Real Madrid would be wise to build around, not sell playmaker Isco
Reports linking Isco with a Bernabeu exit are nothing new. In fact, it seems the Real Madrid midfielder has been on his way out of the club practically since he arrived in the summer of 2013 in something of a coup for Florentino Perez.
In the 2012-13 season, Isco emerged as Europe's brightest young talent, excelling in Manuel Pellegrini's attack-minded Malaga side, who were seconds away from the Champions League semifinals, and winning the 2012 Golden Boy Award as the continent's best young player.
Such was Isco's impact in two seasons at La Rosaleda that Malaga owner Abdullah al-Thani attempted to have his No. 22 shirt retired. Manchester City, Pellegrini's next destination, had courted Isco but the lure of Madrid proved stronger. Isco enjoyed a productive first season at the Bernabeu under Carlo Ancelotti, starting 35 games across 53 appearances in all competitions as Real won the Champions League and Copa del Rey.
He featured in exactly the same number of matches the following season, but added almost 600 minutes to his total playing time. Still, the rumours persisted. Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Juventus and, improbably, Barcelona all have been said to have interest in the playmaker, who has seen off the challenge of James Rodriguez for the No. 10 role and to this point limited Marco Asensio's rise under Zinedine Zidane.
And yet talk of a move away from the Bernabeu sticks to Isco as the ball does to his boot. The latest round of conjecture stems from a report on Spanish television, duly picked up by the print media, that suggests Zidane is set on putting Isco up for sale in the summer. An overhaul of the squad in the next transfer window is inevitable. The real question is whether Zidane will be the manager to oversee it: If Real fail to get past PSG, then it seems extremely unlikely.
The wisdom of jettisoning a coach so intrinsically a part of Madrid's institutional fabric is debatable, but a move upstairs would not be beyond the realms of possibility.
The favourite to replace the Frenchman in that instance would be Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino, who is staunchly anti-Barca due to his Espanyol pedigree and one of Europe's most coveted tacticians. It is speculation with a more-than-average degree of logic. It also would be a move that would cement Isco's place as the key player in a new-look Real Madrid. Pochettino has built his Spurs side around the craft of attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen and previously has been linked with a move for the Spain international.
Daniel Levy would have little chance of retaining Pochettino if he decided to return to La Liga, but any attempt to poach Eriksen as well would be met with a flat and fruity refusal.
If Zidane does remain at the Bernabeu, it still should not alter Isco's position. In fact, the club should start thinking along the lines of restructuring around the midfielder, whose most effective position is behind one or two strikers.
"If I've still only made a few appearances by the end of the season, I'll look elsewhere," Isco said in October 2016. Although he went on to start only 18 games in La Liga and was benched against Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla in the run-in, that was not a slight but recognition of his importance in the latter stages of the Champions League.
Isco was sublime at the business end of last season and has been one of Real's most consistent performers in an underwhelming domestic 2017-18 campaign. A slump in form in 2015-16, during which both Rafa Benitez and Zidane seemed unsure as to where best to deploy Isco and ultimately led to him missing out on Euro 2016, resulted in rumours of a departure reaching a crescendo, but since the beginning of last season Isco rarely has had a bad game.
Isco repeated the trick a week later as Real closed in on the title and he was rewarded for an instrumental role in the club's Liga success with a start in the Champions League final ahead of Gareth Bale. He also started the UEFA Super Cup at the beginning of this season and was named man of the match. A new contract running until 2022 followed swiftly.
At 25, Isco is entering the peak years of his career. The same hardly can be said of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo, who combined are the reason Isco has been relegated in the pecking order again but individually have failed -- the Portuguese's performances in Europe and Bale's brief renaissance aside -- to justify Zidane's blind faith.
Isco is a once-in-a-generation talent in his position. Whether he can reach his full potential at a club who are reluctant to hand him the reins is a question that under the current status quo is destined to remain unanswered, but replacing any of the "BBC" on current form will be an easier task than plucking another magician out of thin air.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.