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  • Writer's pictureLa Liga Lowdown

Isco: Madrid’s Malagueño Magician With Fading Powers

Written by Alex Brotherton

In 1897, at the age of 16, Málaga’s favourite son packed his bags and moved to Madrid. Although enrolled at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Spain’s most prestigious art school, he quickly dropped out of formal education. It was the days spent wandering the Prado gallery, the works of Rembrandt, El Greco and Goya leaving profound impressions on his mind, that set him free. He began to express himself, experiment and entertain. His name was Pablo Picasso, and he became one of the greatest artists in history.

120 years later, in the summer of 2013, Málaga’s latest prodigy made his own journey to Madrid. For two years he had wowed his followers, creating unique works of passion, skill and flair on the Rosaleda turf. But to share his art with the masses, he needed a bigger canvas. Isco’s career over the seven-and-a-half years since has been a paradox of wild success and crippling frustration.

“There is nothing bigger for a player than being at Real Madrid, it is the biggest thing,” were his own words. Sat in front of the world’s press, Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, better known as Isco, was emotional. The 21-year-old had just performed kick-ups in front of thousands of supporters in the Santiago Bernabéu, standard routine for any new Madrid signing but a moment millions of young Spaniards dream of. That excited, kid-in-a-sweetshop version of Isco is a far cry from the jaded 29-year-old of today, seemingly resigned to spending what should be the peak years of his career sat on the sidelines.

Born in Benalmádena, a coastal town down the road from Málaga, Isco’s childhood was like that of most Andalusian boys. He was your typical kid on the street, kicking a ball around wherever he could for the sheer joy of it – with his mates, in organised games, anywhere. From an early age it was clear what kind of player he’d become; his low centre of gravity - common in great playmakers and which earned him the nickname ‘El Cúlon’ (big ass) - made him a mesmerising dribbler with balletic balance. Scouts began to take note of his performances for local side Atlético Benamiel, and by the time he was 15, he had been whisked away to Valencia, to join the youth ranks at Mestalla.

At a time when David Silva, Éver Banega and Juan Mata were the young players making waves at Valencia, things didn’t really work out for Isco. It was a move back home to Málaga in 2011 that kickstarted his rise to stardom. Largely playing on the left of an attacking midfield trident, he was a nightmare for opposition defences - there was no telling what he’d pull out of his locker. He was capable of an unexpected burst of pace, he could go one-on-one, he could cut inside, thread an inch-perfect assist or unleash an exquisite goal-bound strike. He grew up idolising Andrés Iniesta, and his dog was affectionately named Lionel Messi. It showed. “He was the example of the Málaga kid who would have a great future and became the star of the club”, says Chris Márquez, co-host of the Málaga fan podcast Guiricast. “He was humble and showed pride in his city. He is a Malagueño.”

In 2011/12, five goals and three assists from the promising youngster helped a new-look Málaga to a fourth-placed finish, and with it a first-ever Champions League qualification. The following season he was extraordinary, scoring nine goals in LaLiga, but it was his shining performances on Europe’s biggest stage that stood out. His three goals and four assists in eight games, including man-of-the-match performances against Zenit St. Petersburg and FC Porto, helped his side romp to the quarter-finals, only to be eliminated by a controversial extra-time goal in Dortmund. “He was the son that returned home, the boy from Málaga who made it to the top of football”, says Chris. “Málaga loves Isco, but everyone knew he had to play at the top level. It hurts not seeing him play every week.”

By now, Europe’s super-clubs were chomping at the bit. Under the tutelage of Manuel Pellegrini, Isco had transformed from an academy player discarded by Valencia into the winner of the prestigious Golden Boy Award in 2012. Everyone wanted a piece of the tanned Andalusian maestro. It was the influence of Pellegrini that almost decided his big move, the Chilean promising him a starring role in his new project at Manchester City, but in the end, he chose Real Madrid. Los Blancos president Florentino Pérez parted with €30 million to make the young playmaker Carlo Ancelotti’s first signing as coach, so keen were the pair to have Isco central to their plans. From a footballing perspective it was an obvious move, but commercially it made sense too. “The national team were at the height of their power, so the hype around the Spanish talent pipeline was palpable”, says Scott Martin, author of Revitalizing Real Madrid. There was no way Los Blancos were going to let arch-rivals Barcelona get their hands on Spain’s new golden boy. “He was the ‘new Iniesta’, the heir apparent to the best and most creative player in the squad. That marketability made him a must-have in the capital.”

His start to life at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu more than justified the hype. In his first six games Isco scored five goals and made two assists, including an 85th-minute winner on his debut against Real Betis, prompting Ancelotti to liken his “ability and mentality” to that of club-great, and at the time assistant coach, Zinedine Zidane. “He fit brilliantly with the players in front of him”, says Scott. “As a distributor he was so creative and direct from the left, with a brilliant ability to pick out the killer pass. He’d often move into a free role in attack, swapping with Benzema, moving into the central channel or even the right to find his route to goal. Defences really struggled to track him.” His new teammates were certainly impressed; Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos soon nicknamed him Magia.

But after a fast start, the midfielder soon began to lose his shine. At Málaga he was the main man, an unlimited creative license and a lack of defensive responsibility affording him absolute freedom of expression. But in Madrid, there were already a man with such privileges - Cristiano Ronaldo. “Isco rarely had the chance to truly be himself”, says Spanish football journalist Andy West. “He regularly played in a kind of hybrid left/centre midfield position which gave him freedom to move inside when the team had possession, but then expected him to drop back and support Marcelo when they were defending. It didn’t suit his game.”

On the face of it, his first season was a success; in all competitions he scored 11 goals and provided nine assists, and played an hour of the Champions League final that saw Real secure ‘La Décima’ (their 12th European Cup). But under Ancelotti the next season, and Rafael Benítez after that, the tactical misfit became only more apparent. His deteriorating form led to increasing public criticism; former defender Iván Helguera declared that he “doesn’t set up goals, doesn’t score them, doesn’t head the ball and doesn’t win possession.

He could offer a lot more, but the Bernabéu applaud him every time he does a ‘croqueta’ trick.” Even the arrival of Zidane as coach in January 2016, the very man who had rung Isco during Spain’s triumphant 2013 under-21 European Championship campaign to persuade him to choose Madrid over Manchester, changed little at first. But, unusually for an already successful artist, Isco remained humble, frank and honest about his failings. “I’m not stupid: if I have not been a starter with Ancelotti, Benítez and Zidane, it’s my fault”, he told MARCA in 2016. “In the end I’m responsible, and that’s where I must improve.”

2017 was the year of Isco. His struggles had only continued in 2016/17, but when Gareth Bale suffered a calf injury in the April Clásico defeat to Barcelona, he seized his chance. The need to accommodate the Welshman, the cub’s record signing until 2019, forced Zidane to adopt a 4-3-3 formation, a system with no room for the number 10 role Isco craved. But without Bale, a 4-4-2 diamond was preferred, with Isco playing at the tip, feeding the excellent movement of Ronaldo and Karim Benzema up top. He was a player reborn. “Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos and Casemiro offered the defensive insurance behind him”, says Andy, “so he had the freedom to get on the ball as much as possible and link midfield with attack. It’s the only time in his Madrid career that he’s been given that extended opportunity to play in a role that perfectly suited him, so it’s no coincidence he produced his best ever form. He was the catalyst for much of their attacking play.”

After appearing in only two of Madrid’s Champions League games that season, from the quarter-final second leg onwards he started them all, including the 4-1 defeat of Juventus in the final. That rainy night in Cardiff he got his hands on Ol’ Big Ears for the third time, but it was his display away at city-rivals Atlético Madrid in the semi-final second leg that perhaps remains his best-ever performance for Los Merengues.

He was near-untouchable on the Estadio Vicente Calderón turf, slaloming in and out of scything Atleti challenges, making deft round-the-corner touches, pirouetting, and pulling off enough croquetas to make Helguera faint. Without the ball he was flawless too, popping up at the right moment, in the way that great players do, to stab home Madrid’s crucial away goal and smother the unlikeliest of Atleti comebacks. The manner in which he goaded the home supporters after his goal, before leaving the field to a standing ovation from the traveling contingent of Madridistas, perfectly illustrated his remarkable turnaround. Just a few months before there’d been rumours of a move away, even a Judas-esque crossing of the aisle to Barcelona to become the heir to Iniesta’s throne. But now he was essential to Zidane’s side, a fan favourite, and he couldn’t be happier. “I never listened to any of them”, he said of Barça’s offers upon signing a new five-year deal at the Bernabéu. “My idea was always to be a success at Real Madrid.”

With his colours nailed firmly to the Los Blancos mast and want-away rumours quashed, Isco turned his attention to the national team. On 2nd September, when Italy visited Madrid for a World Cup qualifier, Isco’s rejuvenation reached new heights. In a truly flawless performance, the Andalusian scored twice before half-time, tormenting his opponents with every touch, every turn, every dribble. In taking the ball off set-piece specialist Sergio Ramos, who had moments earlier fired a free-kick high over the bar, and curling his own effort past Gianluigi Buffon, Isco showed his maturity and confidence. In shifting the ball on to his ‘weaker’ left-foot, dismissing the attempted block of Marco Verratti and firing into the bottom corner from 20 yards out, he showed poise and precision. Isco was one step ahead of the Italian midfielder all night: he flummoxed him with a croqueta, glided past him with ease and, with three assailants bearing down on him, embarrassed him with an audacious nutmeg. “I wanted to stand and applaud”, said Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura after his side’s 0-3 defeat. It’s rare enough that a player can share a pitch with Iniesta and match his level, but that night, Isco outshone him.

Over the calendar year Isco recorded 12 goals and eight assists in 33 LaLiga appearances, statistically the best period of his career. But 2018 brought a string of minor injuries, coaching instability and the disappearance of the number 10 role on the Madrid team sheet. When Zidane resigned at the end of 2018/19, in came Julen Lopetegui, a coach Isco had worked closely with at national team youth level. The Basque coach was replaced in October by former Real player Santiago Solari, under whose leadership Isco experienced less game time and increased frustration. By 2019 he appeared in the sports pages almost daily, topics ranging from his absence from key games to his manager publicly commenting on his weight. “He became a bit complacent, losing his shape and the physical sharpness needed at the elite level”, says Andy West.

Even since Zidane returned to the job, 10 months after leaving, Isco’s situation has only gotten worse. Having made the third highest number of appearances in the squad during the Frenchman’s first spell as coach, Isco is now a bit-part player, dusted off for cup matches and dead-rubbers when the main cast needs a rest. It appears to be a familiar case of Isco finding himself homeless in the current system. “He’s simply not a wide forward, but that’s where he plays”, says Scott. “He’s a pure number 10, a creator. He’s a facilitator, so he’ll always want the ball at his feet rather than in space. He loves to break the lines and send teammates through on goal, but that means he needs players around him who can stretch the opponent, vertically and horizontally. With the exception of maybe Vinícius Júnior, everyone in front of him seems to want the ball at their feet. That slows the tempo, which doesn’t help a more direct player like Isco.”

To be an outcast at a club where you’ve won four Champions Leagues, two LaLiga titles and one Copa del Rey is an unusual situation, but one Isco nevertheless finds himself in. Right now, his stock has never been lower; he’s played only 373 minutes of league football this season, and just 13 in the Champions League. In October, he was caught on camera criticising Zidane’s exclusion of him, in response to which his coach promised he has a role to play. His inability to nail down a starting berth despite the departures of Gareth Bale and Martin Ødegaard on loan, the latter still considered to have a future at the club, is a damning sign. Having not played for Spain since June 2019, he sought a move away in the January transfer window, a desperate bid to make the cut for the Euro 2020 squad. No move materialised.

The current stalemate doesn’t suit any of the parties involved. Failure to find Isco a suitor would lumber Real Madrid with the remaining 17 months of a €6 million per-season contract. Paying a player that kind of money to sit on the bench is obviously not ideal, especially when you consider the impact of Covid-19 on the club’s finances. For Isco himself, the situation must be painful. Sure, he is still getting paid, but what 29-year-old playmaker doesn’t want to play? Instead, he sits watching the prime years of his career slip away, the chance of representing his country at another major tournament increasingly unlikely. Then there are the fans, the lovers of the beautiful game.

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls”, Picasso once said. Whether down in Málaga, under the Bernabéu lights or wearing the red of Spain, what Isco can do on a football pitch is mesmerising. Like any great artist, his work leaves you smiling, laughing, shocked and entertained. Like many before him he is a purveyor of a dying craft, the number 10 that is spontaneous, that isn’t constrained by convention. He can bring joy to millions by doing things they simply cannot. He can make your feel something, when so much in life and football leaves us feeling nothing at all.

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