There are times when watching football, even just casually, when a player or a piece of play catches your eye and fires your imagination. That happened for me back in 2013 when I first watched a full match featuring Francisco Roman Alarcon Suarez, better known to the footballing world as Isco.
I had of course been aware of the young Spaniards talent for at least two years before this, as a player of the popular football management simulator Football Manager I was exposed to the precocious youngster before I had even seen him play in the flesh. It was at the European U21 Championships in 2013 that I saw him play a full match for the first time in a team that also included the magnificent Thiago, indeed, it speaks to his talent that even with Thiago in the midfield the promise shown by Isco was not diminished.
To see Isco play with the ball at his feet you cannot help but feel inspired by football, he is Spanish football made flesh with clever, quick feet and the capacity to squeeze through defensive structures combined with an eye for angles and passing lanes that leave defenders unable to effectively cover his threat. That said though, there is a side to Isco that belongs to the footballing dark arts and which makes a mockery of national stereotypes. For all the grace and technical brilliance he possesses we also see a steely determination and willingness to fight for the time and space in which to express himself. Watch as defenders challenge him and kick at his legs and you will see Isco fight back with elbows and hands, refusing to allow himself to be easily dislodged from the ball that he covets so fiercely.
This streak of wilful determination is one that Isco shares with so many of the best attackers the World has seen, players like Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona posses the same mental strength and there are certain similarities between the young Spaniard and two of the greatest players the world has ever seen. Indeed to see Isco play in full flight is to evoke memories of a young Maradona forcing his way through opponents defences and thrusting towards goal.
This past season has seen Isco finally force his way in to the Real Madrid first team, no mean feat in itself, as the tip of the midfield diamond favoured by coach Zinedine Zidane, and you get the feeling that as Spanish giants transition away from the era of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos that Isco will be raised up as the standard bearer of arguably the biggest club in the world.
With what we know of Isco he will most likely relish the challenge and rise to the occasion.
Determination on the ball
Isco is a true handful for opposition defences given the nature of his individual player ID and his sheer stubborn determination to be a success. This was instilled in him early on when after an initial period in the youth ranks of Valencia he chose to move to Malaga in the search of first team opportunities.
That move in itself is a mark of the man, many young players would be content to sit at Valencia in their comfort zone, whilst Isco chose to challenge himself, trusting in his own ability.
It was at Malaga that the young midfielder made his mark in first team football and indeed in short order Isco was established as one of the leaders of a young and exciting team. These early experiences as a senior professional obviously had an impact on the player that we see today.
As Isco picks up possession of the ball deep in his own half his first instinct is to drive forward towards goal in the attacking transition. He is not a player that is likely to make 100 passes in a game with 96% accuracy and instead he will continuously probe forwards looking for opportunities to create goal scoring chances for his teammates.
Here Isco drives forward through the centre of the field and shrugs off an attempted foul in the first instance before driving into the opposition half and riding a second hard tackle looking to bring him down from behind.
After the determination and willingness to stay on his feet we then see the game intelligence from Isco as he chooses not only the correct passing lane but the correct time to release the ball to create a chance for his team.
Here as soon as Isco takes possession of the ball just inside the opponents half he is fouled by the opposition player. Instead of conforming to the stereotype of creative Spanish footballers and falling to the ground in feigned agony we instead see Isco ride the challenge and drive forward showing no sign of being put off by the challenge.
When faced by the next defensive player we see the creative side come out again as he jinks inside and out keeping the opponent off balance before looking for the diagonal pass to the far side of the penalty area.
Unfortunately in this case the pass is too close to the goalkeeper and the chance is gone, that this stands out as an anomaly in Isco’s game is proof itself that his passes are normally unerringly accurate.
Speed of thought
At the top level of the game players are expected to have an exceptionally high base level when it comes to their technical, tactical and physical profiles, this is seen as something of a given. What separates the good from the truly great however, is the presence of innate footballing intelligence and the speed in which a player is able to translate their thought process to their feet.
In terms of speed of thought and action Isco is already one of the very best players in the world. It is for this reason that at club level Zidane favours him at the tip of the midfield diamond relying on his creativity and spatial awareness to create chances for those around him.
Here we see Isco positioned centrally as the opposition clear the ball straight to his feet.
Instead of looking to hold possession and wait for the attacking pattern to establish itself in order to play safe we instead see Isco immediately look to take advantage of the lack of structure in the defensive setup. An immediate through ball to Cristiano Ronaldo is not only accurate but perfectly weighted and the Portuguese forward is through one on one on the goalkeeper.
The key here is the determination of Madrid to counter-press in order to win the ball back in an advanced area.
As the right back steps out and engages the ball we see Isco drift in to a pocket of space anticipating that possession would soon change hands. As the ball comes to him in that pocket of space his speed of thought and execution are perfect with the ball being brought under control and slipped through to Morata in one movement.
Ability to finish chances
As well as being adept in transition and when linking play in and around the final third of the field Isco is also a strong finisher showing the ability to finish chances in tight spaces as well as the composure to score when he drifts in to space and collects the ball.
Whilst Isco is not an out and out goalscorer and is more adept at creating for others that is not to say that he will refuse a chance at goal when the opportunity presents itself.
Here we see Isco drifting into space in the penalty area and calling for the ball to be switched over to him from the right hand side.
The young attacker has superb spatial awareness and tactical knowledge allowing him to constantly find pockets of space to cause maximum damage to the opposition in the final third and indeed in the penalty area.
Here as the ball comes across to Isco the finish is relatively simple but there is still work to be done and he has to remain composed to find the free corner of the goal.
This time a completely different kind of finish.
As the ball comes to Isco just inside the oppositions penalty area he is challenged initially and again refuses the chance to go down in the area. He then proceeds to beat two opposition players in a tight area before finishing the chance high in to the goal.
This goal encapsulates the determination, balance, technique and composure that the young Spanish international typifies.
Isco is the kind of footballer that can make you fall in love with the game all over again. His poise in the final third coupled with an aggressive, determined streak mark him out as a player at the front of the new generation.
As football comes to terms with the ever approaching end of the Messi/Ronaldo era its players like Isco that will fire the imaginations of youngsters taking their first steps with the game.
Real Madrid have a Spanish born galactico with the next decade of top flight excellence ahead of him and the player to lead the club in to a new era. Let’s just hope that he continues to get exposed to first team football and challenged to make the most of his undoubted potential.