Asier Illarramendi: Thoughts on Arsenal’s Transfer Target
As football fans are waiting patiently for the 2013/14 season to get underway, there have been some welcome distractions, as international football has been on the spotlight all summer.
The recently-concluded European Under-21 Championships in Israel will be remembered for more reasons than one.
For starters, the tournament was almost boycotted when the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK demanded for UEFA to move the tournament to England but after sorting out every issues, the tourney went underway with the hosts, Israel salvaging a 2-2 draw with Norway.
After three weeks of entertaining, exhilarating and enthralling soccer, no eyebrows were raised when a Thiago Alcantara hat-trick put Italy to the sword to retain the title for Spain. The same player scored a wonder goal in the final against Switzerland two years ago.
While this would be a tournament England would want to quickly forget after a string of appalling performances that saw the young Lions lose all three games in their group, Spain’s Under-21 Class of 13’ were in a world of their own as Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata swooped the Golden Boot with four goals while Malaga’s Isco earned the MVP award.
The Spanish Under-21 team oozed with class in every position.
Manchester United’s David de Gea manned the sticks while Barcelona’s young contingent of Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Thiago Alcantara, Cristian Tello and Marc Muniesa flew the Catalan flag. Real Madrid’s Nacho Fernandez, Alvaro Morata and Dani Carvajal joined a host of La Liga’s finest such as Iker Munuain, Sergio Canales, Ignacio Camacho, Isco, Koke, and Pablo Sarabia as the young Spaniards swept through the tournament grabbing maximum points in their group before easing past Norway and Italy in the knockout stages.
The tournament-winning team also had its fair share of unsung heros, and an avid watcher of the Under-21 European Championships must have been awed by the performances of Spain’s holding midfielder, Asier Illarramendi.
Last season, the Real Sociedad midfielder enjoyed a good campaign that saw his team seal the final qualifying spot for the Champions League – a monumental achievement in every sense of the word.
According to WhoScored, Illarramendi made 121 tackles in 32 La Liga games, averaging 3.8 per game, 75 interceptions (2.3 per game), committed 49 fouls, made 50 clearances, supplied two assists, completed 1,606 passes with a pass completion percentage of 80.7 percent and according to Squawka, Illarramendi created 31 chances, won 61 percent of his duels with the opposition and he was booked on 11 occasions without getting sent off all season long.
However, Illarramendi caught the eye in Spain Under-21s’ opening game against Russia Under-21s where he made 131 touches with an astonishing pass completion percentage of 93 percent. Bleacher Report’s Sam Tighe offered more insight on that game and he even tagged Illarramendi as his Man of the Match.
Throughout the tournament, Illarramendi was a class act and his style of play was quite similar to Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets as he was always available for a pass in the middle of the park, covered every blade of grass and he instigated a lot of attacks from the back, offering his team a pivot as they continued their fluid movement on and off the ball.
He was ubiquitous in midfield and his positional awareness was worth commending throughout the tournament. He always knew when to commit himself to a tackle, he was as sleek as grease on the ball, his passing was top-notch and his creativity from midfield reminded me of a quarterback, as he preferred to supply passes to his teammates with pin-point accuracy.
While he was deployed primarily as a holding midfielder, Illarramendi also operated as a deep-lying playmaker which made him a joy to watch.
According to WhoScored, Illarramendi had a stunning pass completion percentage of 95.1 percent throughout the tournament, which ranked him as one of the very best passers in the competition.
His performances in the tournament put him on the spotlight and according to the Daily Mail, Arsenal has placed him on their radar. It has been reported that he could be available for £10 million.
Judging from Illarramendi’s performances I witnessed in the European Under-21 Championships, I won’t even think twice without splashing the cash for this starlet. Arsenal has been linked with a move for another holding midfielder in the form of Everton’s Marouane Fellaini but with his release clause valued at £24 million, this could be a challenge in some aspects.
For starters, Arsenal’s rivals, Chelsea and Manchester City are also aware of this clause and they could hijack the Gunners to sign the Belgian powerhouse. His former boss, David Moyes, who is now at the helm of affairs for Manchester United would also consider taking a punt for a player that served him really well, and I would expect Fellaini to welcome another chance to play with his former manager.
Another factor worth noting would be where Fellaini would play for the Gunners if they want to acquire his services. Despite the fact that the Belgian can be deployed as a holding midfielder, injuries and other factors forced Moyes to deploy him as an attacking midfielder in the hole behind the striker, and Fellaini thrived admirably in that position, scoring 11 goals and supplying five assists.
This means that Fellaini has become very comfortable playing as a traditional No. 10 and there were even games where he spearheaded Everton’s attack.
Now that he had become very adept playing as an attacking midfielder or even playing as a center forward, sending him back to his primary holding position would feel like a wrong step. He may want to play as a No. 10 if he joins Arsenal but we have to also bear in mind that this is a position where Arsenal has a lot of personnel in its disposal with Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and even Abou Diaby getting stints there.
Fellaini certainly has more experience and exposure than Illarramendi but the young Spaniard could thrive in the holding midfield alongside Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere, as his great technique on and off the ball as well as his other impressive football attributes will make him blend into Arsenal’s style of play.
With age slowly creeping in on Arteta, a player like Illarramendi can be nurtured and mentored by the Lego-haired Spaniard, ensuring that he feels right at home before passing the baton to him on a full-time basis. Arteta has been a very inspirational player for the Gunners and he must be commended for agreeing to curb his attacking instincts for the good of the team.
You may not rank Arteta as a natural holding midfielder but his stats paint a different picture as his defensive side showed some improvements last season with 108 tackles (3.2 per game), 97 interceptions (2.9 per game), 74 fouls conceded (2.4 per game), 46 clearances (1.4 per game) and seven blocked shots.
His contributions in the passing department was unrivaled as he notched up three assists and sprayed 2,750 passes with a pass completion percentage of 91.5 percent.
He still remains an indispensable player to Arsenal and bringing in a player like Asier Illarramendi would be welcomed by the elder statesman, as he will be odds on to pass his knowledge to his younger compatriot as well as rubbing off his influence on the lad.
At a bargain price of £10 million, Illarramendi fits the bill go a classic Arsene Wenger signing – relatively unknown, well-thought of and a shrewd signing.
Feel free to share your own thoughts on Asier Illarramendi.
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