At the age of twenty-five, with two Champions League medals already on his CV and another final on the horizon, Isco can no longer be considered a promising youngster: he’s the finished article, and one of the finest playmakers in the world, but will staying at Real Madrid be what’s best for his career?
With 542 appearances for Real Madrid and fifteen winners’ medals over the course of fifteen years – including three Champions Leagues and five La Liga titles – it might seem strange to refer to Guti as underrated, but that’s exactly what he was, and what he remains to be.
Jose Maria Gutierrez Hernandez made his debut for Real Madrid in 1995.
Initially plying his trade as a striker – the emergence of Raul and the later acquisitions of Fernando Morientes, Steve McManaman, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, and even David Beckham ensured that he moved in, out, and around the starting line-up.
He later found his niche in midfield, playing the kind of YouTube-worthy passes capable of reducing fans to tears.
There’s the backheel to set up Karim Benzema when everyone and their dog thought he was going to shoot.
There’s also the inconsistency and the frankly Ramosesque propensity for silly suspensions, but c’mon – it’s Guti. Guti’s class. Guti’s a legend. Guti’s Guti.
And that’s what happens when players of his undoubted talent flit in and out of form and favour: they become the ifs, the maybes, the God-can-you-imagines of a million hipster eulogies.
So how will Isco be remembered?
Francisco Roman Alarcon Suarez made his debut for Valencia in 2010 in the Copa del Rey, scoring twice in a 4-1 victory against UD Logrones, instantly endearing himself to the Mestalla faithful with a pair of joyous goals.
The first came after a touch so good, cushioning the ball as it fell from upper orbit, that even Ray Hudson would struggle to do it justice*, and his second followed a waltz through three defenders before wrongfooting the goalkeeper with an paradoxically experienced finish.
A graduate of the club’s famed cantera, Isco followed the likes of David Albelda, Gaizka Mendieta, David Silva and Jordi Alba in making the step up to the seniors.
He wasn’t there for long.
In the summer of 2011, after only seven first-team appearances for Valencia, Manuel Pellegrini’s Malaga activated the absurd €6m release clause in Isco’s contract.
The nineteen-year-old chose his preferred number 22, but the Chilean entrusted him as the team’s number 10, free to scheme in a 4-2-3-1 system, flanked by fellow Spaniards (and summer recruits) Santi Cazorla and Joaquin Sanchez, and behind either the powerful Venezuelan Solomon Rondon or Dutch legend Ruud van Nistelrooy.
On the pitch, the 2011/12 season was a remarkable success at La Rosaleda, ending with a top-four finish in La Liga and qualification for the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.
Off the pitch, all was far from rosy.
A number of players were unpaid and complained, and the next summer, a host of them were sold. Ahead of the 2012/13 season, practically no money was spent on new signings, yet Pellegrini still lead the team to a sixth-placed La Liga finish and to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where they were knocked out by eventual finalists Borussia Dortmund.
Still, a season that started with Isco being named as Tuttosport’s Golden Boy — and ended as Malaga’s joint-top goalscorer in the league – would lead to disappointment thanks to matters outside of his control.
Ordinarily, finishing sixth in La Liga would be enough for a spot in the following season’s Europa League, but the club’s lax attention to UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations lead to Malaga being denied a place in Europe.
“Shameful, pathetic, and unfair,” Isco said of the decision. “Neither the players or the fans deserve this.”
Pellegrini left for Manchester City, who, along with Real Madrid, were keen to sign the young Spaniard.
But first, Isco had an under-21 final to score in, his goal in Jerusalem helping Spain to a 4-2 victory over Italy.
“It doesn’t matter to me who the owner or president is. I just want to play football and have fun. It doesn’t matter to me what kind of formation a team plays. I have my own characteristics, but you always have to adapt to your surroundings.”
Isco ignored his former manager’s overtures and joined Real Madrid for 30m, making him the first major signing of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign at the Bernabeu.
There was just one problem: Isco, the up-and-coming number 10, had joined a 10-less team.
In the under-21 final for Spain, Isco operated in a free role from the left of the attacking trident in a 4-3-3, otherwise known as Cristiano Ronaldo’s position for Real Madrid, which rendered that idea moot, at least at club level.
On Madrid’s right flank, fellow summer signing Gareth Bale – at the time the world’s most expensive player, depending on who you asked – was guaranteed a starting berth, a sign that the Welshman had fully entered his third evolutionary stage, from left back to left winger to ‘too good to be nailed down’, at least in his own mind.
Apparently too flimsy and tactically naive for a role in a midfield three, the default starting places went to converted winger Angel Di Maria, quarterback (sorry) Xabi Alonso, and the now-settled Luka Modric, with struggling-for-fitness’s Sami Khedira the preferred backup from the bench.
All of this relegated Isco to the status of ‘luxury squad player’ presidents like Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez can afford: not enough of a marquee name to demand inclusion in the team, at risk of becoming another Sergio Canales, and almost as misused as another 2013 recruit, Asier Illaramendi.
But still, Isco started 35 of the 53 games he played that season, helped by injuries to both Bale and Khedira and winning runs in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, all of which demanded a semi-rotational philosophy.
Come 2014/15, where the departures of Di Maria and Alonso could have opened the door to a more permanent starting role – after all, he had made his appearances in various positions, highlighting a newfound versatility – the club signed World Cup stand-outs Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez, because Real Madrid.
Much like how the sale of Mesut Ozil facilitated the signing of Bale, Di Maria’s move to Manchester United helped offset the 80m Perez spent on Rodriguez, the difference being that Ozil hadn’t just helped Real Madrid win their elusive Decima with a man-of-the-match performance in the final, nor had his workrate up and down the left-hand side of the pitch provided a much-needed platform from which Ronaldo could play freer than ever before.
But Perez had to have his man, even if Ancelotti didn’t.
Isco continued his hokey-cokey relationship with the first team, yet he still did enough for club legend Iker Casillas to say “Isco will be the most important player in Spanish football in the coming years,” but even then, with the boy from Benalmadena making good on his early promise, the previous season’s glory gave way to an early Copa del Rey exit, second place in the league, and defeat to Juventus in the Champions League semi-finals.
Ancelotti paid for his sins – as far as scoring 118 goals in the league and finishing two points shy of a rejuvenated Barcelona can be considered sinful – and Rafael Benitez took his place.
By Real Madrid’s standards, a relatively quiet summer unfolded, Illaramendi the only notable departure from the club, and a mere 80m+ spent on new players, including the exploitation of buy-back clauses for former youth teamers, and a curious 60m splurge on Porto’s Brazilian right back Danilo and Internazionale’s Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic.
The job was an immediate non-starter for Benitez. A dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist, how could he sate Perez’s impractical thirst for top-heavy success? A shot at the Bernabeu big seat was too much to resist for the boyhood Madridista, as was his brilliant ‘fuck you’ to the president when he knew his time was coming to an end — his team selection for the first Clasico of the season more than highlighting the madness of King Florentino.
Casemiro – the combative Brazilian midfielder and the closest thing Real Madrid have had to Makelele since, er, Illaramendi – sat it out in favour of Kroos and Modric, who in turn sat behind Ronaldo, Rodriguez, Bale and Benzema in an ultra-attacking, ultra-Perez, who-cares-about-form-or-fitness line-up — a true throwback to those halcyon days where, to paraphrase a disgruntled Galactico, oceans of gold paint were poured on the Bentley in favour of the unseen engine.
Barcelona were kind to Real Madrid by only scoring four at the Bernabeu, such was the hilarity of the gap between the Merengues’ defence and midfield.
No prizes for guessing who fell on whose sword.
“Technically, Isco is a lot like me.”
In January 2016, at the press conference where Zinedine Zidane was unveiled as Benitez’s replacement, Perez turned to the Frenchman and said: “I know that for you the word ‘impossible’ doesn’t exist,” possibly paraphrasing a slogan used by a certain German sportswear manufacturer, the same manufacturer that had ploughed millions in the direction of both the club and its new manager.
Like the president’s (possibly throwaway) comment, the motivations behind Zidane’s appointment were hard to interpret.
On the one hand, it seemed logical, if a little self-serving – an icon of the club and of football as a whole, Zidane had the capacity to cool any dissatisfaction in the stands and the dressing room. He also learned as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti in the Italian’s successful first season at the Bernabeu, followed by a spell as manager of Castilla, the club’s reserve team.
On the other, as much as he had the political clout to pick the team of his choosing, to the extent that he could even substitute Ronaldo if he felt like it, he had absolutely no top-level managerial experience of his own.
Neither did Pep, the first hand said.
He ain’t Pep, the other replied.
Whatever Perez’s mindset, and whether or not he intended Zidane to be a stop-gap til a more qualified coach could be attained in the summer, the fact remains that Zizou gave a more literal meaning to the phrase ‘unqualified success’ by guiding the club to their eleventh continental triumph.
Ahead of the 2016/17 season, business was muted: the reacquisition of Alvaro Morata from Juventus and the sale of Jese Rodriguez to Paris Saint-Germain were the only moves of note, indicative of Zidane’s contentment with his squad, and an ability to resist Perez’s him, him and him mentality, at least up to a point.
“If Cristiano, Karim Benzema and Bale are 100% fit then they’ll play,” the Frenchman said in September 2016, barely a month on from winning the European Super Cup, “but that doesn’t mean it is written in stone that the three will always have to play together.”
Casemiro the destroyer, Kroos the playmaker, Modric the shuttler, and the so-called BBC up front. The new-look, old-look fashion: a continuation from the previous season’s Zidane-inspired success.
And why not?
On paper, the line-up offers balance, with Benzema acting as a kind of advanced pivot, around which Bale and Ronaldo can cut inside and score-score-score, initiated by Kroos and Modric’s supreme midfield conduction, and even Perez had to have been impressed by what a revelation Casemiro had been, not least in how his unglamorous, fire-fighting ballast had allowed Marcelo and Dani Carvajal to attack from fullback with such potent abandon.
Through the new year, Real Madrid travelled to Japan and won the Club World Cup, and embarked on a Spanish-record forty game unbeaten run in all competitions, a combination that, for a time, meant Zidane’s team had lifted more trophies than they had endured defeats during his tenure.
Marcos Asensio had emerged as another exceptional talent. Lucas Vasquez had inherited Santiago Solari’s role as the solid (yet gifted) hard-worker from the bench. Alvaro Morata, while more defined by goals than Benzema, remained a ‘backup’ number 9 of exceptional quality.
And Isco, as much as he’d jumped ahead of James Rodriguez in the pecking order, was still in and out of the team, despite playing the best football of his career.
In the second half of the season, as Real Madrid ventured deeper and deeper into the Champions League, with Barcelona hot on their heels in La Liga, the entire squad played its part, often leading to wholesale changes between games and competitions as the club fought on both fronts, which led to the question: which set of stars shined brightest?
With what could be considered a weakened side, despite being filled with an array of full internationals, Real Madrid’s de facto ‘B’ team often outperformed the club’s supposed nailed-on starters, at least aesthetically, as the ‘A’ team led the chase for yet more European glory, showcasing both the ludicrous strength-in-depth at Real Madrid’s disposal, and a true sense of inclusion among the players themselves, the credit for which must go to Zidane.
But how could players of Isco, Asensio, James or Morata’s quality be considered little more than rotational options for the more big-name players ahead of them? And how long would they tolerate such a label?
It is, according to cliché, a good headache to have.
No one inside the club publicly acknowledged the existence of an ‘A’ team, presumably to keep those in the ‘B’ team happy, but if everyone was fit and raring to go, it would be hard to imagine Gareth Bale lining up alongside Messrs Nacho and Kovacic against Granada as Benzema, Ronaldo and co put their feet up ahead of a major game in Europe.
None of which is to say Bale is a bad player. Far from it. But there was more than a murmuring between fans and pundits alike that Isco’s performances – like the ones against Sporting Gijon, Deportivo, and latterly both legs against Atletico Madrid – were enough to merit his inclusion in the side.
Indeed, his performance against Sporting at the Duje Cop – featuring a velcro-booted solo goal and a precise last-minute winner – became the stuff of legend as soon as the game was over, the latest indication that he’d become more than just another dainty number 10.
By contrast, the Welshman endured a stop-start season in the capital, missing twenty-nine games since scoring a brace against Real Sociedad in the team’s opening fixture in La Liga.
As Isco’s stock continued to rise, Bale’s best faded in the rear-view mirror; his absence felt less keenly than before.
The fact that Bale had been so hampered by injury is what opened the door for Isco in the first place, who made the most of his time in the limelight: floating behind and beyond Ronaldo and Benzema, between and beside Kroos and Modric, his place in the side had linked midfield and attack in a new and exciting way – the ethereal schemer, Zidane-like in his play, in contrast to the Welshman’s devastating physical attributes.
But the real question is whether a fit Bale would be happy to shift his own role in the team in order to accommodate someone to do the job he wants himself: to roam, to drift, to find the spaces between the lines. That he lacks the rapid dribbling in the style of Arjen Robben to cut in from the right on his stronger side doesn’t seem to be an issue, despite it underlining the deficiencies in his otherwise superb game.
With Ronaldo’s age dictating his own evolution from an inside-forward to a more traditional number 9, the role of Benzema has become ever more selfless. Can Bale take that mantle from the Frenchman? Would he even want to?
On paper, it’s not hard to imagine a team where Kroos and Modric continue to dictate ahead of Casemiro, and where Bale operates from the left of a nominal front three, still providing a goalscoring threat as he arrives at the backpost to nod in a Carvajal cross, or to shoot across the keeper with his stronger left foot, as well as being a creator in his own right, feeding the poaching Ronaldo from the touchline in tandem with an underlapping Marcelo.
But is that what the president spent all that money on? The world’s best ‘old-school’ winger?
And where does Isco fit in? Is he still roaming from the right, or has he taken the brilliant (but ageing) Modric’s role in midfield, his licence to roam revoked in favour of a steady, selfless tempo; his energy attuned towards interception and creation?
He could become a latter-day Guti, loyal to the club and happy to serve, even at the cost of a starring role, but such a selfless approach, while good on paper, would seem such a waste of his rare and otherworldly talent.
On paper, on paper.
The problem with ‘on paper’ is that the paper is made in an ideal world, free from egos and wage structures, shirt sales and reputations.
On paper, a rusty Gareth Bale shouldn’t be rushed back to fitness ahead of the Champions League final, even if it is in his native Cardiff, nor should he waltz into the team at Isco’s expense if it’s a straight choice between the two, but an ideal world this is not, nor is Real Madrid just another club: it is the thing with which Florentino Perez flaunts his idea of wealth and image; a brand that demands the best by default, by virtue of its history, in order to cement its place in the world. It is an emblem of everything right and wrong with football.
The club’s business in the transfer market so far shows the Jekyll and Hyde nature of their dealings:
With a deal for Atletico Madrid’s Theo Hernandez all-but-done, they seem to have finally secured a viable rotational option for Marcelo, as well as one of the brightest talents in the league, with the added bonus of somewhat weakening a direct rival.
They’ve also built on the success of Martin Odegaard’s move to the Bernabeu by signing a sixteen-year-old from Flamengo for an absurd amount of money on the off-chance he ends up something like Neymar.
Then there are the rumours of the comings and goings – Eden Hazard in, Alvaro Morata out – that exist somewhere between the smoke and fire.
“Don’t worry Madrid fans, I’m staying,” Isco said, but what he wants for himself in the long run, and where he thinks he can achieve that, is another matter entirely.
It might be worth asking his dog.
Until then, Isco has another final to think about:
“Playing would be a dream come true, but what truly matters is the team,” he said, his eyes firmly on the road to Cardiff.
“We have all fought really hard to reach the final. I’m sure Zidane will pick the correct line-up,” he added, possibly echoing the president.
*Okay, maybe not. Hats off, Mr Hudson