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Is there anything wrong with Illarramendi?

Last summer Real Madrid signed the most obvious prospect to become Xabi Alonso's replacement in the medium and long term. A stuttering first season has put him in a difficult position.

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso

The 2012-13 Spanish league was not very interesting for the average madridista, since an awful start deprived us from our options of winning the title quite soon. However, I would say this was quite a fun league to watch, since there were a few teams that displayed an unexpetedly good performance, such as Atlético de Madrid, Betis or Real Sociedad, who became my favourite team in the season.

In a pretty offensive lineup that usually featured Griezmann, Xabi Prieto, Carlos Vela or Agirretxe, a balanced display by the midfielders was obviously needed, and Illarramendi was the most prominent in this area. Thirty-two games in the season as a central midfielder, sometimes accompanying a more positional player, sometimes in a deeper role, served him to be summoned by Lopetegui for the Spanish under-21 squad that won the 2013 Eurocup, a tournament which he dominated from his spot.

Although Isco was proclaimed the best player in the competition and Morata became the top scorer, I would say Illarramendi was the key man of that Spanish team. And I am stressing the word man because that was, as I saw it, his importance. He seemed a grown man playing football surrounded by children.

A few days after the tournament ended, he was signed by Real Madrid to become Alonso's replacement in the near future. This was an important issue back then, since Xabi was injured and, furthermore, his contract was about to expire, and he seemed reluctant to extend it, so it was quite clear that a signing of this nature was necessary. Unfortunately, he also suffered a minor injury in the end of the pre-season so he couldn't make his official debut with the team until day 4 in the league, against Villarreal.

Still waiting for Alonso's recovery, Real Madrid improved with his entrance in the lineups. Seeking for his celebrated balance, Ancelotti tried to build a 4-3-3 system whose midfielders were Illarramendi, Khedira and Modric and they had good results. However, it was clear for Carletto that Illarra was occupying Alonso's spot and this was made clearer when he chose Sergio Ramos as a starter in that spot for the first clash against Barcelona. That did not seem the greatest of all ideas and, perhaps, the only positive reading one could get from that game is that, once Illarra entered the field, the team improved again and, in fact, deserved a better output.

Things were starting to look good for Illarra and, after Alonso got back, he was still getting some minutes. We discussed here how he could have been a replacement for Khedira, after he got injured, but Ancelotti did not seem to share my view on this topic. In fact, his worst moment in the season came in a game where he shared the midfield with Alonso and Modric: the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals in Dortmund. Real Madrid had the advantage, but a serious mistake by Illarra (although I still think Ramos is, perhaps, more to blame) led to Borussia's second goal.

Many people claim that something broke down for Illarra that day. After that, he has not started any really important game for Real Madrid, and that is quite remarkable since he was the most obvious pick, for example, in the Champions League final or the UEFA Supercup. It is Ancelotti's duty to fix that, whatever it is, because Asier is the only specialist we have for the deep-lying midfielder position after Alonso's departure.

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