The importance of Isco

November 3, 2014

How the elegant playmaker makes Real Madrid more fluent. 

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Just over six weeks ago Real Madrid were in chaos. They had lost 2-1 to Atlético Madrid in front of an unrestful Santiago Bernabéu; the midfield seemed fragile and unbalanced; James Rodríguez struggled to settle; frustrated spectators lamented the departures of Ángel Di María and Xabi Alonso. Then came the switch. Carlo Ancelotti, having searched for that elusive tactical formula throughout the season opening, decided on 4-4-2. Since then Real Madrid have practically been unstoppable.

Ostensibly there is a contradiction in the fact that Ancelotti have squeezed the planet’s most sophisticated group of players into football’s most basic system. Not long ago, the 4-4-2 was perceived as outdated on European top level; a philosophy belonging to the museum of football tactics, ridiculed as a pre-historic method reserved for Sunday League managers and surviving dinosaurs. Now it is used by the European champions. On a deeper level, it may indicate that the influence of formations can often be overstated and that their strategic functionalities matter more. The way in which Ancelotti interprets his system may vary from that of David Moyes.

The Italian’s latest design is solid, flexible and unpredictable. With it, the team’s most impressive displays have come most recently, without Gareth Bale, with Isco (left) and Rodríguez (right) flanking Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić. In short, Kroos and Modrić focus on recycling possession from defence to the flanks; Isco and Rodríguez cut inside on their stronger feet, often overlapped by Marcelo and Dani Carvajal respectively; Karim Benzema leads the line as the link-up man; Cristiano Ronaldo alternates between the roles of a left winger and a roaming forward.

Madrid 4-4-2 (1)

Without the ball, Ancelotti appears to have borrowed from Diego Simeone. The team goes into a condensed 4-4-2 with the midfield four on a string. The idea is the classic “two banks of four”; so simple, and so effective when executed with intelligence and good work ethic. Isco and Rodríguez hassle opponents while Kroos and Modrić cover the ‘red zone’ through admirable positional intuition. Limited space between the lines makes Real Madrid compact and organised. Up front Cristiano and Benzema are liberated from defensive duties, essentially forcing the opposition to leave several defenders behind to quell potential counter-attacks.

Madrid 4-4-2 (2)

The variable in the side is Isco. In some ways his movement decides the formation, because the other midfield roles are reasonably fixed. Kroos and Modrić largely stay put while Rodríguez drifts inside only to a certain extent. Isco’s position without the ball is left midfield, but without it his action zone is vast.

If Isco stays wide, the shape is 4-4-2. Without movement this is clearly a predictable system, so when the ball goes left, Cristiano often drops deep or sprints in behind the defence. When the ball is on the right, Rodríguez will often drag a defender up the pitch and leave space for Benzema to work the channel. If Benzema’s marker tracks the run, a highway opens up for Cristiano to accelerate onto. The move is rather basic and echoes one of the patterns used during José Mourinho’s time in Chamartín.

Madrid 4-4-2 (3)

The formation changes when Isco moves inside from the left. His and Cristiano’s positions are often synchronised, so if one stays wide the other drifts infield. As such, when Isco comes closer to Kroos, Cristiano tends to revert to his left-wing role, stretching the opposition’s defence and creating space centrally. Especially when the ball is on the right, a quick switchover can find Isco between the lines, who can then release Cristiano. These interchanges create a sense of variety and unpredictability that accentuates the duo’s abilities in different positions. Isco’s quick feet and incisive passes are valuable both out wide and centrally. Cristiano is a powerful winger capable of dribbling full-backs and crashing home long-shots, yet his sense of timing and his magnificent leap also makes him dangerous in the box. The Portuguese offers two dimensions. Why not use both?

Madrid 4-4-2 (4)

When the ball is on the left, Isco can also move into that dangerous zone between the opponent’s right winger and centre-right midfielder; a space Andrés Iniesta has long specialised in finding at Barça. (There remains something longer to be written about the many technical and stylistic similarities between the two.) With Marcelo in possession, Cristiano comes short and leaves space for Isco to exploit down the line. Cristiano may then turn and re-join the attack to create a two-versus-one situation.

Madrid 4-4-2 (5)

The obvious counter-move here is for the central midfielder to simply follow Isco. But Isco’s role can lead to confusion. In the 4-4-2, his marker is supposed to be the right-back. With Cristiano shuffling across, the tasks are switched and the central midfielder who previously pushed up on Kroos now has to track Isco deep into his own half. Clearly, such positional swaps make the players harder to stop.

It can be no coincidence that Real Madrid have performed so well with Isco, whether you analyse the demolition of Liverpool at Anfield or the convincing clásico victory.  His recent displays put Bale’s return in a different light. While the explosive Welshman will make the team quicker and more direct, the fluency and functionality will suffer. Whether that is a good thing or not remains to be seen – and discussed.

7 comments

It’s amazing that Ancelotti has done it yet again. Two months ago you wrote an article about how would Ancelotti recover the balance having lost DiMaria and Alonso and that maybe he should play Bale in place of DiMaria in a 4-3-3, with Isco barely being mentioned. Now with Bale’s injury Ancelotti found yet another brilliant formation with Isco who not long ago was kind of thought as the odd man out and on his way out of Madrid. He has turned a 10 into a left sided midfielder who drifts inside to his preferred 10 role or shuttles to the flank as well as covering for Marcelo who for me as threatening as he is going forward, he is woeful when he comes to being caught out of position very often (Neymar’s gol in the classico is his fault being two far out, diving on Messi and leaving space in the flank for Suarez to exploit and cross for Neymar).

by Angel on November 11, 2014 at 3:31 pm. #

Yes, true. Ancelotti is very impressive like that. One of the main reasons for why they hired him, I think.

by Thore Haugstad on November 12, 2014 at 9:05 am. #

Amazing article again Thore.
Hope to see more articles on la liga teams now that you’re in Madrid.
Best of luck.

by Mo Ktesh on November 6, 2014 at 7:29 pm. #

Thank you Mo.

by Thore Haugstad on November 12, 2014 at 9:04 am. #

Great article, as always. The only thing I’d add is that Marcelo at times plays so far up that he is practically a part of the Madrid midfield. As a result, Isco drops back and covers the space that the Brazilian leaves behind when going on these darting runs. And I would argue that this isn’t only the case during overlapping runs, but also during Marcelo solo runs.

For me, the biggest surprise has been how well Isco has been covering that space. The gain in fluidity could be expected since Isco is such a technically gifted player. What is really surprising and impressive from a Madrid perspective is how well and how quickly Isco was able to adapt tactically speaking, as you’ve mentioned, which obviously is credit to Ancelotti. The relationship with Marcelo and Isco’s positional awareness and knowing when to cover is what makes this work, with and without the ball.

Whether Madrid can continue to play at such a high level remains to be seen. Are they currently playing better football than during last season when they won la decima? Its early days, of course, but it very well could be.

by Aldo on November 4, 2014 at 8:20 am. #

That’s a good point: he often drops back and covers. It’s rare to see players who combine technical brilliance with work rate and defensive awareness, but Real Madrid seem to have several of them and Isco is a good example. As you say, this pretty important, because Marcelo is a significant threat going forward. (Could have scored two against Granada this weekend.) And yes, I think I agree; they seem even stronger now than last season.

by Thore Haugstad on November 4, 2014 at 9:36 am. #

Quite wonderful exposition.

by Football Prism on November 3, 2014 at 6:33 pm. #