"Illarramendi’s best position is that of central midfielder, with a defensive role. He has to play in the middle, in front of the defenders. He has a lot of quality and intelligence to play in that position, but he lacks international experience and playing in such a big club as Real Madrid is not easy. He will need some time".
These were Carlo Ancelotti's words in an interview prior to the last Clásico against F.C. Barcelona, which he started with Ramos in that position "to have a well balanced team. Ramos has experience and he is happy to play in the midfield, and I did not want to start with Illarramendi because he had some disconfort after the match against Juventus".
If we only paid attention to these quotes, we would not even consider Illarra as an alternative to replace Khedira: "he is not experienced and it is not his position", we might argue, and we would just bet on Casemiro. Nevertheless, in the next few lines I am going to try to change your mind and explore this option, the one of introducing Illarra in a team that was working wonderfully before Sami's unlucky injury.
Asier Illarramendi was, in my opinion, one of the best players in last year's La Liga. Just like this, in absolute terms. A man who, just by himself, would make you -or, at least, me- be interested in watching a full match of his team. For a 22-year-old, as he was, I found his ability of always picking the right choice amazing. Every time he took part in an offensive action, the position was improved, and his defensive skills were absolutely crucial for his team to get the ball back in any part of the field. These features led him to the Spanish U21-National Team who became European Champion last summer, a team in which Asier was a key player, and where he proved his maturity, not just among his partners, but in the whole tournament. He was, definitely, a man surrounded by children in Israel. The most impressive thing, however, was that, although he dominated in both competitions, his role changed a lot from one to the other.
- When starting the offensive game, he would move a little backwards, next to the other midfielder (usually Bergara or Pardo) to give him a first pass option and connect with, generally, the left wing, where De la Bella or Griezmann would be waiting for an association.
- In positional attack, he would go up again, even to appear in a number 10 position sometimes, given Prieto's natural tendency of falling to a wing.
- When pressing against the rival's possession, he would definitely stick together with Prieto to form a four men line very difficult to surpass by the rivals, but he would go backwards again to help the static defense if this pressure were neutralized.
In short, he proved to be a very complete player. One could say he had a box-to-box role, although this has to be well understood. He, definitely, appeared in his own area or the wings when he was needed in defensive actions, and, as it has been mentioned earlier, he could go up either to press or to organize the attack. However, he was not able to do all these actions consecutively: his physical condition does not enable him to go up, down, and then up in a short period of time. He is not a player for a game based in sequences of fast transitions.
Later, with the Spanish National Team, his role was completely changed. Lopetegui asked him to be a pure central midfielder, and totally excelled in this position. Sharing the midfield with Koke, Isco and Thiago, and pursuing a game based on a 70-75% possession of the ball, he could just focus in positional defense; starting the attack, where he was often seen stuck in the right middle of the defenders, Bartra and Íñigo Martínez, just exactly as Busquets would have done; and giving his -supposedly- more talented partners a pass alternative in order not to lose the ball.
Let's come back to Real Madrid now. Illarramendi's first days in Real Madrid were quite complicated, since he struggled with an injury in pre-season that did not let him make his official debut with the white shirt until the fourth date, against Villarreal. Coinciding with Gareth Bale's entrance on the lineup, Ancelotti switched his 4-4-2 of the early days to a 4-3-3, with Illarra and Modric and Isco in front of them. Possibly, Carletto's original idea was to use this as his main system, putting all his most gifted players on the field, with Alonso in Illarra's spot. However, this did not work properly, and so the change to the system we are using right now followed: one positional midfielder together with two box-to-box players, that is, Alonso/Illarra + Modric/Isco and Khedira. Note the similarity in roles with Carlo's Christmas tree in Milan, his most laureate squad: Pirlo, Seedorf, Gattuso.
Then, two questions arise, naturally:
- Can Illarra do Khedira's functions? In my opinion, he can't. We have already gone through this. Khedira is a player built for transitions, and Illarra's physical conditions, which are quite different, prevent him from being confortable in such a fast game.
- Can Illarra occupy Khedira's place? As I see it, he can, definitely. His last season in Real Sociedad is the proof. We would just need to reduce our rhythm a little bit, and he would find himself absolutely confortable. With him on the team, our possession rate would be easily increased in a 5-10% per match, so we would need to defend less. Moreover, we would not suffer in defensive transitions (as we have, in the last few games with Khedira), because he would be usually waiting behind the action. Perhaps the only drawbacks of this deceleration would be the difficulties of Bale and Ronaldo to find space to run, but I believe that Benzema's mobility and his associations with the midfielders should suffice.
To finish, let's go back again to Ancelotti's words: "In our system there is only one defensive midfielder. If we are to play with Illarra and Alonso together, we might need to change our system". Perhaps, if Illarra were to enter the team, we would switch to a 4-2-3-1-like system, with Alonso and Illarra together, and Modric or Isco in front of them. We'll know about that next Saturday.