Photograph courtesy of zimbio.com
Football folk are prone to lazy comparisons, often borne out of an eagerness to relive the glories wrought by legends gone by. It often does not take much- a similarity in shirt numbers often does the trick. Other times, it’s a common provenance, split by the timeline of different generations but having provenance of the same neighbourhood or district. At other times, it is just the need for a saviour, one to worship that will bring redemption. Argentina, the home of arguably the two best footballers to ever play the game, has a penchant for such deification. The list of ‘new Diegos’ reads something like this: Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez and most recently, and undoubtedly with most credence, Lionel Messi. Survey the aforementioned list of truly exceptional footballers and their dissimilarities become so sharp as to render any thought of uniformity (in relation to Diego) ludicrous. Riquelme, patrolling the midfield zone in his languorous manner, is as dissimilar to El Diego as any, only their number 10 and Boca Juniors providing a tenuous connection of sorts; Carlos Tevez, a ball of nippy, impetuous energy, is more fighter, less effortless dribbler; or Javier Saviola, one who prior to the 2002 World Cup was proclaimed Argentina’s saviour – in reality, he was, and still is, a slight striker more known for sticking the ball in the net than his technical abilities. Often, these players, try as much as they can, and with relative success too, are red herrings, false prophets through no fault of theirs who condemn the dewy-eyed masses to crushing disappointment. However, occasionally as luck would have it, a comparison does ring true, not motivated by selfish idolatory, but simply because it would be ignorant not to acknowledge the déjà vu – you see one, you see the other.
While it was announced that Xabi Alonso would miss out on the Confederations Cup in Brazil, another Spanish midfielder was getting ready to bring his talents to a wider audience, one who in a few years could ensure that Alonso’s absence does not prove as significant as it does now. Asier Illarramendi Andonegi (have the full name, geeks), the 23 year old Real Sociedad midfielder, is in the Spain u-21 European Championship squad and after just two games, is fast making a name for himself in Israel. Spain, you would excuse the cliché please, is a relentless conveyor belt of talent, exquisite of touch and technique, 20/20 of vision and ability. Illaramendi, at 23, is a relative old-boy in respect of the amount of time it has taken his talents to gain wider appreciation beyond the confines of Spanish domestic football. Age is but a number and as you will see, his age might yet belie a maturity far beyond his years.
Spain v Russia gave me the opportunity to survey Spain’s ultra-talented bunch. The likes of Marc Bartra, Montoya, Koke, Thiago and Isco were no strangers to me, having become regulars at Spain’s more high profile sides. At left back, Alberto Moreno was an unfamiliar name. Some googling reveals he plays for Sevilla, making 16 appearances in 2012/2013. To another unfamiliar face of whom I had heard the whispers…no, the steadily rising chorus, of this new ‘Xabi Alonso’. Excuse this tangential rant please, I do feel sorry for these players, hardly gone by 30, who endure the implication that they are an ‘old version’ of themselves, at the expense of some raw upstart. As is often the case, I suspected this was another endemic case of the adoring public fervently searching for one to replace the chasm left by the departure of another. If they have even left, that is. Furthermore, in respect of the likes of Alonso, or Sergio Busquets, players of inimitable albeit less ‘spectacular’ style, it is even more difficult to happen upon ‘new versions of them’.
A tad sceptical but very excited (watching the Spanish development sides does this to me), I settled down to watch. After 10 minutes of watching, it is impossible to miss the similarities between Real Madrid’s supreme orchestrator and Real Sociedad’s upcoming midfielder. This was not a case of my ‘seeing confirming what I believe’, for I cannot recall settling down to watch a Real Sociedad game (except when they play Barcelona or Real Madrid – then it is the ‘Barcelona’ or ‘Real Madrid’ game). This time, I saw and believed.
Excuse the pun, but he looks the real deal, very similar to Alonso in all but looks (google both names under ‘images’ and come to your own conclusion). Both Basque, Real Sociedad groomed, they share a kinship which further entrenches the idea that one will eventually succeed the other, both on the pitch and in the hearts of the fans. Indeed, the words of Phil Ball, the highly esteemed Spanish Football expert, only serve to confirm this. Too experienced, he is not one to fall victim to hyperbole and hysteria, so when he describes Illarramendi as being “the best thing since Alonso’ for ’20 years”, one has to take note.
His propensity to drop in between the centre backs, while obviously a tactical ploy of the manager’s, is remarkably akin to Alonso’s, particularly in his clear preference to move a bit to the left of centre. At 23 years old, he is not exactly a spring chicken but still, his poise and awareness on the ball are truly remarkable. After two games, he has attempted over 210 passes with a whopping completion rate of 94%*. A significantly higher percentage than his total at Sociedad (81%)*, one suspects this is to do with him playing a more direct role at club level with Sociedad lauded for their superb counterattacking (indeed, in a league now synonymous for its emphasis on possession football, Sociedad, although finishing 4th in the final Liga standings, only had the 8th highest average possession in the league at 52%, but 2nd behind Real Madrid on goals scored from counterattacks with 10*) as opposed to what operates at international level. So far in Israel, despite the significantly higher number of passes attempted and completed (over the course of the domestic 2012-2013 season, he averaged just over 50/game), what is more remarkable is that he has created 5 chances with his passes, a high number for a player who sits just in front of his defence. And he defers corner kick and indirect free-kick duties to Thiago. Head up, he continually makes the right decisions on the ball, whether maintaining the short pam-pam-pam of the tiki-taka, or electing to launch a casual 50-yard pass out to the right wing where an eager teammate gratefully awaits – he mixes precision with incision expertly.
Photograph courtesy of 2.bp.blogspot
Unlike Xabi Alonso, for whom his defensive and spoiling capabilities have only truly come to the fore at Real Madrid, particularly as Los Blancos struggled to get to grips with Barcelona, Illarramendi, at 23, is already far ahead of Alonso’s curve at a similar age in respect of his defensive capabilities. Completing an average of 3.8 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per La Liga game*, the young Basque illustrates a very sound defensive awareness of the game. His tally of 11 yellow cards in 33 La Liga games, while appearing high, comes with the nature of the position and its demands. Check Alonso: in 28 La Liga games, he picked up an identical 11 yellow cards – synchrony? The Sociedad man is a stockier, slightly more muscled player who possesses a combative streak which enables him to patrol the area in front of his defence without having to rely on a more energetic colleague to ‘do the running’ beside him. Nevertheless, in Israel, Spain’s dominance in possession (averaging 73% across both games played so far) has seen his defensive contributions drop (he has only made 2 tackles and 4 interceptions in 2 games), concurrently allowing him to use his brilliant technical skills to exert a more offensive influence on the games, showing an energetic mobility which Alonso has arguably never possessed.
Photograph courtesy of orgullotxuriurdin.blogspot.co.uk
“Poacher Alert – ‘expires 2018”’
Naturally, these similarities have not gone unnoticed by the high brow of Spanish football. On the back of a sterling season with his club, which ended in truly dramatic fashion as they secured qualification for the Champions League for the first time in 10 years, the Basque has been linked with a move to Real Madrid. Xabi Alonso’s age and contract situation (his expires next summer and he has been linked with a return to English football with Chelsea – there was never any public falling out with Mourinho so it might not be altogether implausible), in addition to the unmistakable similarities between the two players, lend a certain objective sense to the media links. Barcelona, not one to miss a Spanish trick, have reportedly scouted the player, and regard him as a player capable of fitting seamlessly into their unique and highly demanding style of play.
Of course, the key question is whether he leaves. Sociedad, having qualified for the Champions League, have lost their inspirational, although some would contest ‘lucky’, coach, Phillippe Montanier, to French outfit, Rennes. Surrounded by the most exciting collection of young players in Spain in Carlos Vela, Inigo Martinez and Antoine Griezmann, and in a World Cup year, he might be better placed making a move, if he is even interested, after the World Cup. While obviously keen to play for his country, he is in no hurry to depart San Sebastian just yet. When recently questioned about rumours linking him with the big 2 in Spain, he provided honest reasons for not seeking a move just yet. Apart from the presence of friends and family around him ensuring that he is surrounded by love while doing what he knows best, the insufferable hounding of media, the pressure the likes of AS and Marca heaps on players at the El Clasico rivals is something he does not find remotely enticing. His contract, after a 3-year extension was signed in October 2012, runs till 2018, a sign of his commitment to the cause, and as he continues to put on sterling displays in Israel, his value will only continue to skyrocket. If bought now, he will certainly not come cheap. Or easy.
He is in the company of more illustrious teammates like Barcelona’s Thiago and Malaga’s (not for much longer) Isco, but has shone as both. At 23, he is a relative unknown but club success has given him the opportunity to showcase his talents to a wider audience. Next year, if successfully able to navigate the Champions League 3rd of Qualifiers, Real Sociedad will play on the grandest of stages with their number 8 at the heart of it all. For the moment, he is Spain’s number 3 and is doing his very best to ensure Spain as they defend their u-21 title. Like the Ozils, Buffons, Pirlos and Thiagos before, this tournament might be the launch-pad to truly developing and fulfilling his special potential.
Catch Spain tommorrow (12/06/2013) at 18.00 GMT as they take on the Netherlands (who have been equally magnificent) to decide who tops Group B
By Raymond Utuk
*all stats courtesy of whoscored.com