He was once one of the most sought after young Spanish football talents before agreeing to a €30 million move to Real Madrid in 2013, signing a five-year contract with the club.
The bandy-legged Andalusian playmaker struggled for playing time under Ancelotti in his first two seasons. Despite his struggle for game time, the Spaniard managed 11 goals and seven assists in 44 games* in his first season and four goals and nine assists in 39 games* the following season.
Although, Rafa Benítez replaced Ancelotti for the start of the 2015/16 season, Isco continued to struggle for game time but then started to earn some regular play time at the turn of 2016, when Benítez was fired half-way through the season and replaced by Real Madrid and France legend, Zinedine Zidane. The Spaniard finished the season with three goals and ten assists in 42 games* and his second Champions League trophy in three seasons.
The 2016/17 season still didn’t change much in terms of minutes on the field but his significance for Real Madrid was undeniable, with opposing players virtually incapable of defending him. He contributed to the team’s cup double success with his 11 goals and eight assists.
In spite of his lack of minutes over the past four seasons, Isco consistently turned in impressive performances, bamboozling opponents when the opportunity presented itself with his nimble feet and silky smooth dribbling skills. Due to his performances, he was regularly given plaudits and was often compared to his famed coach during his glory days— a praise that also cascaded from the mouth of the French legend himself.
However, with the rise to prominence of his equally impressive yet younger compatriot, Asensio; Isco found himself slipping down the pecking order, becoming essentially a distant memory replaced by a newer, more intriguing one— almost like a child who tosses his older, yet once favourite toy when presented with a newer, shinier and [what appears to be a] more entertaining toy.
Nevertheless, given Isco’s history, his consistency for the national team and Real Madrid’s abysmal season in the league, Zidane should be handing the playmaker far more minutes than he’s been given this season and Isco has made that clear.
After turning in yet another extraordinary performance for the national team— scoring his first hat-trick for Spain, Isco slyly took a swipe at Zidane and in essence alerted clubs interested in him, that he is unhappy with his current club situation and may be available after the World Cup in Russia.
Isco is a special player and he should be an integral part of Real Madrid. When played with regularity— and his performances with Spain demonstrates this— the bow-legged playmaker can conjure up magic in a split second, almost as good as— but not quite like— Messi.
Three months into the 2017/18 European football season and Real Madrid is struggling.
After winning back-to-back Champions League titles and a major double last season, los Blancos were expected to continue their dominance. And they looked set to do so after their performance against Manchester United in the European Super Cup and their thrashing of Barcelona over the course of two legs in the Spanish Super Cup.
It was the Merengues who were flying while their arch-rivals were — and technically still are — in the midst of a bureaucratic crisis, which everyone anticipated would spill over to the field. Instead, it is the Blaugrana and not Real Madrid who find themselves having a good run in all competitions— sitting comfortably atop the league, look set to top their group in the Champions League and have comfortably progressed to the next round of the Copa del Rey.
Real Madrid, in contrast, are sitting fourth in La Liga — eight points behind Barcelona, are most certain to finish second in their Champions League group, and turned in an embarrassing performance at the Bernabéu against third league team Fuenlabrada in the Copa del Rey.
There are a number of reasons behind the club’s misfortunes. They haven’t been able to field the BBC in months, players are off-form, Ronaldo and the team in general are shooting blanks, injuries have taken a toll— Bale and Kovacic both suffered serious injuries— and most importantly, the club hadn’t sufficiently replaced Morata, Mariano and James.
Things could get worse for the team too.
They are about to begin a rather difficult schedule. They travel to Basque country to meet Atheltic Bilbao on Saturday, who are themselves in the midst of a small crisis. Los Leones currently sit 16th in the league but when it comes to, their league position doesn’t matter. The San Mamés is a notoriously difficult stadium to play in and can be a source of disappointment for Real Madrid.
Los Blancos then welcomes Dortmund to the Bernabéu on Wednesday for their final Champions League group game of the season, followed by Sevilla three days later. The club then travels for the Club World Cup semi-final and final between December 13th and 16th, and then it’s back to Spain for El Clásico on December 23rd in the Bernabéu.
This is a very crucial period for Real Madrid and they are all must win games, with the exception of, maybe, the game against Dortmund.
The tides could— and have to— begin to change for the club starting on Saturday. Zidane was able to welcome back Bale to the team on Tuesday and his return could coincide with a turn in the team’s fortunes. His cameo against Fuenlabrada was what prevented Real Madrid from being the laughing stock of La Liga teams in the Copa, as he had a hand in both goals.
A lack of goals and an out of sync backline has been a great source of pain for Real Madrid this season and Bale’s return could remedy that to an extent.
Five games into the 2017/18 La Liga season and Real Madrid is already seven points off the pace and currently sits seventh in the table. They’ve won a meagre two games, drawn two and lost one.
Zidane’s men haven’t played terribly so far this season but they have been abhorrent in front of goal, creating a myriad of chances but failing to put them away. An incredulous feat from a team that has Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema.
Ronaldo was banned for five games for shoving the referee in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. He missed the return leg of the Super Copa and the first four La Liga games, so naturally, Real Madrid was happy about his expected return against Betis but that went sour pretty quickly.
Before last night’s game against Betis, Real Madrid had scored in 73 consecutive games but the team was unable to get anything past ex-Madrid man Adán, who made a number of man-of-the-match worthy saves. Coupled with the Betis goalkeeper’s spectacular display, both Bale and Ronaldo weren’t at their best. Ronaldo had a torrid time in front of goal, skying numerous shots and Bale on the other hand, was in and out of the game but had one brilliant shot on goal that saw Adán conjure up a miraculous save to deny him.
While los Merengues have struggled to bury their scoring opportunities, both Mariano and Morata have hit the ground running for their new clubs. The latter was sort of a saviour last season, coming on as a substitute to score or lay-off the winning goal.
Bale has had a slow start to the season scoring only once and has thus far contributed very little to the team’s play and dynamic. Benzema, before his injury against Levante, was creating chances but hadn’t put away any of his efforts.
Mayoral’s presence in the squad was already a bit risky and his introduction into last night’s game says the club needed a striker in the summer and should have made the effort to replace Mariano and Morata’s departure. He’s a promising player with an abundance of potential and his unfortunate loan stint at Wolfsburg means he hardly had the chance to really hone his skills and therefore, including him as the only backup to Benzema was an absurd decision and could prove to be truly disastrous. Will he be able to provide the team with goals in dire moments the way Morata was able to?
Real Madrid find themselves in a precarious predicament and it will be difficult to claw themselves out of this position. They have failed to make the Bernabéu a sanctuary so far this season and have picked up a paltry two points out of a possible nine. And of the five official games they’ve played at home, the team’s won two, drawn two and lost one.
Los Blancos will certainly find form as the season drags on, but in a league where so little points are dropped and there’s very little between the top two, seven points behind a Barça team that seems in fine form, despite their troubles in the boardroom, will be a tough ask for thewhites. Even more so, as they have yet to meet their toughest opponents- the likes of Sevilla, cross-town rivals Atlético and arch-rivals Barcelona.
In his post-game press conference, the ever so composed Zidane said, the team has to “remain calm and focus on the next game. La Liga is a long competition”. He may be right but his team no longer holds their destiny in their own hands.
After an extraordinary season and having etched their names into the annals of history, Real Madrid looked a magnificent team that never really needed any additional [big name] signings given their strength in depth. However, based on the wants of players, there were always going to be adjustments. Some of which could either propel the team to the brink of invincibility or see them unravel after a near perfect 2016/17 season.
The team’s goal is to maintain stability and bolster the squad, where necessary. Selling too many [important] players would be a disruptive path to continued stability, which raises a number of questions: how has the club performed in the transfer window so far? Have they done enough to ensure continued success or have they done too little? Are they making reasonable moves?
Before answering those questions, we should ask ourselves: what were Los Blancos’ weaknesses despite a glorious double — winning the Champions League and La Liga, an accomplishment not experienced by the whites for more than 50 years — and making history by becoming the first team to win the continental title back-to-back since the era of the Champions League?
The first answer that comes to mind, is the need for bolstering the defence. Real Madrid would have actually lost quite a few games without the likes of Navas, who was in especially fine form towards the end of the season and their incredible players in attack, who just enjoyed outscoring their opponents in games.
Then there was the problem of keeping everyone happy, including those who played a fringe role — James, Coentrão, Danilo, Nacho, Kovacic, Mariano and Casilla — and those who wanted to be more than just a regular substitute — Isco, Morata, Vazquez and Asensio. Zidane was clearly an excellent motivator and had for the most part convinced the majority of players of their importance to the team, even when they didn’t play as regularly as they’d have liked. He even managed to persuade Ronaldo that he needed to be fresh for the final lap of the season and to achieve that he had to accept that he wouldn’t be able to every game.
That was last season and while he succeeded, some players were not going to be convinced for the upcoming season and wanted to seek opportunities outside of Real Madrid.
Los Blancos has since sold Danilo (ca. €30M), Morata (€65.6M plus add-ons) and Mariano (ca. €8M) to Manchester City, Chelsea and Lyon, respectively. James has been sent to Bayern Munich on a two-year loan deal, Coentrão was loaned to Sporting Lisbon for a season and Pepe wasn’t offered a new deal, thereby making him a free agent.
Fairly good business, as Coentrão was injury-prone; James, though brilliant, apparently had a poor attitude in training — if the rumours are to be believed — and he obviously wasn’t a favourite of Zidane’s; Danilo never quite unlocked his full potential at Real — partly down to Carvajal’s constant brilliance —, and was especially prone to mistakes in defence. Pepe was an ageing defender, who at some point had to be replaced, granted Real could’ve done a better job of “phasing” him out; Mariano showed flashes of his brilliance when he was given the opportunity to play and if he can fine tune his talent at Lyon, Real will certainly activate his buy-back clause; then there is Morata, a special case. Incredibly talented player, who in his own right had to move on if he wanted to become more than a super sub, as there was no chance of him breaking into the starting line-up as long as the BBC was still active in Madrid. And at 24, it was now or never and he chose now.
Has the club sufficiently replaced the players gone?
Returning to the club is centre back Vallejo, who spent a year on loan at Frankfurt and was a main stay in the starting 11 for the Bundesliga club. The 20-year-old had a solid loan spell at the Eagles and helped his team to the German Cup final. He has extremely good concentration on the park, rarely loses the ball and is a tidy passer. He does need to work on his aggressiveness when trying to win the ball back and his aerial duel —he had a meagre 1.2 tackles per game according to WhoScored and he won on average 2.2 aerial battles per game last season in the Bundesliga. He does have promise and under the tutelage of both Ramos and Varane and with experience overtime he could develop into a defensive super star. His signing is an overall useful and reliable one both for the present and future.
Also returning to the club is Marcos Llorente, who had an impressive loan spell at Deportivo Alavés. Llorente comes from footballing royalty — his great uncle is Real Madrid legend Paco Gento and his father is Paco Llorente Gento, a Madrid legend in his own right. Young Llorente seems to be following in their footsteps, as he was a constant in the starting line-up at Alavés and helped lead his club to the Spanish Cup final. He was able to exhibit his quality, while gaining experience with the Basque side. He doesn’t have any explicit weaknesses, has excellent tackling abilities and is great at breaking up the opponents’ play. Per WhoScored he had an average of 3.8 tackles per game, better than Sergio Ramos’ season average. He’s also a neat passer —he had an average pass quota of 87% last season. Llorente is without a doubt a rising star and is only 22. He will have the chance to hone his skills under the guidance of players like Ramos, Casemiro, Kroos, Modric, Varane, et al. His return has bolstered los Blancos’ already strong midfield and provides necessary cover for Casemiro.
Borja Mayoral, is one of Madrid’s most promising forwards and has already been compared to club legend Raúl. He had a torrid time on loan at Wolfsburg last season, not because of his lack of quality but rather the perpetual chaos that broke out at the club and the problems that ensued —the club changed coaches several times. However, Zidane has always been a fan of him and the 20-year-old looks set to replace Morata in the squad, even taking over the Chelsea man’s old squad number. His lack of playing time at the Wolves meant he hardly played a role for Spain at the U21 European Championship this summer and made a solitary appearance as a substitute. Considering the scarcity in playing time and inadequate experience, his presence in los Blancos’ squad doesn’t seem all too encouraging but he at least deserves a chance and he’s excelled at the youth level, which may translate into success for him in the first team.
With Coentrão gone, Marcelo needed a deputy. The club needed a player who isn’t prone to injury and capable of stepping up to the plate when called upon. Theo Hernández is exactly that player and at just 19 he could develop into a long-term fixture at Real Madrid, especially under the tutelage of the brilliant Brazilian. Theo, like Marcelo, loves to dribble and can deliver lethal crosses into the box. He also has a wicked left foot and can punish teams from dead ball situations— not that he’ll have a chance to put it to use often, if ever, but it is nice to know he has it in his arsenal. And in a team as fluid as Madrid, his runs down the left could see him start cutting into the box more and punishing the net with that left foot of his. Excellent signing.
Replacing James and bringing in ample cover for Kroos and/or Modric was crucial for the club this season. As we saw last season, los Blancos had trouble at times filling the boots of both the German and Croatian. That’s where Spanish football’s newest prodigy comes in. Dani Ceballos, with his nimble feet and stunning dribbles, enjoys breaking ankles and leaving players dead in his wake. The young Spaniard had an outstanding U21 European Championship and was named player of the tournament. He holds the ball well, can deliver scrumptious passes, tends to get fouled a lot because of his sensational dribbling and gets involved defensively with strong tackling. He does however, need to work on his finishing. It must be frustrating for a player with his skill and talent, who can’t finish off one of his menacing runs. He is nevertheless a massive talent and a player capable of filling the boots of Modric and/or Kroos, when they’re injured or when they choose to move on. One for the future.
Have they done enough to ensure continued success or have they done too little?
The club has done some good business so far, with the exception of not filling the spot left open by Danilo’s departure and the apparent faith placed in the inexperienced Mayoral.
The open right back position may well be filled by either Álvaro Tejero or Achraf Hakimi, both talented young players, who’ve both been impressive for the youth team and were standouts during the club’s pre-season tour. However, like Mayoral, they could either turn out to be brilliant players, who can handle the weight of wearing the white shirt or they could all crack under the pressure.
Placing confidence in these youngsters is a bold move from Zidane but their performances in pre-season show they may well be ready for the demands that come with the badge.
The fact los Blancos has been able to keep their core team together and replace fringe players sufficiently, they seem set to continue their success. Additionally, all the signings made so far means the club has also made an effort to build for the future —the average age of the squad is 25.6 years.
Heading into yesterday’s Champions League final group stage game, there were still a few undecided groups- who’d take top spot and who’d play Europa League. One such group was group F, which consisted of defending champions Real Madrid, last season’s Bundesliga runner-up Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon and Polish league winners Legia Warsaw.
Real Madrid went into the game needing a win to secure top spot, while Sporting Lisbon needed a mere point to secure a spot in the Europa League. However, things went sour for both the Spaniards and Portuguese.
Real Madrid led 2-0 after 53 mins into the game only to have Dortmund mount a comeback just after the hour mark through Aubameyang and then went on to hit the equalizer in the 88th minute through Marco Reus. Thereby, pipping the defending champs to the top spot.
Group winners: Arsenal (Group A, ENG), Napoli (B, ITA), Barcelona (C, ESP), Atlético Madrid (D, ESP), Monaco (E, FRA), Borussia Dortmund (F, GER), Leicester City (G, ENG), Juventus (H, ITA)
Group runners-up: Paris Saint-Germain (A, FRA), Benfica (B, POR), Manchester City (C, ENG), Bayern München (D, GER), Bayer Leverkusen (E, GER), Real Madrid (F, ESP), Porto (G, POR), Sevilla (H, ESP)
Based on Los Blancos’ second place finish they could be drawn against either of the following teams on Monday: Arsenal, Monaco, Leicester City, Napoli or Juventus.
Whilst, had they won the group, they could have been drawn against either: PSG, Manchester City, Bayer Leverkusen, Porto, Benfica or Bayer Munich.
In their current predicament, Real Madrid’s worst case scenario would be Juventus- a strong defensive team, which has proven tough for them to defeat over the past few years, while Arsenal on a good day could pose some threat. The other teams aren’t without their merits and could all provide a serious threat to the defending champions, but they would all be considered outsiders when placed alongside the Merengues.
However, had they taken top spot, there are at least three teams they’d want to avoid so early in the competition: Bayern Munich- the team they’d most want to avoid and PSG and Manchester City- two teams that could be tricky on a good day.
Based on that, I believe Zidane and his men have possibly dodged an extremely difficult opponent in the round of 16 and could take this second place finish as a blessing in disguise.
Let’s see what happens on Monday and who Real Madrid are pitted against. Both Leicester City and Monaco would be the perfect choices but also not teams to underestimate.
Real Madrid kicked off the new Champions League season with a late, late win at home to Sporting Lisbon, who must be feeling hard-done after producing a good first half and early second half performance, while the hosts’ performance was subpar at best. However, the Madridista-never-say-die attitude coupled with Zidane’s second half substitutes and Ronaldo’s brilliant free kick produced a much needed victory.
There were some things that were on display during the game which are worth highlighting. Here are a few:
The BBC’s fluidity is being disrupted by injuries
Not long ago the BBC was being touted as the best attacking trio but have since been displaced by MSN. Injuries have been a colossal problem for Real Madrid’s attack in the past and Morata’s signing as well as holding onto Asensio was a step in the right direction to provide some cover when either member of the trio goes down injured. Benzema’s absence was obvious last season and is to some extent still noticeable- Morata hasn’t quite settled in completely as the out-and-out striker.
The BBC is lacking harmony and it was on full display last night. Miscommunication led to missed passes and less opportunities created among the three. Bale’s pass rate was a meagre 71.4%; Benzema had no shots on goal. It was necessary to substitute both in the second half and it paid off handsomely. It’s understandable that the trio needs more time to rediscover their form and it may take some time to find that fluidity as neither Benzema, Bale nor Ronaldo had a pre-season. Regaining fluidity will happen only if they can stay injury-free long enough.
James should be given a fair chance
The situation with James is bothersome. There are some reports that his attitude in training is rotten and that’s the main reason Zidane doesn’t believe in him as much. However, he has been in splendid form for Colombia and last night’s cameo saw some of his abilities on display. In the fifteen minutes he played he created three chances and provided the assist for the winning goal- it was a brilliant, well-placed cross from the left to find the head of Morata. If he can produce that in a quarter of an hour, imagine what he could in an hour or more. And for that reason, Zidane should give him a fair chance at proving himself and regaining the confidence and form he had during his first season with the club. Hopefully, James is willing to work hard- if the rumours are true- and not rest on his laurels.
Vazquez should work on his finishing
Lucas Vazquez appears to be a fan favourite and while that is absolutely justified he could endear himself even more to the fans IF he improves his shooting. After coming on for Bale in the 66th minute he created two wonderful chances for himself with some clever dribbling but his shots were weak. One could surmise that both chances were anaemic because they came from his weaker left foot but he’s also had some feeble shots on goal with his right. For example, in the Champions League final against Atletico and the European Super Cup against Sevilla he had clear cut chances which he fluffed; hit with no direction. The video below is just one visual illustration of Vazquez’s lack of ruthlessness in front of goal. If you wish to not watch the highlights in its entirety you can fast forward to 14:30. In the clip he had time and space and should have done much better with his opportunity. Further proof of his ineptitude in front of goal was his four goals in 25 appearances last season. The upside is that he’s still fairly young and can still develop that side of his game. He also provides the team with lovely crosses, draws plenty fouls with his dribbling and contributes defensively.
Last night’s performance won’t fly against Dortmund
Here’s the thing: on any given day, as long as Real Madrid are on song they are unbeatable. Yesterday’s showing also told us something: they can also win while not at their best. However, there are some opponents that will punish their mistakes and if luck is against them and the attack isn’t gelling then they won’t be able to out-score the opposition. Dortmund is one such opponent and if their start to the league season in addition to their opening performance against Legia Warsaw are anything to go by Los Blancos will fail if they turn in such a display against them. They must improve upon yesterday’s performance.
For laughs: Another Vazquez howler in front of goal
By now you must have heard- and if not, how’s that rock you’re living under? – that FIFA has upheld the ban against both Real Madrid and their city rival Atletico Madrid for “irregularities” in the signing of players under the age of 18.
What does that mean for Real Madrid?
In short, Los Blancos will be banned from making any signings in the next two transfer windows (Winter 2016/17 and Summer 2017). The club is currently preparing to appeal the ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS).
However, the ban means the club will only be allowed to renew existing players’ contracts, change coach, sell players, promote youth players and call back players from loan. They can’t however exercise buy-back clauses, which means the club will be unable to bring Jesé back – if they so desire- before the 2017/2018 winter transfer window and by then they’ll most likely have to pay a hefty price if his career has taken off.
Are they sufficiently prepared for the ban?
The real questions on every fans’ lips are:
i) Are the club really prepared for the ban?
ii) Did they reinforce the right positions?
iii) Could they have done better to prepare themselves?
During the summer transfer window, the club signed only one player- Morata, whose buy-back clause the club exercised to bring him back from Juventus. Morata was certainly a good signing considering Los Merengues suffered in front of goal when Benzema was out injured. His signing provides the team with much needed cover in the attack. But was that the only position in the team that needed strengthening?
The defence in general is a major cause for concern
The ageing, intemperate, theatrically inclined Pepe, while still a good defender is a massive liability not only because of his theatrical and ill-disciplined behaviour on the field but he has become increasingly injury-prone in the last few seasons and will most likely fall victim to some injury that will keep him out of important games. And he isn’t the only player with injury problems either; his defensive partners are vulnerable too. Varane has faced many a injury problems- the most recent a knee injury that prevented him from participating in the European Championships with France. Then there is Ramos, who much like his Portuguese defensive partner, has had his fair share of injury problems- though not as bothersome as Pepe’s- and an allotment of disciplinary issues. And while Nacho can provide cover, he isn’t the best in the centre of defence.
A combination of injuries and disciplinary infractions could spell complete disaster for the club this season.
What about the fullback positions?
Danilo had a tough start to life at the Bernabéu and has also had a few injury set-backs but is still a relatively good defender and one could chalk his first season up to newcomer jitters- we all know the pressure players face at a club as colossal as Madrid- and the host of injuries he picked up. The right side of defence won’t be much of a problem provided Danilo finally settles in and barring a catastrophe, where both he and the exceptional Carvajal pick up long-term injuries at the same time. The left side, however poses a problem. Marcelo is the only player who suitably fills the position and while he has a lot of energy, there will come a time in the season when he either picks up an injury or Zidane wants to rest him to prevent fatigue and unnecessary injury. But who comes in for him? Coentrão will provide some cover but he seems to spend more time in the infirmary than he does out on the pitch and it’s that knack for picking up injuries that has really stunted his Madrid career and could pose a real problem on the left of defence. Admittedly, Nacho can play anywhere along the defence but again, he isn’t the best option in big games by a long shot.
Strength of the midfield and attack
The midfield is probably the most crowded yet imbalanced area for Real Madrid and one position that is lacking in depth was defensive midfield. The team needed a player who could not only complement Toni Kroos and Modric but also alleviate some of their defensive duties, something Casemiro does exceptionally well and his presence also allows Modric to push higher up the field and Toni to focus more on the attack. But what happens when the Brazilian suffers an injury? Lucas Silva’s heart anomaly has rendered him unavailable though he was scheduled to go on loan. Which therefore means the only backup available is a makeshift one- playing Toni in that position again. But as we saw under Ancelotti that brought no balance to the midfield and the team on many occasions had to rely on their ability to outscore opponents.
The likes of James, Isco, Asensio, Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez, Mariano and Morata will provide not only ample cover but also options for Zidane. The coach has options for the problems above, like promoting youth players but the pressing questions are, will they be ready and will he trust them enough?
There were areas the club needed to strengthen and they didn’t. They had the opportunity to do so in this transfer window and failed to do so- commenting (or rather lying to themselves) that “the squad was too good to improve”. This could pose a major threat to their ambitions of not only winning La Liga after four years of disappointment but also becoming the first club to defend their Champions League title since the competition was rebranded.
It was either imprudent or arrogant of them to neither sign players nor make an effort to sign players when they knew full-well that a transfer ban was looming and they may rue this missed chance.