
Last summer both Chelsea and Juventus were regularly mentioned in transfer speculation in the British, Spanish and Italian press, while most recently Arsenal have featured loudly in the rumours. In fairness to the player himself, he has never loudly complained about his situation, even if some frustration has at times been evident.
Euro 2016 also means that the coming season is a vital one for Isco to really come of age - and injuries to a superstar may yet open up a spot for him to properly shine under Benitez in the coming months.
If not though, Madrid chief Florentino Perez, who has previously cashed in on formerly popular Madrid players including Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria, might well listen to a big money offer in January.
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