Isco and James should make way for Marco Asensio at Real Madrid
In what is perhaps an early discussion about next season's Real Madrid squad, one of the main question marks is whether the team should keep Isco Alarcon or James Rodriguez after the summer. As both players enjoy less playing time than they would like and are in high demand by top European clubs, it appears team management will have to make a decision and part ways with one of the two. Which one should stay, Isco or James?
The right answer, however, is neither, it's Marco Asensio.
On his fourth season in Madrid, Isco has never found the continuity he needs to make a lasting impression at the Santiago Bernabeu. His first few matches, which were memorable, raised huge expectations among supporters and media. After that, Isco has shown plenty of sparks and a handful of fantastic matches, but not enough fire to say that he's lived up to the promise.
The tactical preferences of his coaches, mainly favouring a 4-3-3, have not helped Isco, either, and with Zinedine Zidane on the bench, it does not seem that is going to change anytime soon. If the diminutive midfielder stays, he'll keep playing 30 or so matches per season, starting only in 10 to 15 of them, taking advantage of injuries or poor shape of other players and never leaving his mark on the way the team plays.
Drastic as this sounds, Isco's huge talent is not enough for the team to change its shape for him. Obviously, it's a luxury to have him on the bench, but it's far from the best option for the player, who could start for the national team if he played anywhere else. On top of that, the club could make a remarkable amount of cash next summer -- his release clause is €200 million, but realistically €30m-€40m would be a fair price -- instead of seeing him go for free in June 2018.
James' case is very similar to Isco's. The Colombian's first season showed even more promise, as he scored 13 La Liga goals and added 13 assists in 29 matches. Only an untimely injury prevented him from putting up even better figures and perhaps also left Real Madrid without the title. Since then, his numbers have dropped as slumps in form, arguments with his coaches and growing confidence and form from new teammates contributed to James' glaring disappointment with the team. Recently, he looks more focused and willing to help, but by no means is he anywhere close to his impressive version of two seasons ago and even less to the €80m he cost. At this point, a €50m fee would likely sound fantastic to Real Madrid.
If money wasn't a restriction -- and Real Madrid often act as though it isn't -- both Isco and James could stay in the squad. They are still young -- Isco is 24 and James 25 -- and either could blossom into something close to what most expected of them. Having the duo on the bench can't hurt in long seasons plagued with injuries.
However, Isco, James and this team's impressive depth in midfield, very welcome in specific moments of the season, is leaving the most promising talent in the squad very scarce playing time. Asensio is fast enough to play in the flanks, gifted enough to play behind the strikers, a natural dribbler and passer, and an impressive shooter. He has featured in only nine La Liga matches so far, six of those coming as a starter. The 21-year-old did not play a single minute during February, only to reappear in Eibar and delight any Real Madrid supporter with an hour of spectacular football and very hard work.
Keeping Isco and/or James as backup options could make sense if they were the only two options to refresh the offensive midfield. That would give them more minutes to show what they can do and, at some point, maybe one of them could become the player many believe they can be. But under the configuration of the current squad, Isco and James create a jam, monopolise valuable minutes and prevent a more remarkable, younger talent from making the leap and realising the potential he has.
Isco or James? The answer is Asensio.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.