Real Madrid: Isco and James hope to be Zidane's midfield solution

Isco and James Rodríguez have rarely been available at the same time this season but now Zinedine Zidane has a choice to make with both fit.

Isco y James, batalla en la mediapunta del Real Madrid.

Isco or James, James or Isco… That is the decision facing Zinedine Zidane now that he has his squad back together after the international break as the Spain and Colombia internationals go head-to-head for the same position as the attacking playmaker in Real Madrid’s midfield.

James and Isco get along famously and the duel is a cordial one between the players despite them competing for the same patch of turf behind Karim Benzema. Until now, having to choose one or the other hasn’t been much of an issue for Zidane with the two spending time on the sidelines and rarely coinciding in a state of full fitness or form. James and Isco started together in the second league match of the season against Valladolid, with the Colombian looking a little sharper as the sides played out a 1-1 draw. After that game Isco suffered a muscle injury and missed the next five Liga fixtures and the Champions League defeat against PSG, returning as a substitute in the 4-2 victory over Granada earlier this month.

During his absence, James presented his credentials to Zidane with decent performances against Levante and Sevilla but subsequently found himself on the bench for the matches against Osasuna, Atlético and Granada, where he and Isco again coincided on the pitch in the final stages and the Colombian got on the score sheet despite playing for just seven minutes.

Isco benched James and Bale in 2016-17

James arguably has a slight lead in the race: he has scored once and assisted another this season while Isco, struggling with injury, has yet to tick either box. But the former Málaga player knows what it takes to win this particular two-horse race, as he did in 2016-17, when he gradually edged James out of the picture and became a key part of the side that lifted the Liga and Champions League trophies. In that campaign, Isco even had more protagonism than Gareth Bale, confining the Welshman to the bench in the Champions League final against Juventus in Cardiff, where Zidane altered his tactical set-up from the usual 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond formation, which plays to Isco’s strengths. James did not even make the bench that evening.

The real battle for the two midfielders is to lean Zidane towards something similar this season. The Real Madrid manager has mainly stayed faithful to his 4-3-3, a system that has little room for either James or Isco. Both will hope that Zidane revisits the 4-2-3-1 he tinkered with at the start of the season, a formation that requires a lock-picker at the heart of the attack.

On Saturday in Son Moix, Zidane may have to make an initial decision on the matter with Bale, Luka Modric and Lucas Vázquez all-but ruled out of the game against Mallorca.