When Luka Modrić fell victim to injury at the back end of 2014, Carlo Ancelotti was presented with an unexpected dilemma. The Croatian had played a fundamental role for Los Blancos in the previous season and not least on their successful quest for La Decima.
His place in the team was arguably as indispensable as those of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, and there was no reason to think that would change.
Just eleven games into the season however; fate would throw a spanner into Carlo Ancelotti’s works. In a EURO 2016 qualifier against Italy in November, Modrić was forced off with a thigh injury.
The immediate diagnosis soon went from weeks to months, while the turn of the year has still left the 29-year-old some ways off a return to action. Although it’s arguable that the pint-sized midfielder still doesn’t quite get the credit he deserves to this day, his loss was still recognised as an unequivocal blow.
Questions were raised about how James Rodríguez and Toni Kroos would look without Modrić around. After one or two early season hiccups, Real Madrid’s trivote were looking rather seamless by the time of the Croatian’s injury.
The ‘Pony’ (as some have named him in Madrid), had welcomingly taken on the role as mediator among the team’s ‘midfield-upwards’ array of superstars. And with James and Kroos arriving at the Santiago Bernabéu without highly esteemed defensive reputations, Modrić was primed for another paramount role in maintaing the coherency of Madrid’s work.
So when he was enveloped by the injury bug, Ancelotti was the man tasked with finding a hasty remedy. In the days after receiving the diagnosis, the 55-year-old told Radio Gaceta de los Deportes:
Isco is another option for midfield. I’d like to try him out there. The only thing I’m worried about is the defensive aspect but he’s an option just like Khedira and Illarramendi.
The intrigue in Ancelotti’s words was discernible – like a fledgling amateur scientist eyeing the ‘do not mix’ labels on his shelf of concoctions – he couldn’t be certain what would come of it, but it was exciting beyond measure.
On the day before that Croatia-Italy game, Isco had featured for Spain against Belarus. Vicente Del Bosque had lined up him on the left of a 4-4-2 (the same position he had been playing in for Real Madrid for a number of weeks), but his remit was far removed from that of a conventional wide player.
Rather, Isco was simply everywhere. The crowd at the Nuevo Colombino audibly purred over his every touch. They always knew they had a genius on their hands, but the feeling that night was almost one of national agreement that he was ready for much more. Ready to be a major player for both club and country. Someone just needed to find a way to get him on the pitch every week.
He had recently been drafted in to Ancelotti’s side but only because of an injury to Gareth Bale. When the Welshman returned, Isco was likely heading back to the bench. Thankfully for him, Modrić’s injury prevented it this time.
A week later, Isco came in as a direct replacement for the Croatian in Madrid’s default 4-3-3 away at newly promoted Eibar. Speaking after the eventual 4-0 win, the Real Madrid boss admitted that he opted for Isco over Khedira because the 22-year-old had returned from international duty in better condition. Finally, the stars had aligned and his chance to head the pecking order had arrived.
Isco was very good in what was a turbulent game. He showed good defensive work and contributed in attack as always. He has shown that he can play in this position.
The Italian coach was merely affirming his decision in the post-match interview, but he was absolutely right. Isco certainly can play as a central midfielder and each passing week has only served to remind us of that. In fact, not only can he play it, he can flourish in it.
Two months on from that game at Ipurua and Isco has professed himself as a star reborn. While sacrificing little from his delightful attacking talents, the Benalmádena boy has unveiled a newfound work rate and attitude.
Before he got his run in the team, national team manager Vicente Del Bosque had accused Isco of being ‘too artistic’ in his work – a claim that has since been dramatically refuted by the man himself. His work had put his words into practice.
Back in November, Isco had admitted:
With the quality at this club, you can’t always be an undisputed starter and I’ve come to realise that now. I also understood because of that, quality is not enough, and the attitude I had to have was how I would adapt to what Madrid were looking for.
Just like his manager a few months later, Isco was spot on. But it has been his actions that have convinced his renewed adoring fan base.
It wasn’t that long ago that Isco was being talked about in the same bracket as Asier Illarramendi at Real Madrid. The pair of them had arrived at the Santiago Bernabéu for over €60 million combined, while the latter had spent most of his time on the bench.
Isco had played quite a lot, but his selection lacked conviction. In the revolving door of world talent at the club, it felt dangerous. Fast forward to current day however and the pair now couldn’t be further apart. Illarramendi’s light is crippling. Isco’s is shining brighter than ever.
Real Madrid took on Getafe this past weekend and left the Alfonso Pérez Coliseum with a handsome 3-0 victory. Isco resumed his customary environment: unlocking as many doors as he now closes at his own end, in another performance that only further reinforced his place in the team.
Getafe boss Quique Sánchez Flores fawned over him:
Along with Hazard, Isco is the most creative player in Europe at the moment. As well as that, this season he has made an admirable effort in terms of collective work. He is the best existing mix of Zidane and Iniesta. He has the ability Andrés, the control of Zizou and the game vision of both.
According to Ancelotti’s latest update, Modrić is expected to be back in contention in around a month’s time. During his absence, not only Isco, but Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez have been equally impressive.
The Croatian’s return is still a tremendous boost without a doubt, but when that day arrives, the Italian is going to have one of the most sumptuous selection headaches in world football.