It’s 2017 and it’s hard to believe Asier Illarramendi is one of the best defensive midfielders in La Liga. Maybe it’s the popular mindset due to the fact that he was very unsuccessful for Real Madrid but someone who has followed him from his early Sociedad days would know how much is he capable of and how well is he fulfilling the expectations.
The 26 year-old midfielder has been one of the key cogs in La Real’s quest for European football this season. An instrumental figure in their attack, he has linked the defence and attack very well and forged a superior partnership with David Zurutuza in the middle of the pitch. The latter is responsible for guarding the defence and putting himself in tackles, thereby making Illarramendi’s job easier to mediate between both the midfield and attack and build up the team’s play with lesser responsibilities.
In comparison to Steven N’Zonzi, who has been La Liga’s best defensive midfielder statistically, Illarra has edged him or come close to him in some aspects of numerical superiorities. Illarra may have played 147 minutes more than N’Zonzi and lags behind in the key aspects of stats. But in defensive aspects, Illarra holds a slight edge over N’Zonzi. Illarra has won more tackles (54 compared to 28), and is miles ahead in interception (83 compared to 27), and also has more key passes compared to N’Zonzi (20 to 8). To be fair to both, N’Zonzi has the attacking edge and plays in a side where the whole team play is based on the workrate of the team. Illarramendi meanwhile, plays in a quick passing systen where the whole team’s gameplay is dependent on the midfield duo of him and Zurutuza.
But hey, this post isn’t really to prove how is he equal to N’Zonzi. It is rather to show how much of a revival he has had since leaving Real Madrid. Bought for a hefty sum of €32.2 million, big things were expected out of him. Given the fact that Sociedad finished in Champions League position and he had played a big role in helping them reach there, he was expected to make huge impact upon arrival. And a season playing under his role model and a Sociedad legend himself Xabi Alonso, he was supposed to groom under Xabi and become the type of player that Xabi completely is (both have similar characteristics), Illarra could never match up to his billing at Real Madrid and was shipped back to Sociedad for exactly half the price they had paid to bring him to Bernabeu. But where did it all go wrong for him?
The answer is confidence. He was marred by confidence straight from the get go. The price tag, new team, big demands of it, and having the best players in the world at each position, it was an uphill battle to say the least for Illarramendi to break into the first team. He looked very nervous and unsettled whenever he was brought onto the pitch and as a result his progress hampered more and more.
But now back at Anoeta, Illarramendi found his lost mojo back. It took a season to completely get back to his best though, but the effect has shown and unsurprisingly, Illarra has matured so much in his game play as well. It is a pleasant sight to see but also gutted it never worked out for Real.
With his high strides of progress this season, I would love to see him stake a claim and break into the Spanish National Team setup under fellow Basque Julen Lopetegui. Illarra’s availability can give competition to the likes of Bruno Soriano and Mikel San Jose (since Busquets is the undisputed starter for the team) and would work like a charm in the recently turned free flowing attacking football of Spain. It will be interesting to see how this season shapes up as we head into the business end of the season.