It’s been one of the most shocking transfers of the summer so far, and certainly one of the most expensive, but for €38m Real Madrid believe they have their present and future in mind with the signing of Asier Illarramendi. The purchases of Dani Carvajal and Isco suggested Madrid were moving onto a new path being laid by young Spanish talent, but still few expected the club to spend such a generous fee on someone who has only played 57 games in La Liga.
Illarramendi is a special player though, and one whom Madrid felt they needed now primarily to facilitate the rapidly decreasing influence of Xabi Alonso. The former Liverpool man has had spells of poor form due to a piling up of injuries and fatigue on his own body, while in general there has been no one to replace him. Simple things such as Alonso collecting five yellow cards struck fear into Madrid hearts – there was simply no other player who read the game quite like him. Even with their vast array of midfield talent.
So what exactly will Illarramendi offer, and is he purely a diet version of Alonso? A lot and no are the answers here. Last season Illarra was the heartbeat of a Real Sociedad side that galloped up the table and into contention for Champions League qualification. Much of the spotlight was on the likes of Carlos Vela, Antoine Griezmann and Imanol Agirretxe, but it was Illarra that made them tick. Without him they were flat, uninspiring and lacked direction in the midfield zone. Much can be read into the fact that la Real only won one of the six matches without Illarra during the last season in La Liga.
Illarra’s different to many Spanish midfielders. And even Alonso. He’s more purposeful and direct in possession while more aggressive in defensive phases. His influence at la Real last season is evident, with his average of 50.2 passes per game considerably more than the next highest player in this area, on 43.7. Illarra showed his intelligence on the ball with an 80.7% pass success rating too, while his range was shown with 4.1 accurate long balls per game. His ability to switch it up at any given moment based on his own judgement of the game is perhaps what appeals most. He can bomb a pass into the channel over a considerable distance to stretch the field but also keep it short, simple and blend the team together.
As mentioned, he showed a tenacious attitude towards his defensive work too. With Madrid looking towards more attacking prongs than ever next season, his presence in front of the defence drifting in deep zones will be vital. He doesn’t play as the deepest of the midfield pack, but he can drop in there and build play very effectively. His 3.8 tackles per game were the most at la Real last season, while his 2.3 interceptions were the 3rd most.
The criticism that he doesn’t have enough goals in his game is a void one really, given his influence in midfield and his role not exactly about rampaging forward. He’s about discipline and tactical awareness. Alonso himself has been no terror in front of goal, instead preserving his energy to help in the first signs of attack forming.
Illarramendi’s form at the European Under-21 Championships probably tipped the scales in terms of Madrid weighing up whether to make a move, with the 23-year-old surpassing his more glamorous colleagues such as Thiago and Isco in terms of grabbing the spotlight. He was his usual purposeful, industrious self and brought a different dimension to a team based on patience and precision. Illarra could even be seen dropping into the back three, Sergio Busquets-like, remaining positive at all times even in deeper areas. He made 2.6 tackles per game, while also averaging 1.8 interceptions at the tournament, and the midfielder also had the highest pass accuracy (95.1%) of every player with 2+ appearances at the U21 Euros.
Something that was lost in the final season in José Mourinho’s reign was the freshness, determination and aggression in midfield to combat teams. Illarra’s presence is one not only of a character with a huge work ethic and desire for success, but as a player too he’s someone capable of implementing his own mental attributes. During the Euro U-21’s he won possession 26 times in the midfield third, more times than anyone else. This will be vital alongside Alonso, or replacing him, as now at 31-years-old he can’t charge around the pitch like he used to.
€38m may be a huge amount of money, but what Madrid are buying into is a mature individual and the future. This is huge foresight on the part of Madrid, and clearly they’re envisaging their midfield for years to come with the signings of Illarra and Isco. It’s a different look for the club, but one that looks extremely exciting.