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Why Real Madrid need to trust Illarramendi

Asier Illarramendi appears to be the sole winner at the Santiago Bernabeu, following the heavy scrutiny surrounding the business Real Madrid conducted in the transfer window.


Financially, it was one of Madrid's positive summers, recording a measly seven million euro loss, but the last minute departures of Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria - two integral players to last year's European success - was quite peculiar. Where Madrid's board classified Di Maria dispensable - they were equally reluctant to improve his wages - Alonso felt a new challenge would benefit the latter stages of his career.

Carlo Ancelotti's side took two steps forward in acquiring World Cup stars Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez, but even a die-hard Madrid fan would find it difficult to boast about the club's business now.

Illarramendi, 24, would beg to differ though. 12 months into his career at the Bernabeu, the Spaniard has developed into an outcast; reaching a point where a projected loan move was deemed best for his career.

At the Bernabeu you either succeed or fail, there's no way around it. Ultimately, it's a long-term audition that can instantly wilt with the arrival of a new signing. A loan move may have solidified Illarramendi's fate, yet coincidentally, his former side has indirectly handed the Basque midfielder room for optimism when they defeated Madrid 4-2.

While the Spanish Super Copa disappointment can be forgotten, the underwhelming loss at Anoeta Stadium diminished the buoyancy surrounding the Spanish giants.

Kroos and James both started against Real Sociedad, with the former and Luka Modric forced to cover too much space in midfield, while the latter was ineffective. Madrid's midfield was constantly overrun, as Modric and Kroos were constantly caught out in advanced positions. Both players prefer to play in attacking roles, and the Kroos experiment has been unsuccessful at the club and international level.

The striking reiteration of balance was non-existent in Madrid's midfield, and although defensive mistakes led to Los Blancos' downfall, Alonso and Di Maria's were missed. While it remains difficult to replace the latter's dynamic direct runs that connect midfield and attack, Illarramendi has been waiting to succeed the former.

Illarramendi was like the new kid attending a prestigious school that couldn't wait to showcase his best qualities, subsequent to last summer's 32 million pound move. For all the promise and potential the Spaniard possessed, Ancelotti inherited a squad with greater options. The Spaniard's move to the Santiago Bernabeu was premature, and with the club determined to win La Decima, opportunities to impress came at premium.

Nonetheless, last year's experience was significant to Illarramendi's growth. Training and competing against Alonso motivated the 24-year-old midfielder, and although he didn't take the Bernabeu by storm, Illarramendi's body language highlighted that the Spaniard was eager to impress.

At times it appeared that the Spaniard was trying to hard to fit in, thus leading to a few substandard displays.

However, there was a misconception regarding Illarramendi's debut season at the Bernabeu. The pundits hit Illarramendi hard when the Spaniard played as a shuttler in Madrid's midfield trio. Illarramendi never looked assured of his role when placed in these positions, and there was a sense of fear and indolence in his play. Though the 24-year-old, at best, played a role off the bench against the bigger sides, the Spaniard received heart-churning blow was Ancelotti's decision to summon Sami Khedira - a player who recently returned from a lengthy injury - in the Champions League final, despite publicly declaring that the Spaniard would anchor the midfield in Alonso's absence.

"Illarra is our first option because he's used to playing in that position and that's what we signed him for, to deputize for Xabi Alonso. He is used to playing there and has the talent to do so. I haven't changed my mind in that respect," Ancelotti stated ahead of last year's European final

"He's skilled enough to play every game, the big ones and the smaller ones. This is his first season at Real and it isn't easy. He had problems to start with and didn't play, but we're pleased with his performances since then. He'll play better next year. He has the ability to play in a final."

Playing no part in last year's triumph over Atletico served as a psychological blow to the Spaniard, and although Ancelotti expressed faith in Illarramendi's potential, opting for experience with an atypical defensive midfielder - returning from a long-term injury - in a European final signified the lack of trust in the 24-year-old. Likewise, despite the sales of Alonso and Di Maria, Illarramendi hasn't played a minute for the reigning European champions this season.

Often classified to be flirting around the lines of a legitimate flop, the Spaniard was positive when fielded in his natural position, serving as a reliable passer, capable of dictating the tempo of matches at a jogging pace. Illarramendi splits the centre-backs and drops into pockets of space in deep areas to receive the ball and facilitate a combination of passes from flank to flank, long conservative diagonals, while offering penetration with his short ranged distribution.

When fielded as the deepest midfielder there's a sense of comfort and confidence, opposed to the intimidated frail youngster that was reluctant to receive passes, while often looking bewildered when he was on the ball. Equally, Illarramendi isn't afraid to put a foot into a tackle or break up plays with timely interceptions. The 24-year-old also offers more attacking impetus, as he pushes 10-yards higher than Alonso, and doesn't fear slaloming forward when the opportunity is presented.

Pass, move, and search for space to receive another ball. Theoretically, the transition into Alonso's influential role should be forthright. Alonso was the nucleus in Madrid's system; the 32-year-old's proficient long-range passing linked midfield and attack, but he also provided adequate cover for his centrebacks, thus enabling the fullbacks and shuttlers to be adventurous.

"We have shown good balance and Xabi Alonso is the key to this. He is a very important player, he has impressive quality and experience," Ancelotti stated following an impressive victory over La Real last season.

But with Alonso's late decision to seek new pastures, Illarramendi receives the chance he's been waiting for since his big money move to the Spanish capital. A chance to erase a catastrophic mistake against Borussia Dortmund - that sealed his permanent place on the bench for the remainder of the season - and cement his role in the Madrid midfield for the next decade.

Ancelotti doesn't possess the options to ignore Illarramendi's qualities, and his inclusion in the squad would decrease the defensive workload of Modric and Kroos, while allowing the duo to control matches in their preferred positions.

While Ancelotti was reluctant to hand the 24-year-old the responsibility to be the anchorman in big matches, now the Italian doesn't have that luxury. Khedira suffered a two-month injury layoff, and Casemiro is enjoying a positive spell at Porto, further exemplifying Madrid's shortage in midfield.

Balance remains a key aspect in Ancelotti's formula for success, and if the Madrid manager persists on playing in a 4-3-3, the inclusion of the Spaniard would prove beneficial for club and country. The Madrid derby is swiftly approaching, and although Ancelotti may be reluctant to throw the Spaniard into a physical battle against the champions, the Italian can't continue afford to overlook Alonso's ideal successor.

Considering the club's abject start to the season, Ancelotti handing Illarramendi a chance to anchor the Madrid midfield in his preferred position is a risk worth taking.

Illarramendi's time is now.

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