It was one of those performances that even the opposition coach could not help but admire.
“All I can think about is that nutmeg he pulled off in midfield,” Gian Piero Ventura said, after an Isco-inspired Spain had beaten his Italy side 3-0. “When I saw it, all I could do was applaud. He’s a rival, he’s on the opposing team, but I am just as much a lover of the beautiful things in this game as anyone.”
Praise indeed, particularly when delivered after Ventura’s side had been half-condemned to the World Cup playoffs.
The international media were equally effusive after Isco’s two-goal masterclass, with Argentinean daily Ole running the headline: “Spain prays to Pope FrancIsco.”
The 25-year-old certainly is playing in an ethereal state. His display against Italy was aided by Ventura’s decision to go with a two-man midfield, but that should take nothing away from its brilliance. Isco always has possessed innate skill, but he struggled in his early career to find consistency. Under Zinedine Zidane, he has flourished, encouraged by a manager who sees a kindred spirit in the Malagueno.
Comparisons with the French great always represent treacherous ground, but Isco and Zidane share similarities in style, if not in stature. What is undeniable is that Isco has become a more rounded player under his current coach, who is understandably more attuned to letting flair players loose than others.
Isco’s size and body shape led to doubts over his potential to succeed at the highest level. Manchester United apparently turned down the chance to sign him, and his youth coaches at Valencia never were fully convinced by the bandy-legged teenager.
Perhaps somebody should have mentioned Garrincha. Valencia shipped Isco back to his native Malaga in what has to go down as the greatest blunder of Unai Emery’s otherwise exceptional management at Mestalla. Called into a Copa del Rey squad at the age of 19 during 2010-11, what unfolded on the pitch drew lavish praise from a modest press attendance. Isco scored twice, his second a gliding run through the entire opposition defence as Valencia beat Logrones 4-1. At the end of the same season, despite helping Valencia B to the Tercera title, Emery sanctioned his move to La Rosaleda for €6 million.
While Zidane has been instrumental in Isco fulfilling his potential, Manuel Pellegrini warrants credit for the midfielder’s anointment as a unique generational talent. Malaga finished 11th in the Chilean’s first season but qualified for the Champions League — three points behind Valencia — the following year. An extraordinary run in Europe unfolded, and Isco picked up the 2012 Golden Boy award.
That proved enough for Florentino Perez to reach for his cheque book. With a price tag of €30m paid in the summer of 2013, it initially appeared as though Real had picked up another whim player who would be swiftly moved on like Sergio Canales, a flash in the pan with no obvious place in the starting 11.
Under Carlo Ancelotti, Isco featured regularly in 2013-14 but played in a variety of positions, from central midfield to the wings and as a striker. That changed when Fernando Hierro returned to Madrid as Ancelotti’s assistant in place of Zidane, who had embarked on his solo career at Castilla. Hierro had taken a personal interest in Isco’s development during his rise through the Spanish youth teams while working for the RFEF and recommended the raw midfielder to the La Rosaldea board during his spell as Malaga’s sporting director.
In 2014-15, with Hierro on the bench, Isco consolidated his position as a key player in Ancelotti’s tactical blueprint by finding his best positions — as a number 10 or on the left wing, from where he provided nine Liga assists. Ancelotti noted that Isco’s work rate, improved defensive contribution and team ethic made the midfielder “non-negotiable” during that season, and it was a lesson swiftly taken on board. “I’m not stupid. If I’m not starting under Ancelotti, Benitez and Zidane, it’s my fault,” Isco said in a recent interview.
Now, that versatility across the attacking line has made Isco indispensable for Spain and Zidane, who finally has put the pieces of the puzzle together to define the edges of a player who would walk into the starting lineup at any other club in the world.
As Aime Jacquet noted in an interview with the Guardian in 2004: “Zidane has an internal vision; his control is precise and discreet. He can make the ball do whatever he wants. But it is his drive which takes him forward. He is 100 percent football.”
Zidane appears to have passed that ethos on, which gives the Real boss something to consider when club action resumes: Why would he not make hay while Isco is shining, even at the expense of Bale?